Interest by a French-immersion charter school in buying the long-vacant Priestley school site in west-Carrollton has galvanized a group called the “P-Town Project” into seeking a Healing Center-style home for fresh food and social services there instead.
Members of the group discussed their vision Thursday night before the monthly meeting of the Carrollton Riverbend Neighborhood Association, which has long fought the renovation of Priestley — most recently as a better location for the students of the former Johnson Elementary school. After Hurricane Katrina, state school officials had briefly included the renovation of Priestley in their master plan for spending $1.8 billion in FEMA rebuilding money, then removed Priestley from the plan but promised to explore the possibility of renovating it.
After the Recovery School District closed Johnson, however, the Orleans Parish School Board designated Priestley surplus property. According to state law, charter schools have the right of first refusal to surplus school properties, and after touring the building, officials at the Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans sent a letter expressing interest in buying the property as a possible middle school for near its appraisal price of $360,000.
The “P-Town Project,” which has a website that launched in April, posted an article in late June titled “Why French Lycée is the Worst Option For the Priestley Building,” which says little about Lycée itself and more about the issues of economic inequality and gentrification. Likewise, the presentation by P-Town Project organizer Britt Gondolfi on Thursday focused its attention on a vision for the building that she and others refer to as a “Healing Center 2.0.”
“The concern of many residents is that a French immersion school will not suit the needs of the children,” said Gabriel Flores. “Is Lycée our best and only option?”
The P-Town Project proposes that Priestley become a multi-use building with a food cooperative with fresh-grown vegetables, a neighborhood business incubator, and a variety of social-service providers, such as a free clinic, educational programs, legal-aid services and a daycare. Its gym could be used for athletic activities and its grounds could be used as a park.
The building and site itself, the organizers say, should be given directly to a neighborhood-owned nonprofit to be used by everyone.
“We’re missing a public space, and that’s why we’re seeing a divide in our community,” Gondolfi said.
Gondolfi was joined in her presentation by the Rev. Steve Gomez of the Faith In Prayer Missionary Baptist Church at 8720 Green Street, who is hosting weekly meetings about the use of the space. Resident and former Priestley student Tammy Butler said all the group is asking for is that the sale of Priestley be delayed by a year, so the neighborhood group has time to organize and raise funds.
“We have this brilliant opportunity here,” said CRNA resident Robbie Robertson. “If we are cut out of the picture, it will be what I think of as morally outrageous, and the school board needs to know that.”
Organizers said they recognize that the School Board cannot by law give the property to them, and that the process clearly gives charter schools first right to the building — followed by a public auction at which a private developer could outbid them on it. Instead, they called on the City Council to negotiate with the School Board to take ownership of it, and then move forward with the P-Town Project’s vision from there.
Meanwhile, the neighborhood remains host to a number of other community center projects. Nicole Bouie of Community Commitment noted briefly that her organization has been providing similar educational services for five years, and recently opened their building at 8540 Spruce. The new home of Hollygrove-based Trinity Christian Community is intended to be in the 1700 block of Monroe, though controversy over that project continues. And entrepreneur Tilman Hardy said in March that progress is continuing on his project, the Leonidas House.
No decisions were made by the Carrollton Riverbend Neighborhood Association on Thursday night, and association president Barry Brantley noted that another presentation on the Priestley site is expected next month. The 25 or so people who attended Thursday generally agreed, however, that the association is a suitable forum to host the ongoing conversation.
“This is not a debate,” Brantley said. “This is simply a presentation of concerns.”
To read our live coverage of the meeting, see below.