New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, one of the poorest and most neglected parts of town, suffered most from Hurricane Katrina. And unlike other neighborhoods, it hasn't seen a post-Katrina renewal bump over the last decade.
As many as 18,000 people lived in the Lower Ninth in 2000. In 2012, that number was around 5,500. Much of the area remains blighted, with vegetation and wildlife encroaching on empty lots and abandoned buildings.
Not everyone, though, has given up on this part of New Orleans. In the Holy Cross section of the neighborhood, around the vacant grounds of the abandoned campus of a Catholic college that decamped after Katrina, homeowners have been restoring the shotgun shacks and bungalows in this piece of land bordered by the Mississippi River and the Industrial Canal. The neighborhood is filled with distinctive buildings in various states of renovation. Twenty-eight years ago, it won recognition as both a national and historic local district.
Holy Cross is also part of the historic New Orleans high ground known as “the sliver by the river,” the next stop down the Mississippi from the now swank Bywater and Faubourg-Marigny neighborhoods. It's recently gotten the attention of a local developer, Perez Architects, APC. Perez wants to construct a condo and retail development on the 12.5 acres of the old Holy Cross College grounds, hoping to capitalize on the growing appetite for in-town riverfront living. The developer is asking for a zoning variance to allow the construction of nearly 300 apartments in several multi-unit buildings, including two that would be 7 stories tall—higher than the 4 stories permitted under current zoning, although reduced from the initial 13-story proposal. The plan also calls for more than 500 parking spaces.
The plan’s backers say it represents a rare chance at economic revitalization for the neighborhood. Its opponents say it would destroy the fabric of Holy Cross, and might represent the first step toward changing the traditionally low-rise New Orleans waterfront into something very different: the kind of high-rise, high-rent district you see in Miami or Houston. The resulting fight has gotten ugly at times, with community members charging that Perez's publicity campaign is "Astroturfing," or faking grassroots support, and both camps accusing those on the other side of failing to keep the community’s best interests at heart.
“There’s an aggressive zoning change that goes with this development that the neighborhood has to live with in perpetuity,” says Sarah DeBacher, president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association. “The zoning changes include uses that are not consistent with the character of the neighborhood. It has the potential to set a precedent for an assault on characteristic neighborhoods in the city as a whole.”
Roberta Brandes Gratz, the author of several books on urban development, criticized the Holy Cross project in an op-ed in The Lens, calling it “egregious” and warning that it “is merely the opening salvo in what’s sure to be a years-long fight to stud the waterfront with high-rise residential towers.”
DeBacher and others have formed a group called the Lower 9 Vision Coalition. With the help of Tulane City Center, the applied urban research program of Tulane’s architecture school, they’ve come up with three alternate development plans for the Holy Cross site, featuring low-rise residential options, single-family homes, community centers, and open space, all conforming with current zoning. What they lack is the money to make those plans happen. Members of the group have been circulating petitions to block the Perez development and lobbying the planning commission, which last week failed to come to a decision on the plan and kicked it over to the City Council, where it will reach the floor April 10.
Perez did not return a request for comment. But Angela O’Byrne, the company’s president, recently wrote a blog post taking issue with Gratz’s critique:
Though some prefer single family homes, recent studies have shown that there is a local demand for multi-unit rental housing options with the type of amenities this development will offer…. Furthermore, this project will not compete with, or destroy the other improvements happening in the area, such as restoration of single family homes, and smaller commercial projects. Rather, it will serve as a catalyst for further economic and community development.
Adding families, jobs, and activity to the area in a thoughtful, yet expedient manner will spur the redevelopment of existing blighted housing, along with other vacant lots in the area, and attract businesses and retail. As an architect, I am obligated to design for functionality and livability. With an estimated national population increase of 60 million over the next 20 years, the pressure for development like this is everywhere.
DeBacher says that she and her neighbors want to see development, but they are worried about losing the riverfront to luxury housing. “That would benefit only those people who are privileged enough to own or rent there,” she says. Which would exclude current residents, she says. “My neighbors are teachers, artists, laborers. We’re working-class. We’re not high-rise kinda people.”
After years of neighborhood neglect, DeBacher and her allies say they want to see the Holy Cross site developed, but that doesn’t mean they will desperately accept whatever comes along. “The argument is that the Lower Ninth Ward has to take what it can get,” says DeBacher. “We believe that we deserve—as any community deserves—good development, not just any development.”