Who’s Stonewalling Who?

December 4th, 2007 by Editor B

Normally neighborhood groups support the demolition of abandoned buildings. However, last Monday representatives from the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization spoke against the demolition of the old Lindy Boggs Medical Center.

Lindy Boggs

Reaction has been mixed. Here’s a typical comment from the story on nola.com:

Great, a bunch of boneheads that want to look important attempt to stop the demolition of a disgusting flooded out hospital. Get a life losers.

Or, as Anthony put it (in much more reasonable and civil terms):

And just how long are we prepared to live with these abandoned buildings? Months, years, decades?

And that’s exactly the question I asked in advance of the hearing before the Housing Conservation District Review Committee. This wasn’t an easy call. But ultimately I felt that opposition to the demolition was the correct stance for the neighborhood organization to take.

Why? Well, it’s like this. The company that wants to do the tear-down is Victory Real Estate Investments. We have been trying to contact them for the last seven months, with zero success. We want to know what their plans might be for that site — but they’re not talking.

The HCDRC’s own rules state that redevelopment plans must be submitted before demolitions are approved, but as we know, the HCDRC is broken beyond belief. (They illegally approved a demolition in our neighborhood the same day.)

Furthermore, rumors abound that public funds will be used for the demolition, rumors which were fueled by comments Victory’s representative made at Monday’s hearing. Yet we’ve been unable to ascertain what funds these might be, and have even received stark denials from some quarters. The rumor is $10 million via the Office of Recovery Managment. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but ORM won’t answer our queries.

Why should an arguably serviceable building be knocked down on the public dime without the public having some say?

Also, we’ve got a lot of questions about the demolition itself that no one will address. This would be a fairly massive project. We want to be assured that it will be conducted in an environmentally responsible fashion and that measures will be taken to protect properties across the street and preserve some quality of life for residents of the surrounding area.

Finally, to address the legitimate concern Anthony gave voice to: How long are we willing to live next to abandoned and blighted property? Let me put this in my personal perspective. I’m living next door to a house which still hasn’t been gutted since the flood. Around the corner on our block is an abandoned grocery that has never been cleaned out. We’ve got kids and seniors living cheek-by-jowl with blight. So a fenced building that sits on its own block with no residences isn’t really at the top of my list. I’ve been putting up with far worse.

To be perfectly accurate, we did not oppose the demolition per se. We asked for a 30-day deferral to allow time for Victory to meet with the neighborhood and discuss their redevelopment plans and details of the demolition. Reasonable, no? The HCDRC met us half-way: They deferred for 15 days.

So now Victory has chance to establish some trust with the neighborhood. That’s some fat chance. At the hearing, they denied ever having heard from us over the past seven months of unreturned phone calls. How very disrespectful! We invited them to come to our community meeting last night. They didn’t. We said we’d be ready to meet anytime, anywhere. Nothing so far.

We don’t believe they will meet with us. We have good reason to believe the fix is in, so to speak, and that the HCDRC will approve this demolition regardless of how much community opposition is brought to bear.

Last night Shelley Midura spoke at our community meeting. I don’t have a high regard for most of our local politicians, but I do respect Shelley. Nonetheless I was disheartened and taken aback by her tone. She seemed to say that the demolition would indeed be approved and we just need to trust her and Stacey Head to do the right thing.

The problem is that, given Victory’s portfolio and secrecy, it’s very hard to have any level of trust. Add in the fact that Victory burned us before (remember Movie Pitchers?) and trust would seem to be a very foolish attitude indeed.

C’mon, Victory, quit playing it so close to the vest. Meet with the neighborhood. Tell us what you have in mind. We want and need economic development in our neighborhood. Work with us to get to “yes.”

36 Responses to “Who’s Stonewalling Who?”

  1. Anthony Says:

    I did some thinking about this last night and started to have a little more understanding about Victory’s position.

    If you don’t know what you have to work with, in terms of land you can acquire, you don’t know what it’s going to look like. If you don’t know what its going to look like you can’t present plans to anyone. They may have an idea of what they want but until they get all the property you can’t begin drawing things. It’s like trying to design a set for a stage you haven’t seen. Or for a theatre you haven’t seen. There might be a post in the middle of the stage you have to deal with. If one person in the middle of the parcel holds out and we are left with an abandoned warehouse in the middle of a new retail development they would have to take that into account.

