On March 18, 2011 the New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission reviewed the Recovery School District’s proposal to demolish the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School. Below is a transcript of an audio recording of the hearing.
Jesse Leblanc, Chariman, HDLC (JL): Are you here to speak as the applicant?
Lona Hankins, Chief Operating Officer. Director of Capital Projects, RSD (LH): Yes. I’m Lona Edwards Hankins with the Recovery School District.
JL: Yes, ma’am, if you’d state your name and address for the record we’d appreciate it.
LH: Lona Edwards Hankins, Recovery School District, 909 Poydras, Suite 1200.
JL: Thank you very much, Ms. Hankins for coming down. Before the staff begins their presentation, I just want to remind the audience and the commissioners that since this is a city-owned property, the Commission is being asked to review the proposed demolition application but we do not have final say on this; it’s basically – because it’s a city owned property – we can make a recommendation to the city but they do not necessarily need to follow that recommendation. Mr. Perkins, do you care to go into more detail?
Elliott Perkins, Executive Director, HDLC (EP): Yeah, I’d just like to – just so that we’re clear on this – the ordinance there in front of us – the commission serves as an advisory role. Let me get to the section of where it is… It says that ‘any governmental agency other than the city council having responsibility for any building, structure, area, site, public right of way and their adjuncts and impertinences within the district or landmark site, shall seek the advice of the commission prior to the initiation of any substantive change, modification, renovation, restoration, alteration of the structure, or demolition’. So that’s the section of the ordinance under which this application is before you. So that they can seek the advice of the Commission.
JL: I just wanted to add one thing: state law also phrases it under our provised statutes 742, its states the same under state law.
JL: Thank you. So we’re basically an advisory role on this agenda item. Staff?
Sevanne Steiner, Building Plans Examiner, HDLC (SS): This is the proposal – sorry – this is the commission review of the proposal to demolish Phillis Wheately Elementary School located at 2300 Dumaine Street in the Treme partial-control neighborhood. In 2010 the site was listed on the World Monuments Fund Watch List. Launched in 1996 and issued every two years, the World Monuments Watch List calls international attention to cultural heritage around the world that is threatened by neglect, vandalism, conflict or disaster. Their report follows; I’ll let you read it. And then in 2008, the New Orleans Nine recognized mid-century modern public schools, city-wide, early-to-late 1950s, specifically the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School, George Washington Carver Jr./Sr. High School, McDonough No. 39, Avery Alexander Elementary School, Thomy Lafon Elementary School. Modeled on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Most Endangered Program, the Louisiana Landmarks Society implemented its own list of the most endangered historic resources in New Orleans in 2005. The goals for the program include saving historic places, publicity for historic sites, advocacy for historic preservation, preservation education and supporting proactive preservation efforts. Louisiana Landmarks states that a list of endangered places is an excellent tool for drawing attention to historic sites that may be threatened by demolition, blight or … There is a letter in your drawing packet recognizing their opposition to the demolition of this landmark. Also in their report on modern architecture for schools is also in your property summary report. Then in 1955, Phillis Wheatley was awarded a citation for its innovative design by progressive architecture. The Progressive Architecture Awards annually recognized risk-taking practitioners that promote progress … in the field of architecture. Their citation for the award for this property is also listed in your packet.
JL: Thank you very much. Ms. Hankins, do you care to address the commission?
LH: Sure. In 2008, the Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School Board entered into a master plan. That master plan was jointly adopted by the local board and the state board that governs the Recovery School District, the BESE board. That was as a result of over 200 community meetings. That plan said that the Wheatley School would be rebuilt – would be demolished and rebuilt new. That then triggered the Section 106 of the Federal 106 process. We’re going to be using federal dollars to rebuild this. As part of that process, we studies alternatives to figure out ‘could we save this building?’ We looked at trying to rehabilitate the 23,000 square foot building that is architecturally significant and found that there were several issues that we could not waiver on. First and foremost, life safety issues where we could not waiver on. If we added additionally space on the ground floor it did not meet ABFE requirements and would require additional funds. And lastly, the ceiling heights in this building were too low that we couldn’t put – it would be much more of a challenge to the engineering as well as acoustical environment for kids to put modern air conditioning systems in this building. So, additionally we issued an RFQ to request that someone come and take the building for free if there was another use for it. We got one response that we could use and they only want pieces and parts of that building. So we’re trying to work with the preservationists. Our plan is to build – to relocated that to a different site such that they can use the pieces and parts of the building that they want in some other use – for public use. Our plan is to build a new building that will house minimally 450 students and we are under design right now. We have not approved any of their designs. We are working with the architect to make sure that it is compliant with the neighborhood, historically as well as meet the neighbors’ needs and we’re just sharing with you our proposal. Our plan is to have this building open, to get the demolition underway here shortly so that this building so that this building can be open in Fall of ’13.
