In a move that showcased racial tensions in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods and pitted preservationists against developers, a divided New Orleans City Council approved the demolition of a former St. Claude Avenue auto parts store on Thursday.
The vote was 4-3.
The decision angered some neighbors, who said the store had been allowed to deteriorate under its well-to-do owners and called for its renovation rather than demolition.
The owners, actor Wendell Pierce and former mayoral candidate Troy Henry, said the abandoned camelback building at the corner of Music Street was in bad condition long before they bought it in 2012. They said those opposed to the demolition wanted the store for themselves.
The issue of race was never far from the conversation, with both owners hinting that many of the store’s white neighbors simply didn’t want them and their project there, and project supporters calling for more black-owned businesses in New Orleans. Pierce and Henry are black.
The St. Claude, Marigny, St. Roch and Bywater neighborhoods, all of which are near the store, have seen rapid development and higher property values in recent years.
The owners plan to knock down the structure, combine the site with the Shell gas station Henry owns next door and build a new Sterling Express convenience store. They own three similar businesses in the New Orleans area.
The Historic District Landmarks Commission denied the men’s demolition request in December, saying the building is historically and architecturally significant and in good enough condition to be rehabilitated.
The commission said the Greek Revival-style building “is indicative of the development of the St. Claude corridor during the late 19th and 20th centuries” and still has many of its original materials.
The owners balked, citing extensive termite damage, rotted wood and other problems, and the council was left to resolve the dispute.
Neighbors said unsavory visitors have frequented the property since the men bought it four years ago from the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority.
“They are basically running an Airbnb for vagrants, at this point,” said Matthew Kyte, who lives nearby. Tearing down a historic building harms the area and is unfair to neighbors who have spent thousands of dollars to rehabilitate similar buildings, he added.
Also at issue was how Infinity Fuels, Henry’s company, acquired the property in the first place. Though it had been up for a sheriff’s sale, it was removed from that auction and offered to Infinity for $19,900 in 2012, according to the Orleans Parish Assessor’s Office. It was valued at $91,900 this year.
Although NORA may acquire certain properties on behalf of the city, according to state law, some council members questioned whether such an acquisition was authorized in this case.
Also in question was who contacted whom: Henry and his attorney, Daniel Davillier, said NORA officials asked Henry’s firm to buy the property as part of the agency’s revitalization strategy, while Councilwoman Stacy Head said NORA officials told her Infinity asked NORA about buying it, and Councilwoman Susan Guidry said NORA officials have said the planned store does not comport with its strategies.
The purchase took place when Joyce Wilkerson was NORA’s executive director, Henry said. Current Director Jeff Hebert began work in early 2012.
Thomas Houghton, who lives nearby, said he would have paid $60,000 for the property had it gone up for bid; he called NORA’s action a “virtual gift” of the property.
Finally, Infinity’s more than $120,000 in unpaid blight fines and fees irked critics and council members. The city has brought three actions against Infinity Fuels over the property since its purchase: one for demolition by neglect, one for code enforcement fines and one for lien foreclosure, Guidry said.
Council members Jason Williams and LaToya Cantrell suggested that Henry should pay at least a portion of his blight debts before the council considered approving the teardown.
But Davillier, the attorney, said the council should not tie its decision to liens that are in litigation. He said Henry has repeatedly boarded and fenced the property but vagrants continue to undo his efforts. Tearing down the old store would solve the vagrant problem, he said.
Henry and Pierce dismissed critics as competitors upset at their business acumen, and Henry swiftly injected race into the discussion. “We have a number of folks who are in support of this. They primarily look like me,” he said.
In the end, Nadine Ramsey, Jared Brossett, Williams and James Gray voted in favor of the demolition, with Guidry, Head and Cantrell opposed. The site is in Ramsey’s district.
Those on either side of the vote decried NORA’s action in selling the building for less than $20,000, with Head calling it proof that “the government did a horrible job, shirked its responsibilities, gave away government money,” and Williams saying the property was undersold.
The owners will have to seek a zoning change before they can combine the two properties.
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.