NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans neighbors in the Bywater are hopeful, but not convinced the city’s latest attempt to secure the abandoned Navy base on Poland Avenue will keep crime and squatters out of their neighborhood long-term.
Monday morning, the NOPD SWAT team, New Orleans firefighters, EMS, city homeless services and private security converged on the site.
“This site, from here on out, is going to be closed,” New Orleans Economic Development Director Jeff Schwartz said. “There is no one who is going to be permitted to be living or sleeping on this site.”
According to Schwartz, 40-50 people camping on the grounds or living in the blighted and abandoned buildings were removed.
WWL-TV saw some leaving the complex, toting their belongings behind them.
James Warpup says many of his fellow base dwellers will simply find other places to live in the city’s down river community.
“People are talking about places they shouldn’t have to go, shouldn’t go, but they don’t have any choice,” Warpup said.
Joe Ziemba who lives a few blocks from the beleaguered base says that’s exactly what he and his Bywater neighbors fear.
“They won’t go far,” Ziemba said. “They all seemed to congregate along the river and the seawall there and across the street in the warehouses and the park down there.”
Contractors were on site repairing the perimeter fence, taking out overgrown vegetation and starting the process of carting away years’ worth of debris from the 1.5 million square foot site.
The immediate goal is to turn the complex into 300 affordable housing units along with a mix of retail.
According to the city, site developer Joe Jaeger is expected to close on $120 million in project financing in the next 6-8 months. If the money doesn’t materialize, it’s back to square one.
“If we don’t get the milestones, we need in the next 6 to 12 months, I think kind of all bets are off,” Schwartz said.
The city got $40 million in federal hazard mitigation funds for the Navy base after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Schwartz admits most of that money was left on the table because it wasn’t spent in time.
“There are specific requirements that FEMA and the federal government have around utilizing those dollars, he said. “Those dollars are gone. Certainly, we would love to have those $40 million back right now, but unfortunately, they’re not coming back and so our path forward is looking for other sources of financing.
The Navy gave the city the property more than a decade ago in pristine condition.
Since then, redevelopment plans have come and gone, demolition by neglect has set in and neighbors have endured shootings, fires and other crimes coming from the base.
“We’ll see if it works,” Ziemba said. “I really hope that it does. I feel sorry for the people who are encamped over there, but there’s a lot of crime that goes on in this neighborhood.”
The developer has pledged to keep three fulltime security guards on site 24-hours a day to keep people away from the complex.
According to the NOPD, 75 police officers participated in Monday’s sweep at the old Navy base.
The department revealed in the last year, there were 176 calls for service at the facility and in the area near the complex.
Officers arrested one person at the site on an open warrant for trespassing. Police also wanted to talk to him about a recent shooting.