Planning commission splits on proposed Lower 9th Ward development

After hearing more than two hours of testimony from some Lower 9th Ward and Holy Cross residents who argued that a proposed mid-rise development at the site of the former Holy Cross School would destroy the fabric of the neighborhood — and others who welcomed the project as a potential economic spark for the Katrina-ravaged community — the City Planning Commission failed to come to a decision Tuesday on whether to endorse the proposal.

The commission voted 4-2 to grant a zoning change to Perez Architects that would clear the way for the construction of a mixed-use development along the Mississippi River with some buildings as tall as 60 feet. However, the board needs five votes for a legal majority, so the proposal will go before the City Council without a recommendation from the commission. The site is in Councilman James Gray’s district.

The Perez project calls for redeveloping the entire former site of Holy Cross School, with the exception of the former baseball field. Aside from a former administration building, all of the school structures on the 13-acre site along the Mississippi River levee between Deslonde and Reynes streets and from the levee to Burgundy Street have been torn down.

The school has since relocated to Paris Avenue in the Gentilly neighborhood.

The developer is proposing to redevelop the site with buildings of varying scale that will contain residential, commercial and office space. The former administration building would be retained and used for office space on upper floors and for commercial uses on the bottom level.

The developers were before the planning commission seeking permission to change the zoning on about 12.5 acres of the site from two-family residential to general commercial, which would allow the construction of multifamily dwellings and commercial buildings. They also want to have the entire site included in a mixed-use “planned community district overlay” so that two buildings on the site could exceed the current 10,000-square-foot limit in the neighborhood.

As proposed, those two buildings, containing 137 condos and apartments, would each be 75 feet and seven stories tall.

Four two- to three-story buildings, varying in height from 28 feet to 48 feet, also are proposed for the site. Those buildings, along both sides of Dauphine Street, would contain 147 residential units and seven commercial units.

The plan also calls for 521 off-street parking spaces. A half-acre wooded area on the site would remain undeveloped for use as a park.

Supporters said the project would attract other development, such as grocery stores, that the community desperately needs.

“It does my heart good to see resources coming to the Lower 9th Ward,” Andrew “Pete” Sanchez said. “Why impede the path of progress when we’re talking about bringing back residents to that community? We’re providing small businesses in that community.”

But opponents argued that the plan as proposed is “too intense” for the neighborhood and out of scale with the area’s historic properties.

“We do want development. We do,” said Sarah DeBacher, of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association. “But we want appropriately scaled development. We want no zoning change. We do not want to set this precedent.”

The planning staff recommended approval of the proposal, citing its alignment with the city’s master plan, but with several provisos, including a maximum building height of 60 feet. The staff also urged that the number of residences be reduced to a number “closer to the density of the adjacent neighborhood,” though a specific number was not recommended.

Perez objected to the height limit and any significant reduction in the number of residential units.

Some residents suggested that the commission defer a vote until it could consider an alternative proposal that the Lower 9th Ward Vision Coalition, a group of civic organizations, has put together for the space. The plan promotes green space and single-family homes.

Some members of the board were open to the idea of pushing back the vote until March 25.

“I believe that these plans need to be revisited with a greater degree of community input,” commissioner Pamela Bryan said.

But the vote for deferral was split 3-3, with Kelly Brown and Kyle Wedberg joining Bryan in favor and Nolan Marshall, Royce Duplessis and Craig Mitchell voting against.

Marshall followed with a motion to accept the proposal without the height restriction suggested by staff. That vote also split 3-3, with Duplessis and Mitchell backing Marshall.

The final vote was on approving the plan with the staff recommendations for a height limit and other restrictions. Marshall, Duplessis, Mitchell and Brown voted in favor. Bryan and Wedberg were against.