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Old Naval Base Remains In Legal Limbo, Falls Into Continued Disrepair

After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans planned to spend $170 million redeveloping an old naval base in the Bywater. But that still hasn’t happened, and neighbors are complaining the building has become a danger and an eyesore. This summer, an old oil tank spilled almost 2,000 gallons of diesel on the property and into nearby waterways. The Coast Guard and state and local officials had to clean it up. Neighbors say it’s just the latest in a series of problems.

Back in the day, 95-year-old Lauren Swinney took pride in living next to what was then the F. Edward Hebert Defense Complex.

“The grounds were kept immaculate. Everything was done with military precision,” she says. “Occasionally there would be a marine band playing. What a wonderful neighbor to have on this block.”

The base was shut down, and ownership was eventually transferred to the city in 2013. Since then, Bywater residents have watched the once-imposing military complex, with its Brutalist architecture and high-security defenses, fall apart.

“Now it’s denigrated; there’s graffiti everywhere, water gushing. The front door has been broken into. It is shocking, the lack of care,” Swinney says.

Credit Betsy Shepherd
The base has been abandoned since the City of New Orleans acquired it in 2013.

The property has been in a state of legal limbo for several years. It’s been abandoned, and has become a blight on the neighborhood. Water continuously runs from broken pipes, causing area flooding. Trash fires started by squatters grew out of control several times this year. Trespassers removed plugs from old diesel tanks, causing the oil spill in August, and police reports show more than 80 crimes on the property since 2016, including theft and battery.

Bywater Neighborhood Association President, John Guarnieri, says it’s the city's fault.

“We at this point don’t feel confident that something constructive is going to be done. It’s incredibly dangerous. There could be an explosion or fires and, heaven forbid, somebody gets killed or there’s an accident of some sort - it’s going to be the city’s responsibility.”

Chad Dyer, the Deputy Chief Administrative Officer of Land Use, says they’ve been negotiating with a developer, EMDRC Partners, for years. Plans were shelved when Mitch Landrieu was mayor, and now LaToya Cantrell’s administration is revisiting them.

“Previously the developer had an agreement with the city to secure and maintain the site, but the agreement lapsed, and the developer didn’t have a contact with the city to move forward,” he says.

The plan was to turn the site into an international crisis operations center with emergency response firms and housing services.

Instead, the site itself has become crisis-prone. Emergency workers have had to respond when problems get out of hand, such as during the oil spill.

Neighbors, like Judy Bolton, say it’s apparent the city has done little to restrict access to the 1.5 million square-foot facility.

"My biggest fear all along was that it would become the biggest blighted property in the city of New Orleans, and that's exactly what has happened." - Belinda Little-Wood

“If you’re outside now at the naval base, you can see there’s a stream of people coming and going in and out of there,” she says. “We’ve all watched these people stealing metal repeatedly and now that the word is out that this is a place you can go and live and steal the metal, this is only escalating.”

The city got $40 million from FEMA to renovate the site, but the money was never used for the project.

Belinda Little-Wood was hired by the city as a consultant to oversee redevelopment. She says in 2015, her former boss Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant reallocated the money to the Sewerage and Water Board.

“That makes no sense to me,” she says. “The project cannot be redeveloped unless it has lots of subsidy because none of those buildings are up to code. My biggest fear all along was that it would become the biggest blighted property in the city of New Orleans, and that’s exactly what has happened.”

The FEMA money is long gone and the city is hoping to close the deal with EMDRC Partners by the end of December. But the developer says they may not even want the property anymore.

Meanwhile, Judy Bolton watches the building continue to fall into disrepair and become even more expensive to fix up. She worries things will get worse before they get better.

“This city is responsible not only for what’s going on in the base, but also what happens to people around this area because of what’s going on in the base. I don’t want to see worst case scenarios” she says. “I want the city to handle this, because it is out of control.”

The city says it has taken steps in recent weeks to secure the naval base by leasing it to film companies with private security details. A production crew is currently filming scenes there for a Netflix sci-fi movie called POWER about a drug epidemic. It stars Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

This story is a collaboration with The Lens. You can read the full story here

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