NEW ORLEANS — The Sewerage & Water Board has hired a contractor convicted of illegal dumping to demolish a historic building Uptown, and neighbors are upset that some historic preservation rules don’t seem to apply to the government agency.
The project is an important one, to replace the sewer lift pumps that have been in a bunker under Cohn Street since 1904 with modern pumps in a new, above-ground sewer lift station.
Darryl Cortello, who owns Luca Eats restaurant directly across from the underground pumps, said the bunker and its strange green access portal in the sidewalk has never been a problem.
“In fact, it’s a conversation piece. (Patrons) want to know what it is. We tell them it's a submarine practice facility,” Cortello joked.
He and another neighbor, architect John Schackai III, acknowledge the effort to modernize the sewer lift pumps is sorely needed, especially after the city’s sewer lift stations failed during Hurricane Ida.
“I mean, we want to have the poop pumps in the right place!” Schackai said.
“Infrastructure resiliency and reliability is one of our six focus areas over the coming five years,” Sewerage & Water Board spokeswoman Grace Birch said. “We need to replace and renew aged infrastructure using integrated approaches to give New Orleans the service it deserves. Sewage Pumping Station #1 is one of the oldest remaining facilities in our system.”
But the neighbors don't like how the agency is going about it by planning to demolish this 99-year-old building that sits at the corner of Cohn and Lowerline streets, known as the Corner Store.
The city bought the Corner Store on behalf of the Sewerage & Water Board in 2015 for almost $379,000. Now the Sewerage & Water Board wants to tear it down to use the lot as access to a new sewer lift station, which it hopes to build in the next lot down Lowerline Street.
The city posted a sign at the front door of the Corner Store, saying the demolition requires approval from the Historic District Landmarks Commission. But it turns out that isn’t true.
The HDLC denied the demolition permit on June 1, but admitted in a letter June 2 it has no actual power to stop it, noting that government bodies have the authority to demolish any property and the HDLC can only advise on whether to grant the permit.
Birch said the Sewerage & Water Board met with the Preservation Resource Center to understand the property’s value before deciding to demolish it.
“Extensive modifications over the years left this building with little historical value,” she said. “While the facade has retained what preservationists call ‘integrity,’ there is very little historic fabric within the former corner store portion of the building.”
Adding to the neighbors’ disappointment, the Sewerage & Water Board sent 20 emails seeking bids from at least 15 different demolition companies, and the only bidder for the demolition was Jamie's Disposal, a company that was caught illegally dumping on a field in New Orleans East in 2019.
Owner Jamie L. Jones was convicted last year and was sentenced to a year probation. He’s still serving that probation until June 22.
“So, you can imagine our concern as a restaurant across the street,” Cortello said. “How is that going to be monitored? You know, is the right thing going to be done if it has to happen?”
The Sewerage & Water Board promised at a community meeting this week that it would take extra steps to monitor Jamie's by stationing an inspector on site to make sure it disposes of the Corner Store debris properly.
The agency said there was no legal reason to deny Jamie’s Disposal’s bid for the $79,000 demolition contract.
Jones' wife and business partner, Ambra Jones White, said she understands the neighbors' concerns, but pledged the illegal dumping is in their company’s past, and they welcome any monitoring of their work.
“That case is over with,” she said. “We do everything on the up-and-up. We don’t illegally dump anything. The Sewerage & Water Board made the decision to hire us, that was their decision, and we are going to make sure everything is done the right way.”