At a meeting in the Bywater’s Stalling Center on Tuesday, October 16, developers for a new mixed-income housing development presented the plans for the complex and explained the proposed site’s details to an incensed group of residents. The resident’s grievances with the project were legion – the design, the density of the development, the environmental impact, and the aesthetics of a comparatively giant complex in a historic district.
Around fifty residents were in attendance, almost all of whom were middle-aged and white. The meeting began with a presentation led by Nicole Webre, before going to the comments and questions submitted during the presentation.
“This is infuriating,” one man muttered as the presentation started. When the developer mentioned a space within the building that would serve as a community space, there was audible jeering.
The Plaza at the End of the World
The space for the project is a lawn 1.8 acres in size, bounded by Chartres, Royal, France, and Mazant Street. Residents bring their children and dogs to play; though Crescent Park is less than a block away, it lacks an open lawn. A weeping willow grows on one side of the lot, and four large live oaks grow in the grass. There’s a swing from one of the trees, a few benches, and a jungle gym. Out by the area known as “the end of the world,” it is a peaceful place in a quiet area.
“Can I just say something? Can I just say something?” yelled one woman, rising to her feet as the angry mutters, which had been growing throughout the meeting, peaked. Another attendee angrily offered to produce certificates for the registered historic live oaks for the four historic oaks on the property.
“Where do you live? Where do you live? I bet you live in Baton Rouge!” screamed one man at the architect, who was attempting to explain parts of the design.
In contrast to the current setting, the proposed development would be five stories high and have 150 housing units, which will be a mix of one-bedroom, two-bedroom, and three-bedroom apartments. Sixty percent of those units (90 total) would be set aside for “affordable housing”- to be rented at a below-market rate to people and families making 60 percent or less of Area Median Income (AMI). Thirty-eight of these will be Project-Based Housing. There will be 51 one-bedroom units, 78 two bedrooms, and 21 three bedroom apartments – if each bedroom has just one person living in it, which is a fairly conservative estimate, the development will add 270 residents to an area of the city with a fairly low population density.
Questions and Concerns
Among the residents’ complaints (and there are many) is that no traffic study has been commissioned, that the development will be a step backward for stormwater management, that the development is ugly and does not fit with the historic character of the neighborhood, and that the development will not actually provide affordable housing.
The Bywater is one of New Orleans’ designated historic neighborhoods and has undergone significant gentrification in the last decade. Attracted by the architecture and historic character, bike tours are a common sight, while the influx of new residents has meant a mass displacement of the lower income and minority population that used to call the area home. The renovation of the East Lake-style creole cottages, restored and painted in a rainbow of bright and pastel shades, has come with this loss.
After the informational PowerPoint, Webre began reading the comment cards, whose sentiments matched the general mood of the meeting.
“These meetings are purposeless. No answering of questions,” read one.
“The design of the complex is awful, this being a historic [sic] neighborhood with many artists, it should be more fitting of the neighborhood and not an eyesore. It seems oversized with few amenities.”
“No zoning change, too tall, no green space and it’s a waist [sic] of time if the affordable housing is only for 15 years -what’s the point in this case??? I’m for affordable housing with no time limit.”
One simply asked, “Why do you think this is ok?!”
Webre appeared at a loss to answer this open-ended interrogatory.
Is it the End of the World?
One of the issues that residents raised at the meeting is the limited nature of the affordable housing units – only sixty percent will be subsidized, the other 40 percent will be market rate, and those set aside as affordable housing will only need to be kept as such for fifteen years. Should ITEX ever decide to sell the property, HANO would have first rights to bid on the property. The underlying land – the 1.8 acres – is owned by HANO in perpetuity.
One resident, Lizzie Parmenter, says that she is in favor of the development, provided that the units are affordable to low-income people and that the units remain affordable housing.
“[the residents] probably settled the area after Katrina, and presumably don’t see the irony in that they don’t want people who have lived here to come back… there’s an extreme disregard for human need under the guise of aesthetics.”
According to Joe Fortner, the current director of HANO, there is a “good chance” that the affordable units will remain affordable after the 15-year affordable housing agreement expires. He pointed to the American Can housing as an example of this phenomenon – affordable housing being extended past its initial limits in a New Orleans housing development. However, in the case of the American Can building located in Mid-City, the residents faced eviction as the 15-year conditions expired. Thousands more face the same fate citywide as similar affordable rate agreements expire, even as over 20,000 households are currently on the waitlist for public housing in New Orleans.
“All against this, say ‘aye,’” yelled a dark-haired man as the meeting officially ended.
“Aye!” a chorus of angry voices responded.
Jesse Lu Baum is a queer writer and cartoonist originally from Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has been featured in publications such as Medium.com, The Jewish Daily Forward, The Mid-City Messenger and Preservation in Print. Aside from writing, she has also worked as a non-profit home repair person, a theater bartender, and a research assistant. If you like this piece, be sure to check out the rest of Jesse’s work here.