NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - The city reports it has demolished more than 1,200 properties in New Orleans East over the past eight years, but a few highly visible blighted properties remain sore sights from the Interstate, and residents are fed up.
"That's all we hear. This is coming, that's coming, but we don't see any development happening," community advocate Dawn Hebert said. "This is a deterrent for the investors," longtime New Orleans East resident Marcia McWilliams explained.
Their community, for years, has felt forgotten since Katrina.
"It's been 12 years, and they haven't done anything," McWilliams said.
Many blame big blighted commercial properties along I-10. A mural that reads "We got work to do" on one of the area's most visible eyesores, expresses residents' thoughts exactly when it comes to the old Grand Theatre on the former Lake Forest Plaza site off I-10 and Read Blvd.
In 2013, District E City Council member James Gray told FOX 8, "In the very near future, we are gonna hear about a development on that site."
At the time, he explained that a development with 50-plus stores was in the works for that site that could dwarf the old Plaza Mall. Five years later, the old Grand appears to have only deteriorated even more.
"Every time I pass this building with the broken windows, the boarded up entrances it really upsets me, because this is hampering our chances of getting economic development," Hebert said. "New Orleans East was gonna be green space, but I guess too many of us showed back up, and once we showed up they're saying, 'We're gonna teach you that we're not gonna do anything for you,'" Arthur Busby said.
The Orleans Assessor's website shows the Grand Theater's landowner is Lake Forest Plaza LLC. The only manager and member of that LLC according to the Louisiana Secretary of State's website, is Ashton Ryan, former head of the recently failed First NBC Bank. The partnership Grand of the East LLC leased the land and built the theater pre Katrina. Members of that group include Ryan, George Solomon, Jr. and Alden McDonald.
McDonald and Ryan didn't return our call. Solomon responded to our request for comment in an email saying, "You need to contact Ashton Ryan."
The city's BlightStat website shows the property has been cited for more than 20 code enforcement violations, but the last time that happened was nearly five years ago in 2013. City of New Orleans Communications Director Tyronne Walker tells FOX 8, "because the underlying land and the building are separately owned, code enforcement's traditional seizure and sale process cannot be executed."
Before Katrina, the partnership that owns the building received a multi million dollar HUD loan to help with construction costs, but Walker says, "the entity that owns the building has gone bankrupt." He went on to say, "the loan was a bad deal for taxpayers, as the ownership structure and loan documents leave the city and taxpayers with limited recourse."
According to the city, the total owed, including interest is more than $6.2 million.
"I think we wanted to do things standard and properly, but you're talking 12 years now. I mean how long do people have to wait to get things moving?" asked District E City Council member-elect Cyndi Nguyen.
She believes a different path needs to be taken to move forward.
"I think one of my thoughts was to basically take that loss that we have.. the city.. and put it at the end, and get the developer in, and I also believe in putting in a very robust incentive package to help potential new developers that have a very strong record," Nguyen said.
Another highly visible eyesore can be seen not far from the old Grand Theatre off I-10 in the East. "(It's the) first thing you see when you come over the High Rise," Busby said. An old hotel has been vacant since Katrina, and over the summer someone covered it in graffiti.
"We have been waiting for years for something to be done with that building so time is up," Hebert said. Local developer and building owner Peter Gardner tells FOX 8, something is being done. Gardner, who bought the building in June, allowed our camera inside where crews have cleared four of the hotel's floors of furniture, like beds, dressers and debris. They've got five more floors to go.
Gardner says he plans to redevelop the building into a hotel or apartments and begin construction by the end of the year. If that doesn't work out, he's promised the city to at least paint over the graffiti by September. First he's waiting to see whether the building is eligible to be listed on the National Register for Historic Places because he says it turns 50 in the Spring. That could mean tax credits to help with the renovation, but if it doesn't work in his favor, Gardner told FOX 8 it won't stop his plans.
The city confirmed the developer has provided it with a plan and is working with the Office of Economic Development. "If violations persist and meaningful progress on the development stops, the property will proceed to a code hearing," Walker said.
"I'm gonna continue to work with him (Gardner) as the next city council person to help remove barriers for him within my own limitation," Nguyen explained.
The old Grand Theatre and vacant hotel at the High Rise are both symbols of Katrina blight that don't exactly welcome people to the East, but passionate residents say they're not going to back away. "We're going to go to the city and hold the city accountable and responsible for them to hold the owners accountable and responsible to eradicate this blight," McWilliams said.
The city tells FOX 8 it has made over $200 million in public investments on the Read Boulevard corridor to spur private development in the area.
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