Tensions Ease Between A New Orleans Church And A Mall's Developers

(This article is published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the May 13, 2013 edition.)

Ground breaking for Magnolia Marketplace--a two-story mall on nearly seven acres off South Claiborne Ave. at Toledano St. in New Orleans--is slated for the third quarter of this year and a bit later than planned. Meanwhile, friction between the mall and nearby First Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, built in 1916, has eased. Life-long, First Calvary member Jocquelyn Marshall said her church seems satisfied with an accord ironed out early this year with the help of New Orleans Councilmember LaToya Cantrell.

Last year, worries were that First Calvary, an African American church located on what's now a small spur of Sixth St., would be hemmed in between Magnolia Marketplace on the city's riverside and busy Claiborne Ave. to the north, limiting Sunday morning parking.

But now Marshall, an associate project manager at non-profit Urban Strategies and a former Harmony Oaks Neighborhood Association president, is waiting for the jobs, retail activity and makeover that the mall--to be built north of the Harmony Oaks residences--will bring to the area. Mixed-income, 460-unit Harmony Oaks, finished in 2011, was previously C.J. Peete housing. And before that, it was the site of the Magnolia Projects for many decades.

Tara Hernandez, president of JCH Development on Poydras St., said a good neighbor agreement negotiated with Magnolia Marketplace, LLC in January addresses parking. "The church has no off-street parking now and they don't have access to their rear yard," she said last week. "We're giving them something they don't have--access to the rear yard for cars and parking spaces at the Marketplace."

Magnolia Marketplace, LLC is a joint venture between JCH Development and Stirling Properties in New Orleans, along with Central City Partners--a subsidiary of the developer of C.J. Peete.

LaToya Cantrell's office last week said the accord gives the church 30 undesignated parking spaces on the first level of the mall's planned garage, to be used anytime the church's on-site parking is full. In addition, Magnolia Marketplace has agreed to build its complex with the fewest-possible disruptions to the neighborhood. The accord is effective as long as the church is under current ownership. First Calvary is within Cantrell's District B.

Last week, Cantrell said church members once parked on nearby streets but road configurations have changed. Marshall said members often park on nearby grass. Cantrell said "parking needs increase when large numbers of people turn out for a holiday service, a wedding or a funeral. It's something you can't necessarily plan on." .

Cantrell continued, saying "First Mount Calvary, a faith-based social and recreation center, has been a pillar of the community for Central City residents for generations." She said her role in negotiating with developers early this year was to make sure that the church's pastor, Reverend Uyless Landry Sr., and his constituents were represented.

Church member Jocquelyn Marshall said tensions with developers grew last year. One concern was that the spur of Sixth St. off Claiborne might be closed, denying access to the church by car. The spur will remain open, however. Another worry was about a request that First Mount Calvary not alter its exterior without consulting the Marketplace. "Naturally, the church had a problem with that," Marshall said. That request from developers was rescinded.

As Marshall understands it, the mall's developers agreed to help with repairs to the exterior of the stucco church, along with some landscaping. When asked about that last week, Cantrell also thought Magnolia Marketplace had offered to assist with the church's exterior. But Hernandez at JCH Development said the good neighbor accord covers parking only.

Marshall has talked with her pastor, Reverend Landry, since January, and she said "he seems satisfied with the agreement." Last week, however, Landry had no comment about the church and Magnolia Marketplace.

Marshall estimated that First Mount Calvary has anywhere between 100 and 160 members, not counting the choir and officers. She's seen as many as 200 people in the church on an Easter Sunday and during funerals. "Sometimes people are standing behind the pews in the back, " she said. "They'll drive in from other neighborhoods."

Gloria Williams, current president of the Harmony Oaks Neighborhood Association, belongs to another church in the area. Her thoughts about the marketplace are mostly positive. She said "retail businesses are truly needed here. We have senior citizens without cars, and a number of us can't ride public transportation."

But Williams wants to make sure that the mall employs neighborhood residents. "I plan to talk with Tara Hernandez about jobs soon," she said. "That includes jobs for adults and part-time positions for our boys and girls, who need to keep busy in the summer."

Hernandez said Magnolia's developers will hold a jobs open house for Orleans Parish residents, but they haven't decided on a date or location yet. "We'll work with Urban Strategies and we'll contact Harmony Oaks with job information, probably in the third quarter or later this year," she said. Hernandez said it's too early to estimate how many construction and permanent positions the mall will create.

Urban Strategies Inc., a non-profit based in St. Louis, works with Harmony Oaks on social services and educational options.

So how did Magnolia Marketplace acquire its site? Developers purchased the land--which is a portion of the former C.J. Peete complex left after Harmony Oaks was built--from the Housing Authority of New Orleans for $900,000.in March of last year.

When asked about businesses in the complex, a Stirling Properties executive said last week that Tara Hernandez of JCH was the only person authorized to comment publicly on Magnolia Marketplace. But a Stirling website, updated last week, showed lease signers as T.J. Maxx, Ross Dress For Less, PetSmart, Michaels Stores for arts and crafts, Shoe Carnival, ULTA Beauty and Raising Cane's. Several spaces for small shops on the ground floor and a "junior anchor business" were still available last week.

According to Stirling Properties, Claiborne Ave. is the most heavily traveled artery between the city's uptown area--where the planned mall is--and downtown and the central business district. Average daily traffic exceeds 70,000 cars.

Last week, Marshall said she doesn't mind development as long as it's for the better. She said "a run-down neighborhood attracts crime. If you live in a community that looks nice, residents take care of it and that makes things safer."

Before it was branded as C.J. Peete, the neighborhood from 1941 to 2008 was the Magnolia Projects--giving the new mall its name. Known for its high murder rate, the Magnolia Projects also produced many musicians, particularly rap and bounce artists who have achieved national, commercial success.

As for the church, Marshall said First Mount Calvary is a treasured part of her own history. She grew up in the former, public housing complex but said she likes Harmony Oaks. Since Harmony Oaks is mixed income, she lives among former C.J. Peete residents, along with new arrivals. "I'm making some new friends here," she said. "But it means a lot to me to go to my childhood church and be among the congregation I grew up with." And that's especially true because her current work at Urban Strategies is mainly in San Antonio and Tampa. end