JL: Ms. Hankins, a couple of things that you said in your opening remarks: Is was my understanding that the design is finalized. So you’re saying the design is not finalized?
LH: We are in schematics and we have not approved the architect’s schematics of the design.
JL: Because I understand from the review of the design there are some issues with the neighborhood towards the current design. And we can address… So, but you’re saying is that changes to the design can still be made?
LH: Absolutely, we have not approved the schematic design from the architect. We weren’t comfortable with what they proposed.
JL: Because I was told that there are some issues with like the shape of the school and the way the loading docks are, the garbage dumpsters are, and the street face. There’s just various issues with it. As this is a partial control area, even if you were under the jurisdiction of HDLC, one the building is demolished we’d have no control over the design. I think that’s a concern. And then the other thing you said was that there is somebody that would like the pieces of the Wheatley School. If you are given permission, would you still pursue that as far as working with that applicant?
LH: We are working with the PRC right now to see if we can get a Cooperative Endeavor such that we can donate the pieces and parts that someone’s interested in and then the liability’s no longer ours and they can go figure out the public good use for the building.
JL: I’ll let Mr. Perkins address this matter, but I did receive an email from John Klingman who is on the New Orleans HDLC ARC and he’s also a Tulane Architecture Professor. And he said that he and the School of Architecture of Tulane strongly oppose demolition of the Wheatley School. “Wheatley is an internationally recognized work of architecture. In 2010, it was listed to the World Monument’s list of Most Endangered Sites world-wide. In Fall of 2009, NPR did a nationally broadcast interview with me regarding the Wheatley. RSD will say that they the Colbert building is in the way of progress and that people from the neighborhood testify to that effect. The replacement building is not the way of progress. The renovation of the Wheatley School is the way to go.” So that’s from John Klingman who’s on our ARC. Mr. Perkins, I’d like you to address this and we’ll open it up to the commissioners. We have a number of people in the audience who want to address it too.
EP: I think that the staff report accurately indicates, along with the associated materials received by the commission – I think it’s beyond question that this building is a significant building and we’re troubled and saddened by the fact that it’s demolition seems to be forthcoming.
JL: Thank you. Why don’t we hear from the audience and then we’ll open it up to the commissioners.
LH: If I may, I neglected to mention, we have an executed Memorandum of Agreement between, as part of our 106 process, between FEMA, the SHPO, and National Advisory Council. So, they are all in agreement that we have exhausted all of the alternatives and are working in the right process.
JL: As part of the mitigation of the 106, aren’t you supposed to – do you do something on the site to preserve or let people know what was there before that? Isn’t that some kind of mitigation?
LH: Yes, we are working on the design of that mitigation and have started having our first public hearing to get input from community members on this and a few others, is next Thursday, March 23 at the George Washington Carver modular campus cafeteria – I’m sorry: March 24th at 6:30 we are going to be trying to develop how to we mitigate for many of the other buildings you mentioned that were endangered list. How do we appropriately mitigate, what should be told to not only honor the architect but the people who went to the school.
JL: As we all know, the Wheatley School was very progressive for its time and it was basically a very contemporary building to serve a very unique community. You would hate for that history to be lost because it was cutting edge architecture for an area that had never seen that in schools before 1955.
LH: It has an impact on the community. We want to make sure we capture that impact as well.
JL: Thank you. Let’s hear from the community and then we’ll open it up to the commissioners. The first speaker’s card I have is Kenneth Ducote.
