Last night we had our Mid-City Recovery Action Meeting, as we do on the first Monday of every month. We’d been planning since last week to address the designs that Victory Real Estate Investments, LLC, appears to have on twenty acres of Mid-City.
What we hadn’t anticipated was Saturday’s front page story in the Times-Picayune. That story really alarmed a lot of people. I saw it as a missed opportunity, but in retrospect, it was free publicity.
There were about 300 people at Grace Episcopal last night, more than we’ve ever had. It was standing room only, and the press was there too.
We knew a lot of people were not just concerned. They were upset. We expected the meeting might devolve into a forum for angry venting.
I have to praise Jennifer Weishaupt, Vice-President and chair of Economic Development for MCNO. She did a great job of providing all the background information. She framed the issue properly. She reviewed all the relevant planning efforts which neighbors and government have engaged in and supported.
One specific citation was particularly to the point:
Development of the warehouse area adjacent to the linear park with mixed use opportunities including multi-family housing, retail facilities, art studios and exhibit space… plazas, seats, landscaping and lighting.
The “linear park” is the Lafitte Corridor which runs right smack dab in the middle of the area where Victory want to build. More about that in a bit.
Jennifer asked for a show of hands — who’s in agreement with the principles that are specified in our neighborhood plan? It was virtually unanimous. Then she outlined the developer’s “Plan B,” the sprawling big box complex described in Saturday’s paper. Another show of hands? And all the hands stayed down.
In other words, Jennifer managed to get people informed and to understand that we’re largely in agreement with one another, and this did a lot to foster civil dialog rather than ranting.
She also pointed out that Victory had also presented a “Plan A,” a so-called “lifestyle development” which did not get mention in the paper Saturday. It’s my feeling that Plan B was presented to scare neighbors into embracing Plan A. But it seems we’re smarter than that.
I get the feeling that Victory hasn’t done its homework. Though the development was presented in Saturday’s paper as a fait accompli, in point of fact they own little of the land in question at this point. Furthermore, they seem to be completely ignorant of the planning for this area that’s already in place. That’s unfortunate, because these plans have the support of both the local community and the local government. These plans can’t be ignored if you want to be a player.
City Council member Shelley Midura was there to reassure neighbors that she works for the community, not the developers. “I don’t do deals,” she repeated several times.
I also spoke. I prefaced Jennifer’s presentation with some remarks about the Lafitte Corridor. Thought I’d post my notes here.
My name is Bart Everson, I’m chair of the Friends of Lafitte Corridor (FOLC). Daniel Samuels, president of FOLC, can’t be here because he’s celebrating Passover with his family, so he sends his regrets and asked me to speak on his behalf.
The Lafitte Corridor is a mostly derelict strip of land that used to be a canal, then a railroad. It runs three miles from Armstrong Park to Canal Boulevard, between Conti and Saint Louis streets.
FOLC has been working on a rails-to-trails conversion of this corridor into a greenway with bicycle and pedestrian paths, connecting neighborhoods from the French Quarter to Lakeview.
We’ve had some success in promoting our vision. This concept has made it into the Lambert plans and the Unified New Orleans Plan. It’s attracted study and technical assistance from MIT and the University of Missouri – Kansas City. We’ve had help from the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. We’ve gained the support of city government and the Regional Planning Commission, and it’s on the list of 17 targeted redevelopment zones just released by Dr. Blakely’s office last week.
Furthermore, we’ve gotten three grants totaling about $400,000 to design and build the greenway. Brown+Danos Land Design of Baton Rouge is creating a schematic master plan for the entire greenway, and the City Council is convening a task force to make sure all the players are working in coordination on this.
So things are happening quickly and the project is moving forward.
People often say that neighborhood groups and community-based organizations are anti-development, but of course that’s just not true. FOLC in particular is advocating for trail-oriented development. We believe the greenway is a public, open space amenity which will enhance the overall “livability” of the city. We think the greenway offers unique opportunities for retail development that could be very positive — if done correctly.
If you haven’t heard the term “trail-oriented development” before that’s because it’s a relatively new concept. So there’s not a lot of research on the topic, but there are two recent studies focusing on urban greenways in Austin, Texas, and Indianapolis, Indiana. Both studies indicate that property values in the immediate vicinity of a properly developed greenway can increase substantially. Just something to keep in mind.
FOLC’s website is at folc-nola.org
We’re posting relevant media from last night’s meeting mcno.org so check there if you’re interested in more. We should have video up soon.
It seems we have to follow Jello Biafra’s admonition to “become the media,” because frankly I’ve been disappointed in the media coverage so far. Fox 8 led with a clip of Jimmy Fahrenholtz outside the meeting talking about retail development in the context of violent crime, how a shopping center won’t do much good if you get shot on your way to the store. I’ll grant you violent crime is on all of our minds, especially since yesterday was another bloody day in New Orleans — but still, that seemed like a goofy way to start the story. They chose an awkward soundbite from Shelley and didn’t use anything from Jennifer.
WWL radio this morning ran with story that amounted to “big inevitable development is being fought by neighbors.” What a sad caricature of the truth.
Update, April 4th: The Times-Picayune ran a story on the meeting, and it falls prey to the same simplistic spin: residents versus developers. I don’t have the patience for a detailed analysis, so I’ll stick to this simple fact. The reporter muffed the quote from Jennifer Weishaupt:
“I told them (Victory), ‘If I can shop at it in Metairie or the West Bank, I don’t want it here,'” said Weishaupt, drawing a roar of approval from the audience.
This misquote makes MCNO sound parochial and anti-development. In fact, what Jennifer actually was talking about was chain restaurants, not retail. One thing we certainly do have in Mid-City is plenty of locally-owned restaurants.