Published: Friday, September 17, 2010, 7:00 AM
Bruce Eggler, The Times-Picayune
A plan to convert an abandoned Esplanade Avenue nursing home into a 40-unit apartment complex for low-income and disabled homeless tenants got a green light Thursday from the New Orleans City Council, but the developers still could face major hurdles in making the plan a reality.
After hearing forceful arguments from both supporters and critics of the proposal, the council voted 4-3 to overrule the Historic District Landmarks Commission and allow demolition of a small rear portion of the former Bethany Homes nursing home at 2535 Esplanade. The demolition is intended to allow creation of enough parking spaces to meet city requirements.
Councilwoman Susan Guidry, whose district includes the site, said the landmarks commission had no valid basis to deny the demolition because the building, by the commission’s own assessment, has no architectural or historic significance. She hinted that she thought the commission’s decision was based on opposition to the building’s proposed use, which she said it had no legal right to consider.
Voting with Guidry were President Arnie Fielkow, Stacy Head and Kristin Gisleson Palmer.
Voting to uphold the commission were Jackie Clarkson, Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and Jon Johnson.
None of the three dissenters offered an explanation for their votes during the meeting. Clarkson said afterward that she always tries to support the landmarks commission and thought its decision had been based on solid grounds, such as the applicants’ failure to provide final redevelopment plans, even though the commission’s staff and its architectural review committee had recommended approving the demolition.
The council’s consideration of the issue followed a 40-minute executive session, its second on the issue in recent weeks, at which it discussed the possibility the U.S. Department of Justice would sue the city if the project does not go forward. Federal law prohibits government actions that have the effect of discriminating against people with disabilities.
Despite Thursday’s vote, the project’s developers — a consortium of the Gulf Coast Housing Partnership, Unity of Greater New Orleans and Common Ground, a national homeless-advocacy group — still can’t declare total victory.
The council added a proviso saying the developers must submit proof they have financing for the entire $5.5 million project in place before they can get a demolition permit. The developers also must return to the Board of Zoning Adjustments, which has twice refused to give them a waiver on the number of off-street parking spaces, for a setback waiver.
There also is a possibility the opponents, primarily neighbors who fear the complex’s tenants would increase crime and drug use in the area and cause property values to decline, will take the issue to court.
Unlike in previous debates on the issue, which often have centered on emotional criticisms of the idea of providing housing for homeless and low-income people in a historic residential neighborhood, many of the opponents made a point of sticking to architectural and procedural issues Thursday.
However, former state Sen. Hank Braden, one of the leaders of the opposition, denounced the threat of Justice Department intervention as “bogus nonsense” and warned the council that overturning the landmarks commission’s action would “ruin this city real fast.” He said the only reason many people buy homes in historic neighborhoods is the protection afforded to them by the commission.
His wife, Michele Braden, said Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently endorsed the idea of letting nearby John McDonogh High School use the Esplanade Avenue building as a cooking school and giving the service providers for the homeless use of another, unidentified city-owned building. Landrieu’s office said it could not confirm that.
Proponents, many of whom wore lapel stickers reading “Housing is a civil right,” emphasized that allowing the demolition would be a “reasonable accommodation” to a project they said would be an asset to the neighborhood.
In contrast to the 40 units they propose, developers said, the former nursing home had 121 units, 95 percent of whose occupants were indigent. They said the case management services to be offered at the new facility would help homeless people get back on their feet.
“Great things will happen there if we are allowed to be a part of that neighborhood,” said Angela Patterson of Unity.
Twenty units would be designated for disabled homeless tenants, with the other 20 reserved for low-income tenants. Onsite medical and social services would be provided by Odyssey House of Louisiana, which ultimately would own the complex. It would hire a management company to screen tenants, sign leases and run the building, Odyssey House CEO Ed Carlson said. It also would provide round-the-clock security.
Some neighbors claim Odyssey House’s nearby clinic already creates problems for them. They blame petty crimes in the area on Odyssey House clients. But Carlson said no one has ever produced documentation linking a crime to an Odyssey House client.
Bruce Eggler can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3320