The Holy Cross neighborhood is tucked against the levee in the Lower 9th Ward. It takes its name from the historic Holy Cross School, which flooded after Katrina and re-opened in Gentilly, leaving behind a 13-acre campus of rolling fields reaching to the levees, and a vacant administration building with graceful, wrought-iron balconies.
There aren’t a lot of parks in the Lower 9. So the levee is used for exercise, picnicking and relaxing.
“It’s a very friendly, old-country like atmosphere,” says Kim Ford, Vice President of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association. “We look in people's faces and greet each other.”
Ford says that a proposed high-rise condo development is now threatening to interrupt the small town feel of Holy Cross, a neighborhood of one and two-family homes.
Ford and others opposed to the development say the fight against the developer, Perez APC, has not been a fair one. They accuse the developer of forging signatures and making empty promises in exchange for support.
In one community meeting about the project, Ford says she thought the developer and the district city councilman seemed too cozy.
“I watched the councilman and the developer sitting there like they were best friends, laughing and chatting while the people in my community were in total distress,” Ford said.
So, she organized her neighbors to march in protest of the plan. As they marched, Ford says, they repeated the mantra “I’m from the Nine, you can’t take mine!”
Vanessa Gueringer marched with her. Gueringer is a long time Lower 9 activist and lifetime resident who has never shied away from clashing with elected officials over the direction of recovery.
She says that some of the same people who are absent from community meetings are the first to speak at city meetings when the cameras are on. She says that some local ministers are the worst offenders.
“There’s been a history here, where if they could sell Jesus off the cross they would,” Gueringer says. “For a dollar.”
Gueringer also believes Perez APC has made empty promises to the community.
“You feed into people’s hunger to have jobs in the community, and they say, ‘We can bring you a grocery store, we can bring you a school,’” says Gueringer. “Folks said ‘well, it’s going to provide housing.’ But housing for who?”
She saves some of the harshest words for Pastor Leonard Lucas of the Light City Church. Pastor Lucas has been one of the most vocal supporters of building the highrises.
The head of Perez APC, Angela O’Byrne, believes that change is what is needed in Holy Cross.
“I think this is a change and change is hard,” says O’Byrne. “It’s especially hard when people are unsure. It’s fear of the unknown.”
O’Byrne says opposition to development is common.
“They are going to love it when it’s done, I do believe that,” she says.
Sarah DeBacher is not so sure. She moved to Holy Cross with her husband six years ago. They’re now expecting their second child. DeBacher’s backyard is right next to the proposed development.
She has spent most of the last year in community meetings organizing alternative plans for the school site. What angered her most was a PR campaign by the developer to generate support, after talks with the neighborhood association stalled out.
“When it became clear to them that they were not going to be getting community support, they needed to create something that would allow them to manufacture the illusion of community support,” DeBacher said.
The illusion of community support included a website created by the developer called “Revive Lower 9”. At first glance, it seems to be a general interest site dedicated to the revival of the neighborhood. But it’s actually part of the developer’s PR campaign devised to generate support for the condos.
Oddly, a news article promoting the project appeared in a student newspaper in Massachussetts and was later retracted because of a conflict of interest. It turns out, the author of the article works for the company that O’Byrne hired to run the PR campaign.
Petitions in support of the project included properties with falsified information.
And fueling even more suspicion about the developer’s intentions, an unsigned contract between Angela O’Byrne and a political consultant promised to deliver positive media stories and supportive speakers at public meetings.
O’Byrne denies ever seeing the contract.
“The developer has been doing some pretty awful stuff with this marketing campaign,” said DeBacher.
Looking out towards the site of the condo towers, she says that what is at stake is not only the proposed condo towers.
“We are on the right side of a moral issue about how development gets driven and who drives development,” DeBacher said. “In my heart of hearts, I think that we will be able to get through to our city council people.”
While the neighborhood waits for the next move, the developer waits for the necessary permission to rezone.
A final decision could be reached at the City Council meeting on Thursday.
To read more about the proposed highrise development in Holy Cross, visit The Lens.