Ken Ducote (KD): Good morning. I’m Ken Ducote, retired facility planning director for New Orleans Public Schools and one of the consulting parties to the FEMA 106 process. I’m strongly supporting of the proposal to demolish the building and replace it with a building that meets 21st century standards of excellence. It is my understanding from my friends who are architects that in the mid-Century one of the hallmarks of architecture was that form follows function and in Wheatley’s case, this is case where the function was totally corrupted in order to fit the particular form of the building. There are no corridors in the main building that’s in question. The children have to go outside. There’s no connections, no displayed spaces, there’s no clear entryway or front to the building. The children have to leave their classrooms, go into the weather to go to the restroom. There’s no easy connections between the different buildings and the particular structural truss actually blocks some that connection and the glass provided a lot of glare into the rooms and also a lot of distractions for the children. In addition to that, we’ve got a lot of testimony about over the years, that illicit activity would occur at night from the alcove spaces that would be created by these lack of corridors on the second floor and in the morning the custodians would have to clean up the remnants of the illicit activities. So in terms of form following function that was not the case and in order to preserve this building we, in fact, would be asked to compromise on function. Function of the children getting their 21st century education. Also, I think that we have to look at the context that this building was developed. It was developed at a time where the facility needs of the school district were tremendously taxed by the economic resources available to it. Also the school district was desperately trying to build as many schools as they could with an emphasis on quantity, not quality of classroom throughout the city so that they could avoid court-mandated desegregation because there were so many children, especially African-American children, to handle the platoon within the city at the time. So many of the buildings done in the 1950s were not really the top quality buildings and had major, major compromises as well as being asbestos laden and so on. So this was no necessarily the glory days. It was a day when the architects did use some creativity to try to stretch the resources, but over the time this proved to be not the case. The elevated structure did not really protect the children from the weather because of initially fire codes were interpreted one way after the 1958 disastrous fire at Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago, in which 95 kids and teachers were killed. The kindergarten and first grade began to have to be back on the 1st floor so the Wheatley School resulted in having to have a lot of wooden portable classrooms on the site. The cafeteria building, or administration building, library are very cheaply made on the first floor. They were also destroyed by the flood. So, as was stated, the RSD is planning to memorialize those things that did result in rewards at the time. But over the many years these elements that were incorporated in the Wheatley School prove not to be appropriate. Just so that you have a complete record, I just would like to leave with you the petition that was signed – 21 pages of signatures – of people from the community supporting the demolition as well as the replacement with a new monument of the school. Also, my own personal report were I discuss from my own experience and review of the building the difficulties that we encountered in trying to preserve the buildings. These 1950s buildings have been stated that they were neglected and not well-maintained. But at the same time, they had the same maintenance budgets as they Christy buildings that were built in the 1920s/30s and earlier than that and the 1950s buildings had a lot more demands upon the maintenance funds, especially with the asbestos problems so with that I’ll be glad to answer any questions that you might have.
JL: Mr. Ducote, are you working on the new design, too?
KD: I’m one of the consulting parties and I’m a member of the St. Peter Claver local organizing ministry so, as a member of the community, I sit in on meetings. I have no formal relationship other than that.
JL: Ok, thank you very much. Does any commissioner have any questions for Mr. Ducote? (pause) Thank you very much, Mr. Ducote. David Schneider?
David Schneider (DS): I don’t think I can follow Mr. Ducote very well so I’m gonna let his record stand.
JL: Thank you Mr. Schneider, but you’re in favor of the demolition?
DS: Yes sir.
JL: Thank you very much. Lona Edwards Hankins? Oh wait… we’ve heard from her. Elena Boucree? Welcome.
Elena Boucree (EB): Good afternoon. I’m Elana Boucree. I’m a member of St. Peter Claver Church a local organizing ministry and we stand here together representing our organization. We represent members who live, work and worship in the Treme-Lafitte neighborhood and we are in need of a quality, high performing school. We are in support of the demolition. We have participated in the FEMA 106 consultation process, since in began in 2008. We have many children in the neighborhood who were underserved pre-Katrina in a failing school; in a poor functioning school. We represent parents, students and teachers who were all educated or educators in that facility, who have shared the difficulties that they experienced. We are neighbors who have witnessed what took place on that school ground. But we stand here with a new hope as members of the former Lafitte Housing Development have moved into the new Faubourg Lafitte in February. Residents are coming back to our area. However, our students of our neighborhood are currently being bused from our neighborhood, in fact from the corner of Dumaine Street, 2300 block, as early as 5:45 AM to other schools across the city. We’re looking for a new 21st century school that can provide high quality education for our students in our community.
