NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - It's an area of the city that at times has struggled to rebound post-Katrina, where empty lots and frustrated residents are plenty. But one elected official says all hope isn't lost in New Orleans East.
Tony Tran beams with pride as he show off relics of Vietnamese saints inside his New Orleans East church. Everything at Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, located just off Chef Menteur Highway, is meticulously cared for.
"Appearance is very important," Tran said.
The same can't be said for some of the land around this place of worship.
"Traveling down from Chef Menteur Highway you can see abandoned apartments and overgrown trees," Tran said.
Some haven't been touched since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the area. Other parts of New Orleans East are also stuck in time.
One of the most visible signs of Katrina's lingering impact is the old Grand Theatre. Driving along I-10 heading East from downtown, you can't miss it. A mural on its side promotes messages of peace, love and change. But not much has changed here. In fact, over the years, the city cited the property for numerous code enforcement violations.
New Orleans City Councilman James Gray said the Landrieu administration is very close to sealing a deal with a developer to bring new life to the site - if it can work out the money issue.
"The plan that we have is not to develop that into a theater,but to tear it down and to build retail there," Tran said.
A city spokesperson said leaders have demanded repayment of a $6.2 million HUD loan made in 2001 under the Nagin administration.
"That land owes the city an amount of money and the city is trying to figure out how to get their money," Gray said.
According to Gray, a group of business owners own the property. First NBC Bank President Ashton Ryan is one of the owners and the group's spokesman, according to the councilman. We reached out to Ryan, but he chose not to comment for this story.
If the money issue does get resolved, Gray said residents can look forward to a massive retail space that will span from Read Boulevard to Plaza Drive and from the I-10 Service Road to Lake Forest Boulevard.
Not too far from there, about six minutes away, sits another "can't miss" eyesore rotting along the interstate. It's the old Holiday Inn at the foot of the I-10 high rise.
"There have been a couple of sweeps where it has been cleaned up," Gray said.
Yet today, mattresses and pieces of furniture are perched on balconies of the old hotel. Paint is chipped and walls are covered in graffiti. The imposing structure looks old. Just like the theater, the city also cited the decrepit hotel for code enforcement violations. An administrative hearing last year found the owners guilty, and the property sold in October for $166,000.
"I don't know anything about the buyer. A buyer bought it at auction. Whether it's a developer who bought it or somebody who wants to resell it for profit, either way we're going to continue the process of imposing liens on it until it's no longer blighted," Gray said.
We found out the new owner is Jonathan Wallick, president of Wallick Construction and Restoration. He chose not to answer our inquiries about what he envisions for the site, but according to Gray, he's got less than three months to come up with a plan. The councilman said he's encouraged at the thought of positive change but admits, sometimes enticing developers to invest in his community can be a challenge.
Metairie mom Amy Scandaliato knows all about that challenge.
"I think a lot of people, I don't know why, think not so good things about New Orleans East," Scandaliato said.
Acting on a whim, the single mom and her friend purchased a plot of land in a city auction last year, for $12,000. Scandaliato, who grew up in the East, bought the property on Chef Menteur Highway near Michoud in an effort to help rejuvenate the dilapidated apartment complex
"I've never developed anything in my life, never flipped anything - never - and I thought, OK, maybe we can do something with this and bring some housing to the city, because I know it's needed here."
The broken-down 163 units sit on four acres, all left vacant since the storm.
Scandaliato said it seemed like a steal of a deal, but she ran into "crickets, nobody wanted to help."
"The minute I would tell people where it was, and I would give them the address, it was like, no, we don't develop in that area," Scandaliato said.
She can't figure out, why but Tony Tran at Mary Queen of Vietnam thinks he knows.
"Safety issue is the main concern of the people," Tran said.
He said the abandoned lots and empty homes near his church, just blocks from the land Scandaliato purchased, make it too easy for criminals to loiter.
Feeling like she's exhausted all resources, Scandaliato is now selling the property she had such high hopes for, leaving this blighted, overgrown lot to sit, just as it has for the past 11 years.
"I would love to see something done with that, believe me, I would," Scandaliato said.
Tony Tran thinks if just one person invests in this neighborhood, it may spur further growth and help transform this area into similar neighborhoods in the East, where new shopping and housing options are helping to draw people back to the streets they once called home.