Condos near river OK'd

Unanimous vote conceals controversy
Thursday, July 14, 2005By Dennis Persica
West Bank bureau
After more than an hour of debate, the Gretna City Council gave the go-ahead Wednesday to a controversial plan to build a 155-unit condominium tower on the city's riverfront.

Though the council's action was unanimous, the 5-0 vote masked a contentious debate over the issue.
The matter had been deferred from the June council meeting because council members and city officials wanted more time to review the plans. Several officials expressed concern at the scale of the project and whether it would fit in with the old residential neighborhood of downtown Gretna.

In the intervening month, developers Jerard and Jason Ward scaled down their plans from the original two-tower project with 224 units to a single building. They reduced the height of the building from 220 feet to 210 feet and from 16 floors to 15.

The cost of the original project was estimated at $90 million; the new one will cost about $45 million, the developers said.

The development is proposed for a 2.5-acre site between First Street and the Mississippi River levee near Amelia Street. Developers said construction would begin at the end of 2007 and take between 14 and 18 months.

Mayor Ronnie Harris was visibly aggravated by the developers as he spoke, complaining that the revised site plans had never been presented to the city officials in charge of reviewing them.

"The problem I have is there is no site plan that matches up with what was discussed tonight," Harris said.

Attorney Paul Mayronne, who spoke for the Wards at the meeting, said the developers "believe we were working under the guidelines." He said the developers had met several times with site-plan review officials before the June 11 council meeting and that no one from the city administration has requested additional information from the developers since then.

City Councilman Jonathan Bolar told Harris that the city's site-plan review officials should have asked for additional information from the developers.

"I think that is a ludicrous statement," Harris told Bolar, saying he didn't think it was the responsibility of his employees to go "chasing" developers to get information from them.

The vote was the first major controversy to face Councilwoman Belinda Constant, who was elected in April and took office July 1.

Constant proposed, and the council approved, a number of changes to the ordinance, including a concession by the developer to pay $62,000 toward developing a master plan for Gretna Green, a vacant property straddling Huey P. Long Avenue that was home to Gretna High School.

The changes also require the developers to pay for the installation of a 12-inch water line to feed the new development and vibration monitoring to make sure the construction work does not damage nearby buildings.

But Constant's amendments did not address what was probably the biggest objection to the tower proposal: its size.

Residents have said the building will obstruct their view of the river and its size also is out of character with the neighborhood.

"Sixteen stories was too tall last month and it's still too tall this month," resident Michael Schaferkotter said.

Mayronne said the Wards' new plan represents "a reduction in scope and intensity and in density."

Instead of two condominium towers, the new plans call for one tower, a building that dog-legs to match a bend in the river at the site. The first three floors will be reserved for parking, providing about two spaces per unit.

Mayronne said all condominium units will face the river and that the developers also have added air-conditioned storage units to the tower, one for each residential unit.

Developers also need a permit from the West Jefferson Levee District because it involves land so close to the levee.

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Dennis Persica can be reached at dpersica@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3783.