  2. HCDRC Agenda | Squandered Heritage Says:

    [...] N. Jefferson Davis Parkway Request by “Victory”: Real Estate to demolish the former Lindy Boggs Hospital . No redevelopment plan has been [...]

  3. William Says:

    Don’t be mollified when Shelley says “trust me to do the right thing.” She said that to us the day before introducing an ordinance to convert a residential lot in our neighborhood into a parking lot for a grocery that still has not been built. We were blindsided. Though not necessarily evil, she does have her own agenda.

  4. Jedd Says:

    I spoke to Richard Cortizas, the local attorney for Victory. He emphatically denied that there are any plans for a big box or a Walmart. He seemed frustrated at all the “incorrect” information that he said he’s had to address (eg, rumors that it would be turned into low income housing.) He said that plans HAD been shared with the MCNO, and that MCNO was putting out a bunch of lies (paraphrase). He seemed rather frustrated at having to chase down and dispel rumors.

    Now here’s where it gets interesting. I asked specifically about the alleged covenant with Ochsner, that there would be no hospital. At first he seemed to be in the dark about this, so I explained it. Once I had explained it, I asked again, is this true? Could he deny, categorically, that this covenant was in place?

    So he asked, “have you seen this covenant?” Of course not; obviously, it’s a private deal. So I asked again, to which he gave the VERY lawyerly response that it didn’t exist “to his knowledge.” That seemed rather like a non-denial denial.

  5. Jedd Says:
  6. Anthony Says:

    Oh, and one more thing… you shouldn’t have to be putting up with buildings that haven’t been gutted and secured or demolished for this long. No one in the city should. We need to get the bulldozers and dumptrucks rolling. There is NO excuse for not gutting and securing a building in 2 1/2 yrs.

  7. Anthony Says:

    Jedd that is a hint, Victory was founded in 1992?

    That’s long after some of the more annoying pieces in their local portfolio, like the Wilshire, Westgate, Berryland were built. It looks like they acquired them rather than developed them. The one piece of theirs I’d like to see is Anderson Town Center, which looks like it was a recent development and has a Macy’s. Since the recent trend in retail developments is the Town Center Model it might give a better indication of what they do with it.

  8. Jedd Says:

    Anthony: it’s a hint on who interested parties should contact. If enough calls and emails start coming in to Victory, we may get a response. George Singer is the construction manager for the Mid City project, and Kent Cost is his boss.

  9. Civitch Says:

    Jedd – has Cortizas or Victory ever shared plans with MCNO? Because it sounds like they haven’t even given them the time of day, much less any details about what they’re planning on doing. If no plans have been shared, then Cortizas is just plain lying, right?

    And Anthony, yes, it’s tough to present plans for a parcel you haven’t finished assembling, but there is no doubt in my mind that these guys have something quite concrete in mind, and have alternatives depending on whether they get parcels 1, 2 and 3 or 2, 3 and 4, or 5, 9 and 11. These are sophisticated developers. They’ve analyzed all the angles and have contingencies for any problems. For them to pretend otherwise is disingenuous and an act of bad faith.

    Regardless, the city’s own ordinance is supposed to make their willingness to share their plans irrelevant. The HCDRC regulations clearly state that applications for demolition must be accompanied by a redevelopment plan. That applies to everyone – even big-time developers. And if that’s not being enforced, then maybe the public needs to attend the meeting (Monday, December 10 at 10 a.m. on the 7th floor of City Hall in the Office of Safety and Permits) and demand that it be so.

  10. Editor B Says:

    Civitch & Jedd: Yes, Victory did share some ideas with MCNO many moons ago. But these were not formal plans and not ready for public consumption; in fact we were instructed not to share them, and they’ve given the community nothing in writing. As noted, over the past seven months MCNO has attempted to contact them repeatedly, just to talk, without success.

    If Anthony’s correct, Victory should come forward and say so. They need to build trust. They could even gain allies in the community if they articulate a positive vision for development. Their current tactics are fostering paranoia.

