New Cohen College Prep High School asking city to ease parking requirements

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Rendering of the new Walter L. Cohen High School by HMS Architects.

By Emily Carmichael, Uptown Messenger

As the old Walter L. Cohen College Prep High School building nears its demolition, community members gave their feedback on the structure that will replace it, zeroing in on parking and the auditorium.

A second community meeting was held Thursday for the project at 3520 Dryades St., which is seeking permission to have fewer parking spots and fewer loading docks than required by zoning regulations. Regulations require 154 parking spaces and two loading docks. The current plans for the new school building have 40 parking spaces and one loading dock.

Attendees said this would not be enough parking spaces to accommodate the building’s full capacity of 600 students and 75 faculty members, and would result in an overflow of on-street parking that could damage lawns, congest streets and inconvenience neighbors.

“I don’t see how that works with the community, and I don’t see how it makes Cohen part of the community,” one attendee said. “It makes Cohen an adversary, and that’s not what anyone wants.”

The same attendee described questioning the school administrators about parking in phone calls before the meeting. In her conversations, she said, she learned the number of parking spaces was not determined by any research on how to best meet the school’s needs but what worked with the design.

Multiple attendees suggested the designers consider building some form of multi-level parking. Though the topic of re-purposing some of the school’s green space for parking was broached by one attendee, it was received push-back from others, particularly the Cohen alumni.

“I’m going to side with the children,” said one alumnus. “If anything needs to be sacrificed, I think it’s parking that should be sacrificed. Green space is important.”

The green space will used as a practice field for sports and other outdoor activities. It will also have a water-retention system to help reduce flooding.

The old Cohen High School building, photographed in March 2018, could be demolished in February 2020. (Robert Morris, Uptown Messenger file photo)

The building Walter L. Cohen has used for decades has 25 parking spaces.

Though not the slated topic of the meeting, alumni brought up concerns with the size of the auditorium. It will have the ability to seat 250 people, far below the full capacity of the school.

“It’s making me a little bit emotional,” an alumnus said to nods of agreement. “They won’t have the opportunity to assemble as a school with the exception of being in … a gymnasium. For me, it doesn’t seem right.”

Concerns were also raised about the number of elevators. Only one is included is the design, and attendees said this would result in long waits to use it.

The auditorium as well as most of the core academic classrooms will be on the second and third floors of the school.

Cutting through much of the conversation was frustration with a lack of community involvement in creating the designs. Many, especially the younger alumni who are less active in the alumni association, would like to have been more informed on the development and more heavily consulted. They worried the plans did not reflect the desires of the Cohen community, including the students.

Walter L. Cohen’s new building is part of the School Facilities Master Plan, a FEMA-funded Recovery School District initiative to build 80 new school facilities now operated in conjunction with the Orleans Parish School Board.

At around 105,000 square feet and three stories high, Walter L. Cohen’s new home will feature a gymnasium in addition to the auditorium, career and technology classrooms, exceptional children services, space for visual and performing arts, and a library and media center.

In recent years, the school has seen declining test scores and declining enrollment. Last year, its rating dropped from a C to a D. School leaders hope the new, modern building will attract more students and give them better tools for learning.

Demolition is scheduled to begin in February 2020. Street closures are expected to be minimal. The site will close during Carnival from Saturday, Feb. 22, to Tuesday, Feb. 25.

Construction is expected to be completed in 2022.

Reporter Emily Carmichael can be reached at emilycarmichael19@gmail.com.

This story was clarified after posting to reflect that the event was the second community meeting but the first Neighborhood Participation Project meeting.

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