Jan 062012
 

An entryway at the old LaSalle school. (photo courtesy of David J. L'Hoste, djlphoto.com)

In November, after months of negotiations with Orleans Parish School Board, developer Jim MacPhaille finally completed his purchase of the century-old LaSalle school on Perrier Street.

Later that month, MacPhaille met again with neighbors to the property, who have been enthusiastic about his latest plans to redevelop the building into a handful of spacious condos.

Then, sometime over the holidays, a crew of professional thieves showed up and stole what MacPhaille estimates as $100,000 worth of copper out of the building.

Developer Jim MacPhaille and his wife, Catherine, place the winning bid on the LaSalle building during April's auction. (Sabree Hill, UptownMessenger.com)

MacPhaille, who attended school at LaSalle himself, originally won the building at an Orleans Parish School Board property auction on a last-minute bid of just under $2.5 million in April. He hadn’t actually planned on buying it when he went, he said later; the decision was based primarily on he and his wife’s desire to “save the building.”

“I wanted to go there and see what happened,” MacPhaille would later say of the auction. “I just got kind of emotional, because I did go to school there with some of my neighbors.”

Complications with the title, however, meant months of legal work for attorneys before he could close on the purchase in November. And a nearby project, construction of apartments overlooking Audubon Park, had just completed, allowing him to focus on LaSalle.

“Now the party begins,” MacPhaille said in an interview shortly after the sale finalized. “It’s going to be an exciting project.”

In addition to his sentimental attachment to the building, its solid, classic construction appealed to MacPhaille.

“It’s bulletproof, like those old warehouses downtown. They were built right, and strong,” MacPhaille said. “It’s going to be there for a long time.”

The LaSalle school exterior. (photo by David J. L'Hoste, djlphoto.com)

MacPhaille had been meeting regularly with members of the Upper Hurstville Residents Association, who viewed MacPhaille’s plans for a low-density condo development as a surprisingly good outcome for the building, which has been vacant since the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts moved out a decade ago. Residents had worried that the property, situated on narrow side streets, might be resurrected as a school (bringing traffic and noise), that some sort of high-density residential project might be proposed, that the landmark might be demolished, or that it might simply continue to fester from neglect.

Based on his conversations with prospective tenants, MacPhaille had decided to reduce the condo project’s density even from his original idea of 15 or 18 down to a dozen, creating larger living spaces. His market is recent retirees looking to downsize a large home into a more walkable neighborhood, but many now have grandchildren and want space for them to stay when they visit, he said.

The development will have every amenity, MacPhaille said: off-street parking with individual garages, a small pool and playground, a French Quarter-style courtyard, oversize elevators, separate entrances for each unit, security systems and cameras, an exercise room, an inside playroom and possibly even space for a doorman. The project will seek to preserve as many trees as possible, and is projected to take between two and five years to complete.

The neighborhood remains concerned about the details of the project, such as the process for removing the asbestos inside, but MacPhaille has pledged to keep them up to date and in general views the renovation warmly.

“Everything is fine,” said association president Karen Duncan. “[It’s] actually less density than we approved.”

At that point, the project was rolling forward smoothly. MacPhaille’s plans had the tentative blessing of both the neighborhood and the city’s preservation community, who were glad to see the historic building saved. Prior to the gutting work, MacPhaille gave a tour of the property to his brother-in-law, David J. L’Hoste, an attorney and photographer, resulting in a luminous photo essay documenting both the deteriorating condition and the rich colors of the property. (They also discovered intriguing details from its earlier incarnations: “Class of 1903” scrawled on beams in the attic, and boxes of original Apple computers.)

Little more than a month later, MacPhaille headed to the building earlier this week to meet with representatives of the Preservation Resource Center and his contractor, when he discovered the elaborate and destructive theft of every scrap of copper in the building. MacPhaille estimates the value of the copper stolen at nearly $100,000, but said the damage to the building itself would cost more like $600,000 or $700,000 to repair if he wasn’t gutting it already.

“We believe it was a crew, as they had ladders on several floors and it seemed as if the job was well-organized,” MacPhaille wrote in an email Tuesday. “They used ladders, bolt cutters, and battery operated tools to cut out and take down the water pipes, some gutters, the wiring, and even pulled out window a/cs to get the copper out of those units too.They also took the brass grab bars, door knobs and other metal objects.”

“It looked like these were electricians,” MacPhaille added in an interview Friday. “It’s amazing how organized they were.”