  11. Jedd Says:

    I understand from Cortizas that Victory is committed to the Greenway. I suggest that this be in writing and made public before any demolition is approved. They also need to make more commitments to minimum architectural standards and, maybe more. Like a “micro hospital” with a clinic, ER, pharmacy.

  12. Jedd Says:

    Since Victory isn’t getting their ideas out (something I suggested to Cortizas that they do) we need to send our ideas to them and to Shelley & co. Call Victory! http://www.vrei.net/kent_cost.htm

    Write or call your council member.

    Don’t let them do another Movie Pitchers – tearing down a small neighborhood cinema paradise and put up a parking lot. No joke! And it’s hardly even used – it was just in the way and got whacked by the Vic. crew.

    (For a long time, I’ve had this idea to make a fake tombstone, with some of the above verbiage on it. “Here lies a small neigborhood cinema paradise, paved over to put down a seldom-used parking lot, courtesy of Victory Development. RIP.”)

  13. Anthony Says:

    The more I read about the HCDRC the more I am convinced that it seems designed to thwart recovery. Someone with a blighted building shouldn’t need another layer of bureaucracy to tell them it’s ok to bring a blighted building down. No one wants to get to a Detroit with miles of empty lots but there is little use in forcing people to maintain structures when they want to build something else on the site. We’ve a city that was built out for 650,000 prior to most major development in New Orleans east, now we are struggling to keep the 280,000 or so that is most best estimates. Either we need to find some people with some money to move into the city and fix old houses and find jobs and live in them that will love old houses or we need to let them go. Keeping them around to rot isn’t doing anyone any good. And they aren’t going to get magically fixed for free.

    It’s a failing of almost all the post storm talk that we have talked more about housing than we have jobs. If people have jobs they can afford to pay for housing. If there are no jobs for people to support themselves there is no reason to build any more housing.

    Also Jedd brings up an interesting point… I’d love something like an urgent care center in the neighborhood for cuts and scrapes and colds. And in the scope of the development they could put that on a non-Mercy parcel and still maintain the letter of Oschner’s poison pill to the neighborhood.

  14. Anthony Says:

    I’d love to draw up a development on that parcel, Jedd. Using the stores they proposed or said they were looking at as tenants (which I thought would be great additions to the area). I was sad to see Movie Pictures go (hell, I even built part of it) and remember the building from when it was Crown Buick and Sound City (got a guitar from there for my graduation). But for someone to buy something it takes someone to sell something. And I preferred to have the Sav A Center more than the Marine supply warehouse Or whatever industrial supply place was there. Having grocery stores in the area in a city that has a lot of neighborhoods that don’t have any major stores has been really good for us.

    Any way, I in my development plan I got a spot for the Target, and the Barnes and Noble and the Best Buy (or was it Bed, Bath and Beyond) and the Dicks Sporting goods plus a lot of space for smaller retailers and restaurants, professional offices, some apartments, a bandstand, a farmers market, the Lafitte Greenway, and hopefully ample parking. Lots of jobs, lots of tax revenue, bike to the store and buy a new toaster. Maybe we could lure Landmark out of Canal Place and into Midcity if I can find a place to put a movie theater.

  15. David Says:

    Here’s an old, attorney friend’s favorite joke:

    How does a lawyer say “fuck you”?

    “Trust me.”

  16. Civitch Says:

    Anthony – while I applaud your interest in keeping the recovery going, I disagree that HCDRC is thwarting it. If anything, retaining our historic housing stock is a part of the recovery. The chances of an abandoned house being renovated is many times greater than the chances of a vacant lot being built on. And what’s built nowdays is nowhere near the quality of what was built 100 years ago.

    When unreviewed demolitions are allowed to happen, neighborhoods are destroyed. If you don’t believe me, take a look at Central City, where there was zero demolition review until HCDRC. Trust me, it’s in the city’s best interests to maintain as much of our old building stock as possible.

  17. Anthony Says:

    I’d say that Central City’s main problem was for decades being in the drug trade routes/ turf battles between rival criminal factions that dominated the St. Thomas, Magnolia and Calliope projects. That’s why you see now that with St. Thomas redeveloped St. Mary and St. Andrew Street (on the river side of St. Charles) which used to be incredibly run down are starting to show signs of life and renovation. I don’t think it had anything to do with the HCDRC and everything to do with the renovation of St. Thomas. And it seems to me that the blight in Central city is so pervasive and total in many blocks that a wholesale redevelopment might be a better solution to the years of neglect.

