Attempts to prevent two high-profile business partners from tearing down a St. Claude Avenue building hit a setback this week , with a civil court judge denying a request to block the demolition.
The former auto parts store at 2501 St. Claude Ave. is the subject of a long-running dispute between its neighbors and its owner, businessman Troy Henry. They’ve tangled since Henry’s company bought the property in 2012.
Neighbors — some of whom also wished to buy the property — say Henry’s company, Infinity Fuels, got the building for next to nothing after it was removed from a sheriff’s sale, and that he has allowed it to crumble under his watch. They want it salvaged, not destroyed.
They also claim Henry and his business partner, New Orleans-born actor Wendell Pierce, have greased the deal with their fame and political ties.
Henry and Pierce counter that the naysayers are upset because they couldn’t snag the deal themselves. The two men, who are black, also have claimed that race is involved in the dispute, charging that their mostly white opponents don’t want them or their business as neighbors.
Finally, the men say it would cost too much to preserve the building and that it does not fit with their plans to expand Henry’s nearby gas station and create a Sterling Express convenience store.
The dispute which has been as much about racial tensions in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods as it has been about historic preservation, culminated in the suit that got shot down on Wednesday.
The plaintiffs said part of the case centered on whether the initial sale to Henry was legal.
The blighted property was originally set to be auctioned off in a sheriff’s sale. But the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority intervened before the bidding could start and exercised its right as a so-called “priority bidder,” then transferred its purchasing rights on the property to Henry.
An attorney for Henry’s opponents, Michael Laughlin, argued that NORA did not have the legal authority to make that kind of transfer without permission from City Hall, which he said the agency never secured.
Laughlin also said Henry’s company never actually paid the $19,000 purchase price that appears on city records.
“The whole transfer is amazing,” Laughlin said. “They paid $2,300 for this.”
Infinity Fuels’ attorney Albert Thibodeaux and the city’s attorney, Matthew Fraser, did not address those claims in court.
Instead they argued that the only legal questions before Civil District Court Judge Tiffany Chase on Wednesday were whether the planned demolition would cause irreparable harm to the plaintiffs and whether the City Council’s February approval of the demolition was “arbitrary and capricious.”
“There’s no knowledge that if this building was demolished it would create some kind of irreparable harm to anyone,” Thibodeaux said.
Fraser cited laws barring the city’s judicial branch from interfering with its legislative branch, unless the council’s decisions are indeed found arbitrary and capricious. That exception is “a high standard for the (plaintiffs) to meet,” Fraser said.
Laughlin later shot back that the loss of a nearby historic property would depress his clients’ property values. Two residents named in the suit, Brooke Muntean Kyte and Matthew Kyte, live near Henry’s store and gas station.
Fraser and Thibodeaux argued that a deteriorating property stands to hurt the neighborhood even more.
A separate challenge Laughlin initially made about timing of Infinity Fuels’ appeal to the council was largely ignored Wednesday, as Fraser and Thibodeaux referenced documents showing a different time stamp than what Laughlin originally claimed.
In the end, Chase found Laughlin lacking, saying he hadn’t done enough to clear the high standard Fraser mentioned, and that questions about the sale were not germane to the case.
After the hearing, Laughlin said his clients have not yet decided whether to pursue the matter further.
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.