The Times-Picayune: Esplanade Avenue Apartment Proposal Keeps Running into Roadblocks

| November 29, 2010 | 0 Comments

Published: Sunday, November 28, 2010, 8:00 AM

By Stephen Babcock, staff writer

Despite getting what seemed to be a green light from the New Orleans City Council in September, a project to transform an abandoned nursing home on Esplanade Avenue into housing for homeless and low-income people remains at a stalemate.

The city Board of Zoning Adjustments recently declined to approve a waiver needed to move the controversial project forward.

Meanwhile, the Esplanade Ridge-Treme Civic Association, which has led opposition to the project, is asking a judge to overturn the City Council’s decision.

A team of four housing nonprofit groups, including the homeless collaborative UNITY of Greater New Orleans and the New York City-based housing organization Common Ground, wants to turn the former Bethany Home nursing home at 2535 Esplanade Ave. into apartments for 40 formerly homeless and low-income tenants.

Using a model developed nationwide by Common Ground known as supportive housing, 20 units would be set aside for formerly homeless people, with the other 20 reserved for low-income tenants making less than about $27,000 yearly. Case management services for the formerly homeless tenants would be provided at the site by Odyssey House of Louisiana, a local organization that already has a presence in the neighborhood.

A group of residents led by Esplanade Ridge-Treme Civic Association President Michele Braden has argued that the complex would bring more crime and drugs use to the neighborhood, depreciate property values in a historic district and increase density to an undesirable level.

For most of this year, the project was held up as the zoning board and the Historic District Landmarks Commission rejected the developers’ plans for required off-street parking. On Sept. 15, the City Council overturned the HDLC’s rejection, in theory allowing for demolition of a small rear portion of the building to make space for off-street parking.

But even with the council’s blessing, the developers needed a waiver from the zoning board allowing the project’s parking lot to be located closer to the street than is normally required.

The Board of Zoning Adjustments, which twice denied the developers’ proposals earlier in the year, voted 3-3 on the waiver at its Nov. 8 meeting. According to the board’s rules, a tie vote amounts to a denial.

Zoning board member Gloria Bryant-Banks was absent from the vote, leaving open the possibility that the developers could go back before the board in January.

Jessica Venegas of Common Ground said the development team is weighing that option, as well as appealing the denial to Civil District Court or filing an administrative complaint with the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department on the basis that the board’s action violated the federal Fair Housing Act.

The U.S. Department of Justice is already investigating the Board of Zoning Adjustments for a possible violation of the Fair Housing Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to a spokeswoman.

“We’re not going away,” Venegas said. “We’re going to find the best way to move forward.”

The opposed neighbors, for their part, have already taken court action. On Oct. 15, they filed an appeal in Civil District Court of the council’s September decision. Their lawsuit claims the development would not conform with zoning requirements for multifamily residential dwellings. The residents argue the facility is a group home, not an apartment complex, as the development team describes it.

Zoning board staff previously found the proposed development was correctly zoned.

With both sides dug in, efforts to resolve the matter out of court seem stalled.

Venegas said she asked Mayor Mitch Landrieu for a commitment to support the development at a recent City Hall meeting on homeless issues, but he did not take a position. A Landrieu spokesperson declined to comment.

City Councilwomen Susan Guidry and Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who represent the neighborhoods nearest to the site, also declined to comment on the new developments.

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