As the Spanish-American Church heads back to the New Orleans City Council this week for another request to tear down their decaying building on Sophie Wright Place, neighbors and members of the Coliseum Square Association hope the stalemate over the building will lead to stronger enforcement of blight laws against neglectful nonprofits.The Historic District Landmarks Commission had already denied the church’s request in December to demolish the building at 1824 Sophie Wright Place, but the church is appealing that decision to the full City Council in a hearing scheduled for Thursday. The building is open to the elements, basically just “two walls standing with no support,” the church told the commission, arguing that it cannot be saved.
The commission disagreed, saying that the advanced decay of the building is the church’s fault, that it has appeared in before the commission in progressively worse states over the last 10 years, and that there are people who have already offered to buy and renovate the building. Jim McAlister, president of the Coliseum Square Association, made many of the same points as he spoke against the demolition in December, and at the association’s monthly meeting on Monday evening, he urged members to attend the City Council meeting as well.
“I’m planning on attending and speaking,” McAlister said. “The neighborhood has to be united.”
Part of the problem is that code-enforcement fines are attached to property taxes, but lots owned by nonprofits are exempt from taxes under city law. Kara Renne, who lives a few blocks from the building and walks past it daily, asked what it would take for blighted properties owned by nonprofits to lose their tax-exempt status.
“I’m all for them continuing to maintain exempt status, but not when they have mounting code-enforcement fines,” Renne said.
That, McAlister replied, is an issue the City Council would have to answer.
Monday’s discussion took place in a new meeting location for the association — a former church under renovation. Chris and Jessica Jones bought the 103-year-old Felicity Church about three years ago, and after painstakingly restoring its exterior to keep the elements out, are now renovating the interior. They live in the parsonage house out back, and have used the church’s lofty sanctuary for private art shows and other events.
The Spanish-American church’s building is clearly in bad shape, Chris Jones said, but it could come back in a similar way.
“It’s a shame that it’s such a problem,” Jones said. “It seems like something could be done with it. Certainly there’s the know-how in this neighborhood to figure out a use for the building. There are ways to make it function.”