Volleyball league withdraws bid to build courts on vacant lot

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- Michelle Lee spikes a volleyball while her teammate  Caroline Osborne watches by Bayou St. John in Mid-City at the Mid-City Youth Volleyball Summer League in New Orleans, Saturday, July 20, 2013.
Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- Michelle Lee spikes a volleyball while her teammate Caroline Osborne watches by Bayou St. John in Mid-City at the Mid-City Youth Volleyball Summer League in New Orleans, Saturday, July 20, 2013.

The piles of weed-strewn sand that sit languishing on an empty lot at the tail end of the Lafitte Greenway in Mid-City certainly don’t call to mind tidy beach volleyball courts.

Yet, that’s what the sand was dumped there for months ago, meant to become a permanent home for the Mid-City Volleyball Group, whose members have been playing on the banks of Bayou St. John since 2009.

Earlier this month, amid objections from neighbors, the volleyball organization withdrew a proposal to lease the 1.49-acre empty plot of land on North Jefferson Davis Parkway, between Orleans Avenue and Toulouse Street, from the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board.

“It’s sad,” said Peter Hickman, president of the group, which had intended to build two to five courts at the site. “We were going to transform a muddy, grassy area into a recreation facility. We expected to add value to that land and to stimulate local businesses.”

The group’s proposal included volleyball leagues that would run five evenings a week between 6:30 and 10:30 p.m., occasional tournaments, and free clinics on Saturdays for disadvantaged youth.

Many neighbors supported the idea, along with the Greater Mid-City Business Organization and City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, Hickman said. But objections from other nearby residents, mostly in the adjacent Parkview neighborhood, caused them to scrap their plans.

Former Parkview Neighborhood Board Chairman Michael DesJardins, who opposed the proposal, said that his major qualms were with the site location, not the league.

“We have no objections to a volleyball league, we think that’s a wonderful thing. But that’s just not the location for it,” DesJardins said.

In February 2012, when the group was exploring options for a permanent location, Desjardins sent a letter of support for the league to New Orleans Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant, saying: “We think their proposed volleyball venue will enhance the public use of both the bayou and the Lafitte Greenway.”

But Desjardins also indicated that his support was for a location near an abandoned brake tag station on North Jefferson Davis Parkway, saying he opposed development on the Sewerage and Water Board land because he thought it would exacerbate parking issues during highly-attended events.

Musa Eubanks, a Parkview resident, said that issues with traffic, noise and lights were fundamental to residents’ objections, as well as a feeling that the development was out of sync with the ambiance of the bayou.

“Just look at the culture of beach volleyball across the country and you’ll see that it doesn’t belong in the middle of a city,” Eubanks said. “There would have been intense activity and tournaments — they have the potential to bring in people from all over — some said it was going to be like Bayou Boogaloo.”

In its proposal to the Sewerage and Water Board, the volleyball group estimated that league play would draw an extra 25 cars per hour.

Hickman said he had come to an agreement with nearby Armstrong Supply and Bayou Bicycles to use their parking overnight, and that noise coming from the courts would have been nothing more than background music and “the sound of occasional laughter.”

Though his group was prohibited from building any permanent structures on the property, Hickman said they would have explored the possibility of renting space from Armstrong Supply to operate a small restaurant and bar.

Josef Wright, president of the Greater Mid-City Business Association, said his group was a supporter of the plan, which he called a “win-win for Mid-City.”

“I see it as being good for the community and for business, and I also see it as great for kids,” Wright said, adding that in his opinion Mid-City lost out on a positive project because opponents of the development made exaggerated claims about the project’s size and impact in an attempt to derail it.

Bonnie Garrigan, vice president of the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, which issued its support for the plan in May, also spoke positively not only about the proposed site, but the group’s impact in general.

“They do a lot of great things with youth in the area,” she said, referring to the organization’s volleyball programs for young people.

Garrigan said league members went door-to-door and explained to neighbors about the new development. In a May blog post she wrote that the group had received more than 134 signatures of support from area residents and another 310 signatures on a petition on Change.Org.

She added that her organization had few unresolved qualms with the proposal and she suggested that some of those opposed had engaged in “scare tactics” to try to defeat it.

“A few neighbors that live directly on the bayou did not want a permanent structure and they spread some pretty negative, nasty publicity about the volleyball group and pretty much killed the proposal,” she said.

Eubanks said he found that many of those in his area had signed the petition without reading it and were unaware that games would be held five evenings a week.

He claimed that 41 of 47 neighbors he approached who had signed the petition rescinded their signatures after fully understanding the proposal and that he collected an additional 111 signatures against the construction of the courts.

As for the sand, it still sits at the end of the Lafitte Parkway behind an orange, plastic fence while the volleyball club continues to look for a permanent location.

City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, a supporter of the project and resident of the Parkview area, said she helped facilitate the sand’s donation from an NFL event during the Super Bowl.

Guidry characterized the group as a responsible organization that has “been very careful to be gentle to the bayou and not have an environmental impact.”