Board unanimous in opposition to alcohol permit

June 28, 2008

Months-long process culminates in neighborhood association’s decisive vote

 

By Jonathan Edwards

 

The Faubourg-St. John Neighborhood Association’s board unanimously voted to oppose letting a would-be convenience store sell alcohol in the neighborhood when they met Saturday morning.

 

The decisive vote comes in the wake of survey results released Wednesday showing overwhelming resident opposition to a zoning change that would allow Brother’s Food Mart, a convenience store chain with multiple locations in Greater New Orleans, to sell alcohol at the now-derelict building sitting between DeBlanc Pharmacy and the Asian Pacific Cafe.

 

Nearly 68 percent residents surveyed—or 158 of 233—objected to alcohol sales at Brother’s, according to the survey results.

 

“Right now our alcohol providers are responsible and good merchants. There is no selling to minors, no selling to those who have consumed too much and no aggressive selling of objectionable packages of alcohol,” Linda Landesberg wrote in a June 9 e-mail she posted on the Faubourg-St. John Neighborhood Association listserv.

 

“We have reached our limit,” wrote Landesberg, “and we don’t need to stress out the businesses we have and love with more competition from a chain store.”

 

Eddie Hamden, the owner of Brother’s Food Mart, has tried to work with residents, but he also needs to run a profitable business, said Joe DiRosa, Hamden’s attorney. Brother’s can sell alcohol if we get a permit, or we can install gas pumps and stay open 24 hours.

 

BOOZE OR GAS?

 

Brother’s must apply for a permit through city government and ultimately get approval from the City Council in order to sell alcohol at their Esplanade location. Support, or at least non-opposition from residents and the neighborhood association could help Hamden’s application.

 

Since Hamden’s property is zoned as a “neighborhood business,” he has the legal right to install gas pumps and set his hours without any permits from city government. But, DiRosa said, we wanted to be a good neighbor, so we have tried to listen to residents and address their concerns.

 

“The basic issue is whether or not the neighborhood would rather have a store with limited hours (6AM to 11PM) that sells the same types of liquor that is sold at Terranovas and Consecos without 6 gas pumps, or a (likely)24 hour convenience store with no liquor, but with 6 gas pumps in the parking lot near Esplanade Avenue,” explained Rocky Seydel, a lawyer and a FSJNA board member in a June 7 listserv e-mail.

 

Residents have expressed concern over both options. Some worry alcohol sales will result in loitering and increased crime. Cheap gasoline, others fear, will cause traffic congestion.

 

“Does anyone remember when Circle K had gas pumps,” asked Kenny Tassin in a June 9 FSJNA post. “I do and it was a traffic nightmare. Esplanade and Grand Route St John was always congested with cars waiting in line for the gas pumps that the parking lot is to small for.”

 

As national prices gas prices rose above $4 a gallon, others thought affordable gasoline would be an asset to the neighborhood.

 

“Competitive gas at convenient hours is not the end of the world. Heck, even a little fried food that i could buy at 11:00 pm would be quite nice. We have all the beer, wine, and liquor we need in the area. We lack competitive gas and late night convenience services,” wrote Bill Dalton on June 8.

 

THE 13 PROVISOS

 

Trying to address resident concerns, Brother’s and FSJNA negotiated a deal in February that was subject to resident opinion (hence the survey): the neighborhood association would not oppose Hamden’s application to sell alcohol if he agreed to follow 13 “provisos,” which dictated how Brother’s would operate once it opened.

 

The provisos would limit the store’s hours of operation and the types of alcoholic beverages it could sell to those already sold by other businesses in the area. It also forbids the installation of gas pumps.

 

Derek Scheerer, a city planner with the New Orleans City Planning Commission and a Faubourg-St. John resident, looked over the provisos at City Hall and called them “a wish list.”

 

“They can ask that these be put in, but Brother’s doesn’t have to listen to them one iota,” said Scheerer. “The neighborhood association has absolutely zero say. Only the City Council can attach provisos.”

 

Scheerer focused on proviso 12: “Brothers will agree to sell only the type and quality of liquor, beer and wine sold at Conseco’s and Terranova’s; including no quarts of beer and no malt liquor.”

 

“This is absolutely arbitrary,” he said. “I think it borders on racist. I take offense to that. It’s his business. He can see what he wants to sell. It’s very elitist.”

 

The City Council will not attach such a proviso, Scheerer said. They will limit the hours of operation and make sure lighting is in accordance with the law, but Hamden has the right to compete with other businesses by selling different products.

 

ALLEGATIONS OF RACISM

 

“Brothers comes into the neighborhood association meeting and says, ‘If I don’t get a liquor license, I’m going to sell Urban Wear and put in six gas pumps,’” said Elizabeth Thompson, co-owner of Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, which is located just around the corner from Hamden’s property.

 

“It was an ugly threat. I don’t think people would mind if it was presented in a nice way,” Thompson said. “‘I’m gonna bring homeboys into your neighborhood’—it’s such an ugly, racist way to behave.”

 

“The first racist punch was from Brothers, who said, ‘If we don’t get the alcohol license, we’re going to sell Urban Wear and bring young, black men into a predominantly white neighborhood. They appealed to the community’s baser instincts,” said Robert Thompson, also co-owner of Fair Grinds Coffeehouse and Elizabeth’s husband.

 

“I don’t think Urban Wear was part of the original business plan, but was used as a strategy to get the alcohol license,” Robert Thompson said. “I think Urban Wear was used to fan existing fears in an affluent, white community.”

