James Gill: Scaring neighbors into submission

It’s an old negotiating trick. Make some truly outrageous demand, reduce it to the merely unreasonable, then seek credit for a willingness to make concessions.

Such, it seems, is the approach of Perez, the architectural and development company that wants to destroy the Holy Cross neighborhood in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward in order to save it. Opinions vary on whether the Perez plan represents civic progress or money-grubbing vandalism.

When the City Council votes today on Perez’s request for zoning changes, convention will require it to defer to James Gray because he represents the district where gleaming riverfront apartment blocks would rise high above shotguns and other modest houses lining narrow old streets.

A convention that gives politicians autocratic power in their own localities is hardly conducive to disinterested and thorough consideration of the public interest citywide, although it does ensure that errors are not made for want of familiarity with the issues. It does, however, require a degree of trust that long experience tells us should not be taken for granted with members of the City Council.

Gray is a lawyer who, if the Supreme Court follows the recommendations of its disciplinary board, soon will be disbarred or suspended. His various ethical offenses are not related to his work on the council, but, if momentous changes to the cityscape are to be made on the say-so of one man, the public might prefer one whose judgment and integrity have not been questioned.

Gray is on Perez’s side. He says he has discussed the development plan with a large number of residents and the overwhelming majority of them support it. This is evidently a highly schizophrenic community, for the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association has voted unanimously against it and campaigns vigorously.

Perez has an agreement, contingent on zoning variances, to buy the former site of Holy Cross school, which relocated after Katrina washed much of the Lower 9th away. Perez plans office and retail space, but twin apartment towers will dominate the scene if the council gives its go-ahead.

Under the original proposal, those towers would have dwarfed all around, with 13 stories reaching 135 feet into the sky and commanding splendid river views. That struck the neighborhood association as way over the top, and Perez went back to the drawing board. The new plan was for seven stories and 75 feet. Perez threw in a half-acre park, and agreed to spare a stand of oak trees.

The grumbling continued, but by no means all the residents joined in. When the plan came before the Planning Commission and the Historic Landmarks Commission, impassioned speeches were made both pro and con. Neither commission could make up its mind on what to recommend to the City Council.

According to the neighborhood association, some of Perez’s supporters at the hearings were ringers, and an online petition in favor of the project included fake signatures, but clearly this is not just a PR stunt. The Lower 9th is coming back, but so gradually that plenty of residents are evidently sold on the idea of instant revitalization and the jobs it would bring.

Even the neighborhood association accepts the need for investment and development, but maintains the scale and distinctive feel of the Lower 9th could still be preserved. To that end, the association enlisted the aid of Tulane to come up with alternative plans that feature acres of green space and much lower population density. Life would be sweeter in those surroundings than in the shadow of a high-rise, but such a project might require a degree of public spiritedness rare in commercial developers.

So chances are there will be a massive influx of well-heeled apartment dwellers, which will not only change the character of the neighborhood beyond recognition, but could put it beyond the means of many current residents. A historic chunk of the city may be doomed, but we are used to that.

Meanwhile, the Perez towers are now down to 60 feet, still 20 feet taller than the maximum specified in the zoning ordinance and enough, presumably, for a decent profit to be made on the deal. The original plan must have been meant to scare the neighborhood into submission.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.