NEW ORLEANS - Neighbors in the Fairgrounds Triangle area took to the streets Monday night to protest the likely return of liquor sales next to Stallings Playground.
Neighbors held signs in front of the site of the former Fair Zone #1 corner store in the 1500 block of Gentilly Boulevard.
The city demolished the store in October 2012 because it was in imminent danger of collapse after Hurricane Isaac.
Since then, neighbors say their community looks drastically different
“This neighborhood has seen an incredible transformation, I mean literally overnight. The drug dealers disappeared from the corners, the mounds of trash disappeared,” said Morgan Clevenger, president of the Fairgrounds Triangle Neighborhood Association.
Normally city ordinances wouldn't allow a business to sell alcohol within 300 feet of a playground, but in this case the business can be grandfathered in because it was demolished as a result of an “act of God.”
In this case, the building’s owner received the permit to rebuild in August of this year. Construction is already underway.
“All of a sudden he's getting grandfathered in because of Isaac? He should have been condemned before then because the building was leaning,” said Terry White, who lives next door to the site.
Now, the community is asking the city to take a second look at the ordinance that allows businesses to reestablish non-conforming uses if they are destroyed in an act of God.
Neighbors say the corner store drew loitering, trash, and crime to the area. And they say it had major impacts for the playground next door.
“People would go [to the store] and buy their alcohol and their food or whatever else and go right in the playground and hang out all day and make it unsafe for kids to be there,” said Clevenger.
“You didn't know if you were going to get shot, stabbed, or what was going to happen,” said Terry White, who lives next door to the site of the former corner store. “It's directly related to his business because the type of things he allowed to go on.”
Residents point to crime statistics. From January 2012 until the corner store closed in August 2012, there were four murders in the neighborhood including one in Stallings Playground. But there have been no murders in the area since the store shut down.
It’s unclear whether the drop in crime is related to the closure of the corner store.
The store’s operator has another Fair Zone convenience store a few blocks away, in the 1800 block of Gentilly Boulevard.
Managers wouldn't speak on camera but say they are still not sure whether the business will reopen in the location next to Stallings Playground, even though they hold the lease and the liquor license.
They don't believe the apparent drop in crime in the area is related to one of their stores shutting down. Some patrons agree.
“I frequently visit the store. It's a pretty nice store. I have no problems with the store. I've never had any problems with the store. I'll basically be glad when it comes back,” said Earl Peters, who lives near Fair Zone #2.
“We all stand up in front of stores all over the city, so it's not like loitering just a little bit of conversating and moving on.”
District A Councilwoman Susan Guidry has spoken extensively with the Department of Safety and Permits and the city attorney’s office, and the business does have the right to come back and resume its business, according to spokesman Rico Sterling.
“The city works tirelessly every day to improve the safety and quality of life in our neighborhoods, and it will take swift action against any business that proves to be a persistent nuisance in the community,” said Tyler Gamble, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s press secretary.
The city recommends that residents report any nuisance business to the Alcohol Beverage Control Board or the City Attorney’s Office.
Neighbors have filed an appeal with the board of zoning adjustments.
The business has until August 2014 to reopen under a longstanding section of city code allows businesses to re-establish their former uses, as long as they apply for a permit to rebuild within one year from the date of a destruction from a fire, storm, or other act of God. The business then has one year from the time the permit is issued to complete construction and reoccupy the building.
The lot’s owner did not return our calls for comment.