MacPhaille dates the theft to between Dec. 23 and Jan. 1, and says it appears the material was dragged through building and out the front door, where some sort of van or truck must have been waiting to carry it. Anyone who saw any vehicle there during the holidays or any other suspicious activity is urged to call NOPD Second District property-crimes detectives at 658-6020.

MacPhaille praised the responding officers’ professionalism, but said he was disappointed that they chose not to look for fingerprints based on the dangerous condition of the building. He and the contractor later noticed a coffee cup that appeared to be left behind by the thieves atop one of the pilfered air-conditioning units, and he said he’s considering hiring a private investigator to continue looking into it. When told about a copper theft at an Entergy substation Friday that caused a major outage in the Carrollton area, MacPhaille said he couldn’t help but think they were connected based on the difficulty of the jobs.

MacPhaille is now meeting with contractors to begin emergency repairs next week, and is scheduled for his first hearing before the city in April for a conditional use permit to convert the school into condos. The theft won’t substantially delay the project in the long run, but is aggravating, he said.

“My loss is going to be about a a hundred grand,” MacPhaille said. “Is that going to stop the project? No. But somebody’s got to stop this.”

Contact Robert Morris at rmorris@NolaMessenger.com, or post your comment below.

  11 Responses to “Developer takes possession of old LaSalle school; thieves take possession of $100k worth of copper from it”

  1. Sad to see this. A guy saving a beautiful beautiful building through private enterprise, a building the city let rot over the years & was off the tax rolls. Hope these thieves get caught & thrown in jail for a long time.

  2. I propose the City Council enact a curfew for copper theives. They absolutely must be off the streets by 8 p.m.

  3. The article has an error re when NOCCA moved from the LaSalle School building to NOCCA’s Bywater/Marigny location. Robert Morris’ article gives readers the idea that NOCCA’s been in that location for one year. Actually, NOCCA moved to its Bywater/Marigny location in 2000 (unless there was a small group of NOCCA students still using the Perrier Street facility).
    So, the building has been vacant for at least the last 10 or 11 years.

    • Wendy, you are absolutely right, and the article has been corrected. We’ve reported that the school has been vacant since before Katrina in the past, and photographer David L’Hoste’s gallery that we link to makes the same point. I don’t know how that mistake crept into my writing, but thank you for pointing it out.

  4. I am thinking finding boxes of original apple computers might help, there are suppossed to be quite valuable.

  5. I live about four blocks from there. I was actually hoping for more density — neighbors don’t seem to understand that more density means lower crime, better quality businesses, more socializing, more political clout for our hood, etc. And is better for the city overall.

    But in any case, I’m just really excited that a local, quality building has possession of it, and will save this gem before it completely implodes. Even with the very low density, it will bring more life to the hood, eliminate and eye soar, and bring more tax revenue to the city coffers.

    I worry only that Mr. MacPhallie is careful to preserve some the amazing historic details in that building.

  6. I was a student at LaSalle from 1943 – 1951 and I remember having many great times there. Like many of the boys and girls in the neighborhood I have many wonderful memories of this school. I go by it everytime I go to New Orleans and I am glad to see that it is being cleaned up and turned into some condos.

    an out of towner
    Jan. 6,2012

  7. Copper theft will not be going away any time soon. Check out a security device to protect air conditioners from copper theft called the CopperWatcher.

  8. I was a member of NOCCA’s 2nd graduating class (1977). It’s pretty heartbreaking to see the damage time & negligence have wrought on the building we students called home, but nothing compares with the breach of trust this developer must feel. Here’s this honorable guy who comes to the rescue of not only the building, but the neighborhood and a little history. It must feel awful to get to the building you just bought and encounter this damage. Worse yet to have to pay for it. I guess it’s still a better bet for the copper thieves to risk the dangers of theft than to get a non-living wage job. I’ll bet if NOPD were to go after the guys/businesses that collect, pay for & melt down the copper, some progress could be made. Feedback? Also, somebody missed a DNA opportunity by not using that coffee cup!

  9. I used to take my dad there to vote many years ago. Great old school. Glad someone is willing and able to develop it into lower density than the neighborhood agreed. So many grandparents do have younger grandkids (and older “kids”) staying for “extended visits” these past few years.

    Those copper thieves will get what’s coming to them – one day.

  10. […] cottage at the former LaSalle school at 6048 Perrier. The school building itself is being renovated into 13 condo units, but the caretaker’s cottage is too far gone to be saved, said Schmidt, representing […]

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