JL: Thank you very much, Ms. Boucree. Thank you. Francine Stock?
Francine Stock, President, DOCOMOMO US/Lousiana (FS): My name is Francine Stock and I am the president of DOCOMOMO/Louisiana, which is a regional chapter of an international organization dedicated to the Documentation and Conservation of the site, buildings and neighborhoods of the modern movement. And I have written recently an article for a journal called Mass Context, titled ‘Is There a Future for the Recent Past in New Orleans?’ And I would like to read a couple of excerpts from that, just a few, because significant modernist architectures is disappearing from the urban fabric of New Orleans at a truly alarming rate. Since the enactment of the 2008 School Facilities Plan for Orleans Parish, mid-century modern public schools has become an endangered species in New Orleans. Of the city’s 30 public schools designed and built in the 1950s, today only three are left standing: Phillis Wheatley, Thomy Lafon and the McDonough 36, which is now the Mahalia Jackson Center for Early Childhood and Family Learning, which was also designed by Charles Colbert – and is likely to be the only one left standing, if both Wheatley and Lafon are demolished, which seems to be the intention. DOCOMOMO/LA has advocated for their preservation but to no avail and as mention earlier, one does not normally associate New Orleans with modern architecture. In the ‘50s, New Orleans was experiencing an architectural rebirth and in the 1955 Progressive Architecture Citation, the Phillis Wheatley School was cited for its commitment to sustainable design. In a sense, we had a series of architects here who were reflecting, although it might not have been evident on the surface, but reflecting on our region’s historic significance and designing for climate. This was the citation: ‘Wheatley was cited for its bilateral lighting, cross-ventilation, open corridor, and its elevation off the ground’. These are similar sustainable design strategies that we see in our most historic buildings, like Pitot House, Madame John’s Legacy, but it’s so clear when you look at the Phillis Wheatley School that it’s thoroughly modern in spirits. Architect Charles Colbert considered it his highest accomplishment as an architect and planner. And it is by far one of the most compelling monuments of the era. And it’s a culmination of a series of regional design innovations. You can see it – well you can’t see it anymore: the Hoffman School which he designed at Hoffman Triangle, because that’s already been demolished, but if you go to the Mahalia Jackson Early Childhood Foundation Center, which was recently renovated 2010 and is open now, you can see how those schools were both sort of riffs on the double gallery, finger plan. It’s evident now with these open courtyards how Colbert was working with these regional influences. In Wheatley, he literally took the plan to another level. As mentioned, this school has been awarded, honored, listed. DOCOMOMO/LA participated as a consulting party in several FEMA sponsored 106 consultations, hoping to preserve threatened modern architecture and in doing so, benefit Louisiana’s recovery. However, we believe the process has failed in New Orleans, as none of the modern structures are being saved. We filed objections with FEMA and we have withdrawn from participating in future Section 106 consultations. And if I may, I would like to read from that letter briefly.
JL: Ok, you need to wrap up your comments. Please make it brief.
FS: I will. The process is pro-forma, despite extensive documentation of buildings’ significance, there’s no indication from FEMA that any solution other than demolition needs to be considered by FEMA. Decisions to allow demolition appear to have been made prior to engagement of consulting parties. Mediators and/or consulting parties in the 106 process appear tainted by conflict of interest, some of the representatives from the firms that may stand to gain additional work from demolition and new construction. Some have directly heightened racial tensions as a means of achieving desired outcomes. FEMA has privileged those who live in close proximity to the impacted structures as ‘the public’ and, in fact, there are multiple publics, including the public of which we are representatives that values its historic environments. DOCOMOMO will continue to fight for the documentation of these structures – and their conservation. We just hope to be left with more than just documentation.
JL: Thank you, Ms. Stock. I appreciate your comments. David Gregor?