    My main thrust is that if we don’t have the population to live in the houses and we don’t have anyone here who can afford to fix them up who isn’t already working on their old house, or jobs for people to get the money to afford to fix them up it seems to me that the hardest cases need to be let go of and maybe we can reclaim the tradition of side yards and gardens.

    At any rate, this has nothing to do with the hospital which isn’t housing. It was a business.

  18. William Says:

    Well said Civitch. You don’t save the patient by cutting out his heart. That is what unregulated demolitions are doing to this city.

  19. Anthony Says:

    Yeah William but you can save a patient by cutting off a toe or a foot… and if we look at blighted houses like gangrene, discouraging rebuilding, driving down values, decreasing the attractiveness of an area, getting rid of one blighted house to be a side yard or community garden or even just the lot the kids put up a basketball goal on rather than playing in the street, you could not only save the patient but make them stronger than ever.

    And it’s clear if the population numbers of those who can afford to fix these houses don’t rebound we are going to be left with a lot of gangrenous toes.

  20. Civitch Says:

    Central City certainly has its share of drug turf wars, but the Beirut-esque landscape of Baronne, Carondelet, and the side streets between them and St. Charles cannot be blamed on drugs. You’ve got Brown’s “Dairy” operating a milk refinery in the middle of the hood (I challenge anyone to find an actual cow on the property); a disproportionate concentration of low-income housing, which in many cases is not maintained as well as market-rate housing for a variety of reasons; rampant parking lots to serve St. Charles Avenue businesses (many houses were torn down to create these); and – drumroll please – the lack of any kind of protection for the building stock! If you don’t believe me, take a look at the Lower Garden District, which started out with the same housing stock and the same challenges, yet has been protected by the HDLC since 1971, I believe.

    But my main point is that demolition begets disinvestment, which begets more demolition, and so on, until you get to the point of no return. I believe that some of the area of Central City I described above has almost reached that point. At best, it will take a superhuman effort to revitalize it.

    Why allow a neighborhood to reach that point, when we have empirical and anecdotal evidence that preserving the building stock provides the raw materials for a neighborhood’s revitalization?

  21. Karen Says:

    Demolition without redevelopment is disinvestment..period.

  22. Anthony Says:

    Blighted houses without any occupants to pay to fix them up is a drag on the surrounding houses and the surrounding neighborhood… period.

    (this debating style, by placing an authoritative sounding “period” after one declarative sentence is at once annoying and condescending, as if this one aspect of the debate is the final answer to all questions.)

    Blighted and abandoned houses are already disinvestment. By the time they get to that condition the disinvestment has already happened. And despite any well meaning laws you can’t force people to spend money on things that they will ultimately lose money on. That owner maybe has done the math already and sees that sinking 120,000 into a building he might only be able to recoup 80,000 on or maybe $500 a month because of the seedy condition of the neighborhood because it was hemmed in on all sides by housing projects, in today’s insurance market. You can’t make people make bad investments. And if the house is too far gone and the neighborhood is mostly gone then giving someone else a blank slate to develop the area from scratch might be the only way to get the real estate back into use. Demolition of severely blighted property is just the burying of the corpse…. period.

    This is not to say I am against old houses. I’m for old houses. But I’m for old houses that people love. I’m for old houses that people maintain. I live in an old house in need of repair. I like my 12 foot ceilings. I’m not interested in anything getting torn down by accident. But I’m also not interested in trying to force people at what amounts to gunpoint into keeping buildings on their land they don’t want.

  23. Karen Says:

    Sorry you find my style stifling to your argument. Look at statistics and realities of redevelopment of vacant properties vs. blighted property

  24. Anthony Says:

    The counter argument is that we are not offering big enough tracts for redevelopment for a developer to feel that his or her project will create a tipping point that would turn around an otherwise marginal area.

  25. rcs Says:

    Central City certainly has its share of drug turf wars, but the Beirut-esque landscape of Baronne, Carondelet, and the side streets between them and St. Charles cannot be blamed on drugs.

