The proposed mid-rise development at the former site of Holy Cross School in the Lower 9th Ward cleared another procedural hurdle at the City Council meeting last week, despite continuing complaints from some residents that they were ignored during the political process, resulting in the project’s approval, and have not been asked to collaborate on writing a community benefits agreement.
The council gave 5-0 approval Thursday to an ordinance changing the zoning for the former school site — bounded by Reynes, Burgundy and Deslonde streets and the Mississippi River — from two-family residential to general commercial. Councilman Jason Williams and Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey were absent.
Holy Cross School did not reopen in the Lower 9th Ward after Hurricane Katrina. Most of its former buildings were torn down, and the school moved to Gentilly.
The council cleared the way for the new development last month over objections from many neighbors, who said the construction of two 60-foot-tall riverfront residential buildings would overwhelm their community of modest, low-rise houses. The plans, from developer Perez Architects, also call for commercial and office space at the site.
Thursday’s vote was largely procedural, but opponents and supporters showed up anyway.
As he urged the council to allow the project to move forward, Andrew “Pete” Sanchez Jr. said residents and the developer had “come together with a community benefits agreement” that he said would be signed later Thursday.
“The community has worked hard,” Sanchez told the council. “We’ve negotiated. We’ve come to an agreement, and that has been resolved.”
But several other residents, including board members of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, said they were not aware that such an agreement was being drawn up and had not participated in its creation.
Willie Calhoun, who sits on the boards of several Lower 9th Ward civic organizations, said he hadn’t seen a draft of the document and didn’t know anyone who had worked on it. He suggested the agreement was being written by people who live outside the neighborhood.
“Something is wrong here,” Calhoun said. “You’re setting a precedent that people don’t have to include residents of a neighborhood to be part of whatever they’re bringing into the neighborhood.”
Sarah DeBacher, president of the neighborhood association, also said she has not been involved in any ongoing conversations with the developer.
“This process has been broken,” said DeBacher, one of the proposed development’s staunchest critics. “We have done everything that we have been asked to do. We came up with a petition of nearly 600 signatures of Lower 9th Ward residents opposing the zoning change. We came up with plans that were supported by three alternative developers. … At every turn, we have unfortunately seen that our participation doesn’t matter when it comes to this type of progress.”
Representatives from Perez did not respond to questions about the community benefits agreement Sanchez mentioned.
A spokeswoman for Councilman James Gray, whose district includes the site, said Friday that his office has not been involved in facilitating discussions between the neighborhood and the developer and has not seen the agreement to which Sanchez referred.
However, Gray told the council that the project’s opponents were to blame for their lack of involvement in any ongoing discussions with Perez. He said that when it became clear last month that the council would approve the project, he told the plan’s critics to draft a community benefits agreement then.
“I think my words were, ‘I will twist their arms to make them comply with any community benefits agreement you come up with. Go sit and come up with one,’ ” Gray said. “But they refused to discuss it. Essentially it was ‘my way or no way,’ even after I said it’s clear that the council, after careful consideration, after careful study, is likely to approve this project.”