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The Lower 9 at a crossroads

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Seven years later, the Lower Ninth Ward has only partly recovered from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, but many residents say they refuse to accept any development just for the sake of development. The current proposal for redeveloping the landmark Holy Cross High School site is facing major opposition from Lower Nine residents concerned about traffic, density, architectural style, levee access and the “insular” design proposed by the Perez architecture firm.

A virulent crowd gathered at a community meeting May 9 at Bethel AME Church on Caffin Avenue in the heart of the Ninth Ward. Perez senior vice president and managing director for real estate development, Steven Massicot, was no match for passionately outspoken residents. Black and white renderings of a 13-story complex that some said more resembled college dormitories failed to impress Ninth Ward residents who demanded a more creative approach that would align more closely with their historic district.

“You insult me when you say we don’t want progress,” one resident said. Another remarked that everyone is aware that the property at the nexus of the Industrial Canal and Mississippi River is “prime real estate” and if Perez could not create a design to harmonize with the existing architecture, some other firm would.

When asked directly if Perez would be willing to build four-story structures, as previously discussed and within the current limitations, he replied, no.

One member of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association objected to Massicot’s implication that HCNA had endorsed the Perez plan, which it had unanimously rejected.

“We live here because it is not dense,” HCNA vice president Sarah DeBacher was quoted as saying in February, when the initial proposal was brought to a vote.

Rep. James Gray struggled to limit discussion to a brief question-and-answer period, abruptly shutting down the meeting before everyone had been allowed to speak.

The second meeting at Bethel Church last week was orchestrated more strategically, with attendees invited to sit in the sanctuary, where they were given color handouts showing the revised plan. After handholding during a prayer for unity and an invocation of a “sweet spirit,” the meeting was opened. Though more conciliatory in tone, the meeting failed to change most locals’ opposition to the project, despite the riverfront apartment building height having been lowered from 13 to seven stories.

Massicot argued that Perez had aptly responded to criticism and followed the approval process that had been described to him. His proposal includes 240 residential units as well as commercial space for retailers and offices. Perez and New Corp, Inc., a small business incubator, plan to relocate there. Perez views its proposed project as a “catalyst to encourage investment and revitalization.

“You’ll have things in that building we won’t want to purchase,” one resident commented.Others stated concern that the development could become a kind of gated community, separated economically and culturally from the rest of the ward.

Perez is scheduled for another community outreach meeting at 6 p.m. on June 20 at Bethel AME Church.

New Orleans journalist Mary Rickard submitted this story to NolaVie.

Mary Rickard has been a regular contributor to the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the New Orleans Advocate, as well as newspapers and wire services in other locales. Feel free to send her comments or critiques at [email protected]