    Amen. Let’s also add in the effects of the graft-ridden political organizations and the inner-city religious leaders who act as their bagmen; I believe that, for them, impeding development has a dual benefit:

    - money, in that anyone in need of a zoning adjustment is required to pony up a “contribution” to a local church,

    - votes, in that long-term suppression of development and opportunity in an area creates a disenfranchised and uneducated electorate, which is that much easier for the political machines to manipulate come Election Day.

    (Aside: here is a post about Oliver Thomas that raises very interesting questions about political machinations in Central City.)

    I think what bothers me most about Anthony’s position is that it seems to ignore how the property got blighted in the first place; with the obvious exception of Katrina damage, most of the blight in New Orleans is the result of owner neglect. And since the city has yet to put any teeth into its expropriation process (something both Morial and Nagin have pledged, and failed, to accomplish) these properties languish, corroding the neighborhoods they occupy. To allow the negligent owners to demolish with no penalty is a disservice to their long-suffering neighbors and the city as a whole. And, as had been demonstrated time and again by the PRC and thousands of private renovators these properties are eminently saveable.

  26. Anthony Says:

    I’ll gladly talk about owner neglect. Can we talk about it in the context of the larger economic and population declines in the city? Can we discuss the low margins in providing affordable housing and how one abusive tenant can wipe any revenue from a unit? Can we talk about the bureaucracies which make investing and renovating a property more cumbersome then they need to be? Certainly owners are to blame but so is the city and us citizens for allowing the conditions of the neighborhoods to deteriorate. For allowing crime to take a foothold and for not demanding that they take economic development seriously.

    And while we are talking about expropriation by the city, do you really think that is a better alternative? To do what with the property? Pass it off to a mayoral crony so that they maybe could slap a coat of paint on it and rent it out? Or maybe let it sit in the stack of expropriated houses already on the city’s books? Or maybe target an area for wholesale redevelopment by knocking down all the houses in a 12 block area and letting a developer start from scratch? Or give it to someone who can neither afford to repair it or maintain it?

    It’s one thing to talk about Carondelet and the parking lots for businesses that provide employment, tax revenue and a liveliness to that area of St. Charles which for years was a little more down at the heels than most of the other sections (once again, the St. Thomas Renovation spurring investment in the area and taking that faction of the turf war out of the Central City battles). And certainly the area would be doing much better if Albertson’s remained in the market and built the Felicity street store. But what’s the excuse for Washington and Jackson north of St. Charles, Oretha Castle Haley (which did some rebounding on the news of the proposed Albertsons store and the conversion of Guste into primarily senior citizens but seems to be stalled), MLK?

    It all comes down to the ways that this city has said no to people who want to invest here. Are the kickbacks to the preachers part of it? Probably. Is the restrictive zoning part of it? Certainly. Are we in the process of discouraging investment that would bring jobs and tax revenue into our area. It seems like it to me. And considering that the last big investment in the area, the American Can Renovation, basically increased both property values and homeownership I am having trouble with the people who see this with despair rather than hope.

  27. rcs Says:

    Anthony, are you implying that when a property becomes unprofitable it’s excusable to neglect it? Surely not. Also, unmaintained properties are as much (if not moreso) a cause of blight as a symptom; to just blame society and call it a day might be rhetorically satisfying but it doesn’t really focus on the immediate problem (getting these buildings back into the economic mainstream), in my opinion.

    And yes, I do feel expropriation, properly handled, is an acceptable course of action. Even before Katrina many individuals and agencies (with proven track records in development and renovation) were clamoring for the properties on the books on NORA (many of which have been “land-banked” for YEARS.) As I said before, the city has failed to make expropriation an effective tool for revitalization, whether by design or sheer incompetence (*cough*cough*Lisa Mazique*cough*) I don’t know.

    I’m not sure what question you’re asking in your penultimate paragraph but I find your contention that the St. Thomas Hope VI project helped revitalize lower St. Charles Avenue questionable on the grounds that a), the business development on St. Charles (and the corresponding gutting of Carondelet) predated the Hope VI project and b), one of the primary reasons for the abandonment of the Albertson’s site (which remains empty to this day) was the introduction of the Wal-Mart component of the project.

    And finally, your citation of American Can as a success story is an argument AGAINST demolition, not for it.