David Gregor, architect (DG): Yes, my name’s David Gregor. I’m a designer but I’ve also been an architectural educator for going on 30+ years. But I’m also a cynic and the first thing I wrote down today is I believe we shouldn’t reward people for participating in years of institutional demolition by neglect. So several times this morning, I heard ‘demolition by neglect’. I’d only like to remind you that the school board and the school district participated in that for years. Given the condition of the Wheatley School, which was in bad shape before Katrina. I’d also like to echo what Francine just said about the Section 106 process: I was involved in the efforts to preserve St. Francis Cabrini. We also went through the Section 106 procedure, which I would have absolutely nothing good to say about. And I’ll just remind you that the words FEMA are part of that, which we all have our opinions about FEMA. So, the other thing I would like to say is I’m disappointed that I came here thinking that you would have some clout in terms of historic preservation within the city, yet I think you’re probably going to bulldozed by everything that has been done by FEMA and the Section 106 process. So, I would hope at least learning from this that there might be something in the future where you would have more clout, where you would have the ability to bring some fairness into this process so that some of these buildings, which might not be fashionable in a city which values the Pontalba buildings in Jackson Square more than significant contemporary buildings. So the other thing I wrote down this morning was the State Supreme Court – the state office, which there’s a big empty spot over here, where whether you liked it or not was part of an interesting civic plan for the city. Well it’s gone now. I was part of that state procedure. The Longshoreman’s Union Hall, on Claiborne which is gone – it’s an empty lot, which we’ve heard complaints about throughout the morning, on empty lots. St. Francis Cabrini, an amazing building which I’m sure most of you visited. The River Gate was another significant building that was demolished. So we’re about ready to lose one more through a flawed process, which I think is unfair to citizens. I’m not opposed to 21st century schools in New Orleans – I’d like to see one – but what I am opposed is to stating that there’s no future for this building because of low ceiling heights or ADA requirements. I think it’s just a sham. I’m just here simply as an advocate for a really wonderful building that I’ve taken a lot of architectural visitors to this town to see. Without a doubt, anyone who sees the Wheatley School is impressed with its architecture. It has one of the most amazing cantilevers that an architect could ever hope to design. I’m sorry that it’s gonna end up in a land fill. Thank you.
JL: Phyllis Montana-Leblanc? Can you state your name and address please?
Phyllis Montana LeBlanc (PML): Phyllis Montana-LeBblanc I am a previous student of Phillis Wheatley. I was gonna get up here and sing the song “Oh Phillis Wheatley, We Love You”, but I don’t remember the rest of it so I won’t go through that. But I’m listening to people say the structure of the school and the outdoors – I never had one cold when I attended Phillis Wheatley. When we would leave the classrooms from the top floors and use the restrooms downstairs, we never got sick… I mean, I’m just saying. The structure didn’t do us any harm. But I did write something really quick, again very passionate about Phillis Wheatley Elementary School. I attended there. My principal was Ms. Baker, my first grade-second grade teacher was Ms. Prigmore, second grade teacher was Ms. Jason, my third grade teacher was Ms. Davis. And I’m emotional about it because when I look at it and see it’s not gonna be here any longer, then that’s a part of me that’s gonna die. That’s the part of me that taught me that, when I was with the Brownie troop, to go and help the elderly people, and learn to share and help the neighborhood with the kids and learn that we didn’t have bullies back then, because if there was a bully our teachers taught us that we had meetings and we sat down and we talked about why we shouldn’t hurt each other but we should get long together. So I wrote something, all of these things are coming to me and I’m doing my research and I’m thinking and I’m coming up on Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision in 1896, and then I come to the genocide thought because what I’m speaking to you is what I’ve seen with my own eyes in my neighborhoods and my areas. And that’s the genocide, the deliberate and systematic destruction of racial, political or cultural group. Gentrification: the process of renewal accompanying the influx of middle class people into deteriorating areas, that often displaces earlier and usually poorer residents. I may not be able to articulate as well as most of you on the board, but I have passion to try and that stands strongly enough for me. My standing is the demolition of Phillis Wheatley Elementary School is not for, or just for sentimental reasons, nor is it for a popularity contest. I stand before you to say that in the majority of our black neighborhoods, they’re being systematically destroyed and removed from not only our city, but our culture as African Americans. Every area that I’ve driven to, or had my husband drive me to, for the schools that I attended in