 

“That is absolutely, utterly, completely untrue,” said DiRosa. “We tried to meet with residents. We intended on being a good neighbor. We wanted to hear what they had to say. For someone to have said that there was some racial motivations is totally offensive. That really is way, way out of bounds. The racism exists in the mind of the person who told you that.”

 

Seydel agrees with DiRosa. “All that stuff about racial innuendos is completely untrue and being repeated by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. I absolutely deny that,” he said. “Eddie Hamden has been very cooperative, very patient in letting us work through our process and resolve it.”

 

“Our business is not to make enemies,” said DiRosa. “We want to be friends with our customers.”

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Award-winning project aims to create citizen-responsive government

June 13, 2008

Neighborhood Associations’ disregard of renters a roadblock to full citizen involvement, says project director

By Jonathan Edwards

The New Orleans Citizen Participation Project met today to jumpstart a grassroots efforts that would take decision-making power out of the backrooms at City Hall and put it in the hands of residents.

We have to have an open chain of information between government and citizens, said Khalil Shahyd, the director of the New Orleans CPP, when he gave an hour-long presentation to community leaders and activists from across the city.

Right now the decisions are already made, the contracts are already signed, things are already done before citizens have any chance for involvement, Shahyd said.

A formal citizen participation project “allows residents to be aware of the activities of government before they occur,” according to a pamphlet distributed during the meeting at the Beacon of Hope Resource Center in Lakeview. “It requires that neighborhood residents be enabled to take part in the planning process and monitor progress on public or private projects and programs.

“Instead of having people overflowing City Council chambers in distress about proposed development, residents will be made aware of all plans and be allowed to give input on those decisions that directly affect their community,” the pamphlet continues.

“It makes sure that what happens is what people want” Shahyd said. An issue arises or a proposal is presented—residents hear about it and decide if it is in their best interest.

The idea is not new, nor is it unique to New Orleans, said Shahyd. The PowerPoint presentation moved on, revealing a map of the United States. Stars started popping up on the screen, representing already-existing citizen participation programs: Sacramento, Houston, New York City, Baltimore—at least a dozen lit up.

Some of these programs have been around since the 1970s, but most were created in a “top-down decision” by a city’s government, Shahyd said. Local officials decided that their citizens needed this tool, and so they gave it to them. New Orleans will be the first “ground-up” approach, emerging from a collection of neighborhood groups.

“Our citizen participation program will be created by you. It is a people-driven exercise, and everyone is invited,” said Shahyd. “We hope that in six months to a year that we can create the first bottom-up, citizen-led democracy in America. It sounds like a lot, but we can do it.”

In the CPP model used in other cities, neighborhood associations are the grassroots forums where residents voice concerns over issues or make a decision passed down from city government, said Shahyd. He then attacked some New Orleans neighborhood organizations, though none by name, for excluding certain groups in their respective communities.

“We’re seeing a return to a land-based type of participation,” Shahyd said, referring to a time in early U.S. history when the right to vote required property ownership. “They’re not really operating as a neighborhood association, but as a homeowners association,” he said. The interests of renters are often ignored, said Shahyd.

Tension between homeowners and renters is not a new subject for Shahyd. He addressed them in an August 2006 interview as many New Orleanians were returning to the city after a Katrina-induced exile. On camera, an emotional Shahyd mentions an unnamed contingent of New Orleans residents who did not want renters, or rental properties, back in the city:

“We have to understand: whether you’re a homeowner or you’re a renter, it’s not because people own land, or because they own property that they want to come back,” he said. “But it’s because this land owns us; we belong to this land.

“And so young or old, crippled, blind, dumb and crazy, people want to come back to here, because this land is concrete, the soil, the river, the lake—everything—it owns us, and we belong to it. It has nothing to do with homeowners and renters,” said Shahyd.

Shahyd and the New Orleans CPP aim to use neighborhood associations, including the homeowners they represent, as the primary conduits of information between city government and individual residents. Open communication, Shahyd said, is the key to citizen-led decision-making.

“If citizens don’t have the relevant information, they can’t make decisions that affect their lives and their neighborhoods,” said Shahyd. A citizen participation project in New Orleans would increase government transparency and accountability, and would do so by creating a system where there is an open flow of information between elected officials and the citizens they represent.

Mike Murphy, the community outreach director for Tulane University’s Environmental Law Clinic, asked Shahyd how the project would acquire operational funding.

Many already-existing citizen participation projects are funded by their city’s annual budget, Shahyd responded. This, however, leaves them open to fluctuations in the political climate. Nevertheless, a similar project in New Orleans would probably acquire funding from the city budget, but Shahyd also said private funding was possible as well.

The New Orleans CPP is in the middle of a two-month campaign to inform city residents about their project and galvanize energy for their upcoming July summit after winning a $25,000 grant from the Seattle-based Case Foundation, according to a May 9 press release. Resident input at the summit, Shahyd says, will determine many key features of New Orleans citizen participation project will look like.

“The Summit will provide additional information on the concept of a formal Citizen Participation Program; more important, citizen attendees will begin the work of designing the CPP process going forward and determining how they wish to guide the project through the design and implementation phases.”

Neither Kate Parker, the president of the Faubourg-St. John Neighborhood Association, nor Jennifer Weishaupt, the president of the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, could be reached by deadline. Lifeblood Beat will continue tracking this story.