  28. Anthony Says:

    I wouldn’t characterize my position as pro-demolition. Anyone who wants to do something with an abandoned building, I’m for it. If someone wants to tear down their building, I’m for that too.

    I stand by my assertion that the primary cause of blight and abandoned buildings are de-population because of economic and population decline. And this has led me to the point where I am that we need to let more marginal buildings go to concentrate first on saving those with the best chance of being economically feasible to restore (meaning starting with the ones in the best condition and tearing down those in the worst condition.) We have a limited amount of resources and a limited population, and many of our population has limited resources. I’m saying start with the low hanging fruit.

    St. Thomas’ redevelopment helped with almost every neighborhood from the River to Carondelet. Carondelet’s issues are that the properties were useful to the businesses on St. Charles. And it seems to me that if Haley gets to be the commercial corridor everyone predicts that it will be two things are going to happen with Carondelet and Baronne. 1)Marginal buildings are going to come down for support of those businesses 2)Good buildings are going to enjoy values they’ve never seen before and be renovated and put into use. But the growth of businesses on St. Charles has been accelerated over the last 10 years. Buildings that were vacant on St. Charles 10 years ago are now in commerce. And that’s a good thing.

  29. Anonymous Says:

    It seems to me that it would be best to be cautious in the pursuit of demolitions and be very focused with whatever demolitions are pursued.

    I can’t put my hands on numbers at the moment, but have read in study after study that statistically vacant lots in urban areas take years longer to redevelop than abandoned houses. That is the reason today so many city processes require the submission of a redevelopment plan with a demolition request. In some cities, the clearing of land actually scared away large investors and caused a further decline.

    A random google search pulled up the below article about Baltimore that offers some good perspectives on the issue of demolitions in older neighborhoods:
    http://www.fanniemaefoundation.org/programs/hpd/pdf/HPD_1203_cohen.pdf

    That said in favor of rehabilitation, on the flip side the City of New Orleans needs to be taken to task for not prioritizing demolitions so neighborhoods can rid themselves of the worst, unsavable housing stock. At some point, the federal Katrina money to fund demolitions will run out and the current City lists of demolitions (http://www.cityofno.com/portal.aspx?portal=2&tabid=10) still has too many houses that are only mildly blighted or even worse, in the process of renovation or receiving Road Home money. (Houses under renovation continue to be torn down by mistake, including two recently in a HDLC district, with several lawsuits filed against the City.)

    We need to demand that taxpayer funded demolitions be the worst of our housing stock, with no hope of being renovated. There are a significant number of houses that fit into this category that can keep the bulldozers busy for a few months, if not longer.

    The proposed Victory project should be viewed in this light. Is it worth $10 million worth of public funds for demolition? Without a redevelopment plan, it is hard to determine yes or no.

  30. William Says:

    Amen

  31. Karen Says:

    Anthony have you ever been to an HCDRC meeting? Or an HDLC meeting?

  32. Anthony Says:

    Typically I have been at work at 10 am on a Monday morning but have skimmed the agendas sent to me over various email groups. It was my intention to spend Monday morning working on my old building to get it back to some usability for me. (Cause it seems like with the labor shortage in town and the myriad of home/shop/apartment repairs that I still need to complete I rarely have enough time to attend all the meetings.) At any rate, I skim the agenda and have rarely found anything that particularly alarmed me. And, I am glad that someone is looking out for unwanted (by the owners) demolitions, so I thank you for that.

    However, perusing Dec. 10th’s agenda I can imagine me in the audience applauding each time they approved another demolition. There are at least 6 agenda items I would support for demolition today. One more I’d be inclined to support on the principle that I think all students should be going to new schools. So that leaves 2305 St. Roch St. No, I can’t say whether it could be salvaged. I don’t know what condition it is in. But I’m going to go with what the owner wants.

  33. Karen Says:

    The Lockett School has no redevelopment plan. The RDS has no budget nor plan for redevelopment.

  34. Karen Says:

    RSD

  35. b.rox » Blog Archive » Round Two Says:

    [...] about the ongoing dispute between my neighborhood organization and Victory Real Estate Investments last week. Victory’s request to demolish the defunct Lindy Boggs hospital was on the agenda again [...]

  36. this sounds like a better plan « the mosquito coast Says:

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