New Orleans in the predominantly black neighborhoods are either now just concrete slates or their slated for demolition. So, I’m thinking of the history of it in the black community being in the danger of being removed from the City’s master plan and at one point I was very angry about it, but now it mostly saddens me that all of these schools are being torn down and specifically Phillis Wheatley that taught me so much that I’ve taken and I’ve shared with other children. The things that we learned in that structure over there, again, the qualities of life that they taught us is now getting ready to be removed. And to me, it just seems a lot of greed has run amuck in this city and a lot of things are becoming expendable since Katrina. A lot of things have already been slated to just be removed so we have nothing to go back to. And I just want to wrap up with just a few quotes from Frederick Douglass, where he says, “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel society is an organized conspirator to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” That’s by Frederick Douglass. “The thing worst in rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion” by Frederick Douglass. And finally, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” And when I look at all the schools being torn down in the predominantly black neighborhoods, when I look at the high rate of crime in the neighborhoods because kids don’t have anywhere to go to learn quality education, these are the things that I think of. But then we’re building bigger jails. So I am pleading with every part of my being that they do not destroy and remove this school and demolish it. Taking bit and pieces – when I heard the lady saying ‘we’re going to take bits and pieces of it and if people want to buy it’ or however she phrased it, that’s bits and pieces of history, our culture. Phillis Wheatley should be preserved. I mean, we’re in a state of Louisiana where we preserve plantations, slave plantations, so I think that this deserves to be preserved.
JL: Thank you Ms. Leblanc. Thank you for your comments. Irvin Johnson? (pause) Michelle Kimball.
Michelle Kimball, Senior Advocate, Preservation Resource Center (MK) : Michelle Kimball with the Preservation Resource Center, located at 923 Tchoupitoulas Street. We participated in the Section 106 process of Phillis Wheatley School and it was very disappointing the way process panned out. We felt like there was a legitimate option for the reuse of this building. It might not have met every one of the EdSpecs that were in place, but it certainly would have been a wonderful school for kids to go to. We remain committed to our former position that we feel that this building can and should be incorporated into a new campus and I hope that today you will send that message even though you don’t have any teeth, your role does not have teeth, let everyone know that the preservation community stands behind its modern architecture and want to continue to see it saved. Thank you.
JL: Thank you, Ms. Kimball. Is there anybody else in the audience here to address the Wheatley School? (pause). I have a few comments, I agree with one of the previous speakers, I believe the FEMA process is flawed and I’ve dealt with it on several things and of course we dealt with it on the church and I’ve dealt with it in my neighborhood on other issues and it is a flawed process. I feel like they go into the process with their minds made up with what they’re gonna do and the mitigation that’s being offered is always minor. It’s like a handoff to it and I agree with the gentlemen. The decision is always to tear down things instead of trying to figure out how to incorporate things and preserve things. Whether they’re 18th Century buildings or 20th century buildings it always, for everything that come before us, ‘Let’s demolish it and build something’ and every time we lose a building, whether it’s a 19th century building or a 20th century building. A replacement building will never be the same – it’s going to be a different building. And you’re talking about this building, built in 1955, well we’re in the year 2011. The building has already…been around for a long, long time. I would want to think that creative architects could come up with a way of building a new campus for Wheatley and still incorporate this one existing building into that campus and come up with something that serves in Treme and serves the students of Treme and still provides some respect for the architecture of the past and, as Ms. Leblanc said, this building has a history; it’s a living history – it’s not just a building. All those hundred and hundreds of students that attended Wheatley have a love for that building. I’ve had people on the streets come up to me and say exactly what Ms. Leblanc said, that it worked. So, it did work for the students at that time. I’m totally opposed to the demolition of the Wheatley School. Of course, as everyone knows, we have no teeth in the matter. I recognized, the need for the community; I recognize the need for Treme; I recognized what the speakers said about our students having a 21st century building; I just think that you could have both. I think you could preserve that building we see on the screen and still have a 21st century building and have the best of both worlds. But that doesn’t seem the way that the process is going. I’ll open up the floor to the other commissioners. