The Isidore Newman School’s plan to incorporate two historic homes on Loyola Street into its new early childhood education center won praise from neighbors Tuesday night, but the broader zoning changes to property around the campus caused some concern.
Newman has applied for a number of land-use changes around its campus, but its only immediate plans are to build the early-childhood center and to use a house on the corner of Danneel and Jefferson for the headmaster’s home, school officials said Tuesday at a meeting with about two dozen neighbors. Several other buildings the school owns — including, most notably, the former Auto-Painting building at Dufossat and Danneel will be rezoned for “school use” to unify the land use across the campus, said school attorney Justin Schmidt.
“The city’s asked us to pull all of this under one net,” Schmidt said.
The early-childhood center will have a different impact on the neighborhood than an actual school, said Newman Head of School T.J. Locke. Children will be picked up and dropped off throughout the day instead of set dismissal times, so traffic will be staggered through the day. Of the 75-student maximum, half will likely be siblings of current Newman students or children of faculty members, so they won’t necessarily add new traffic to the school site.
The early-childhood center drew little comment from the audience, whose questions immediately focused on the larger structure known as the “Auto Paint” building on Dufossat, currently used only for storage space. The school’s zoning change map labels the building as space for nine “future” classrooms, but officials said that was only done so that the amount of parking needed for classrooms there could be calculated — there are no plans to do anything with the building at all.
“There’s no plan to actually do anything with that,” Locke said. “‘Future’ means future future.”
“We will now be required to provide nine spaces for classrooms that do not exist,” Schmidt said.
The condition of that building, said nearby neighbor Shelley Landrieu, does not reflect well on either the school or the neighborhood.
“You purchased it however many years ago and it still looks pretty bad,” Landrieu said. “It’s not enhancing the neighborhood.”
The school has not discussed repairs to it, Locke said, but said her point was valid. “In terms of making it look nicer, we haven’t had that conversation yet,” he said..
Several residents and neighborhood leaders expressed concern that once the Auto-Paint building and the headmaster’s home at 1803 Jefferson are granted “school use” status, they can be changed to nearly any other use without either the city’s or the neighbors’ approval. (The only exception is for the addition of more classrooms to any building.)
Locke countered that the school’s population has fallen from about 1160 before Hurricane Katrina to 925 students now, lessening the need to expand.
“We’re not bursting at the seams within our own structures where we need more classroom space,” Locke said, rejecting the idea that the school has plans to purchase more property on the block with Auto-Paint. “There’s really no need. This isn’t very strategic for us.”
Several neighbors also worried that the headmaster’s house could one day become some sort of reception house. With its current residential zoning already appropriate for the headmaster’s house, they asked whether that home could simply be left out of the application.
The school already has ample space to host events, Locke said, so such a center is not considered a need. But the house is the last parcel on Newman’s four blocks not zoned for the school, so he said the current process is the time to change that.
“I don’t think our board would wish to lose that flexibility,” Locke said of leaving the house out of the zoning request.
Several neighbors said, however, the use of the house as an actual home creates a buffer between the school and the neighborhood.
“Newman, like all the other schools, keeps trying to jump blocks and encroach on the neighborhood,” Landrieu said. “I bought in the neighborhood because Newman is a stabilizing factor, but I don’t want to be gobbled up by it.”
School officials were also criticized by several people for what they saw as insufficient notice to neighbors and nearby neighborhood associations, which include Baronne Street, Hurstville and Freret Neighbors United. Joe Friend, the immediate past president of the Baronne Street Neighborhood Association, asked the school to postpone its hearing before the City Planning Commission to give him time to communicate the school’s plans back to his neighborhood.
“You should have notified those neighborhood associations that adjoin you,” Friend said. “The request is only so that we can explain this to our neighbors.”
The hearing has already been advertised by the city and cannot be postponed, Schmidt said, though he noted that any decision will also have to be ratified by the city council, which will give neighborhoods plenty of time for Newman’s plans to circulate in the neighborhood. The City Planning Commission meeting is set for 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 26, in the city council chambers.
[Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly identified the street closest to the proposed headmaster’s home and storage building. The cross street for both is Danneel Street, and this article has been corrected.]