Harahan board seeks more information on Colonial shopping center

With residents raising serious concerns about how building a shopping center on the former Colonial Golf and Country Club property would affect nearby properties, the Harahan Planning and Zoning Board told developers to come back next month with studies showing how the project would affect drainage and traffic.

The board voted 5-1 Wednesday to defer proposals put forward by Stirling Properties that would separate 15 acres of the 88-acre site and allow the construction of a commercial project known as Colonial Village.

Board member Darlene Manson, who proposed putting off the vote, criticized Stirling for failing to provide the board with either drainage or traffic studies prior to the meeting. Drainage, in particular, has been a significant concern for residents who live near the site and who already face problems with flooding.

“It’s not fair to present us with incomplete information and expect us to make a recommendation,” Manson said.

Lewis Stirling III, executive vice president of Stirling Properties, said after the meeting that his company would work to get the board the information it needed. “I agree they need to have all the information,” Stirling said.

Manson and four other board members voted to push the decision back to next month’s meeting. Board member Penny Lentini voted against that motion and board member Steve Korle abstained.

The board is only able to recommend for or against a project before sending it on the City Council, which would make the final decision on whether to allow the proposal.

Residents opposed to the project filled the Harahan City Council chambers for Wednesday’s hearing with crowds packing the seats, lining the walls and spilling into the building’s lobby.

Concerns about flooding that would be caused by paving over a portion of what is now among the largest greenspaces left on the East Bank of Jefferson Parish, the impact the development would have on the residential character of the area and questions about whether the project would succeed dominated the discussion.

“I can’t believe the City Council or whoever are going to let them build a shopping center when we can’t keep up with the shopping centers we have now,” said A.J. Valenti, referring to vacant commercial properties in the city.

The Stirling project is one part of a plan put forward by JW Colonial, which owns the site on Jefferson Highway. The company is a partnership between businessman John Georges, who also owns The New Orleans Advocate and The Advocate, Baton Rouge’s daily newspaper, and developer Wayne Ducote. JW Colonial would sell 10 acres to Stirling if the rezoning is approved and give the company an option to buy 5 more acres.

Developers have said the plans for the shopping center include an “upscale” grocery, restaurants and other stores. Three groceries have expressed interest in the project, Stirling said.

The exact proposal for dealing with drainage and other issues would change depending on exactly how each building on the property was used, Stirling said.

Ray Thompson, who formerly served on both the Planning and Zoning Board and the board of the country club, said there are already serious issues with flooding in the neighborhood.

After showing pictures of water on properties following a storm, Thompson told the board that any new development would just make the matter worse. “Any construction near the highway is going to displace an enormous amount of water,” he said.

Stirling pledged drainage issues would be taken care of by up to 18 acres of retention ponds that would be built next to the shopping center.

Those ponds would be built on a piece of the former Colonial property that would not be part of Stirling’s development through an agreement between his company and Georges, he said.

“I don’t want to be liable for anything,” Stirling said. “My intention is to make it better. I can’t solve the city of Harahan’s drainage problems, but I can make my property work.”

While the shopping center has generated opposition on its own, the looming question of how the rest of the property will be developed has also weighed in the minds of many residents.

Georges has said the overall plan would be to split the property into multiple sections, with the shopping center as the first phase.

The southern-most 20 acres of the site would be largely be split between Georges and Ducote under the proposal they put forward to the council. That portion would not include the former clubhouse, which would be renovated and reopened as a reception hall and restaurant, Georges has said.

That leaves the question of what will happen to the middle 40 acres of the property. In a letter to the council last week, Georges said he would pledge to keep that area undeveloped for a year while he and the city look for a nonprofit, government agency or philanthropist to buy that area and maintain it as a park. If used for that purpose, that property would be sold at a significant discount, he said.

If no one comes forward to purchase the property during that time, it could be turned into a residential development surrounded by an 18-acre linear park, Georges said.

Stirling said the park would not use the same 18 acres that would be used by the retention pond. About 300 houses could be built on the entire property under the current zoning.

Some residents said the plans for the shopping center itself might disrupt a residential area, causing an irrevocable change in the city that could prevent new residents from moving to the area.

“The only thing we have is our sleepy country atmosphere,” Susan Benton said. “If we take that away, we’ll be Metairie. Do we want to be Metairie?”