Resident concerns dominate meeting of zoning panel
Citing concerns about drainage, traffic and the amount of existing vacant commercial space, Harahan’s Planning and Zoning Board has recommended that the City Council reject a proposal to turn a portion of the former Colonial Golf and Country Club into a shopping center.
The recommendation is not binding on the council, which is expected to take up Oct. 17 the controversial plan to build on part of one of the largest expanses of green space remaining on the east bank of Jefferson Parish.
A two-hour meeting of the zoning board Wednesday night was frequently punctuated with cheers for residents opposing the project and boos and catcalls for attorney Jack Capella, who presented the plan on behalf of the developers and property owner.
Colonial is owned by John Georges, who also owns The New Orleans Advocate, and developer Wayne Ducote.
The shopping center would be built by Stirling Properties, which would purchase the rezoned portion of the land from Georges and Ducote if the proposal is approved by the city.
Throughout the meeting, concerns over the proposal’s impact on nearby neighborhoods dominated the discussion.
Ashley Cambre, a resident who presented a detailed slide show of flooding issues in neighborhoods near the former golf course, drew comparisons to other major developments in the city to argue that replacing green space with concrete would lead to more problems. City regulations are supposed to prevent developers from worsening drainage in the area, Cambre said.
“When Wal-Mart developed all this, this hadn’t flooded as much as it does now,” he said. “Wal-Mart actually had to comply to drainage laws the same way Stirling has to comply to those laws.”
Capella said the developers would commit to improving drainage in the area, even if it means a “pump to the river” project to drain water from the area.
“We’re going to build something that is not going to flood this area,” he said.
Stirling’s proposal would allow the construction of a shopping center — which it has said would include a high-end grocery, bank and other stores — on 15 acres of the 88-acre site.
Another 15 acres would be used for retention ponds and drainage and would be deed-restricted so that nothing else could be developed on it.
Georges has said he and Ducote plan to keep about 20 acres for their personal use.
The fate of the rest of the property is uncertain, though Georges sent a letter to city officials last month promising to try to find a government entity or philanthropist who would buy the property and maintain it as a park.
Developers are asking for two changes in the legal status of the Colonial site: a resubdivision to divide the 15-acre section that would house the shopping center from the rest of the property, and a rezoning to change those 15 acres from residential to commercial.
A motion to recommend the council approve the resubdivision failed by a 4-5 vote Wednesday night. A second vote to recommend denial of the rezoning was approved by a 7-2 vote.
In addition to flooding issues, residents at the meeting raised concerns about how traffic at the development would impact nearby neighborhoods, particularly if the traffic light at Halsey Avenue and Jefferson Highway is removed, as would be required under the plan.
Danny Flynn, a resident opposed to the project, described Colonial’s recent history as a series of showdowns between neighbors and “one millionaire after another” who wants to develop it.
“You have a great city, a city plan that we paid $75,000 for,” Flynn said, arguing that the zoning should not be changed. “You know what the people of Harahan want: They want residential development.”
Board member Patrick Peppo put forward the motion to allow the resubdivision, with the condition that it would include the “pump to the river” project to improve drainage.
“In my heart of hearts, I believe 15 acres of commercial with ‘pump to the river’ is the best deal we’re going to get,” Peppo said.
But others on the board said they could not vote for the project because of fear it would cause problems for nearby communities.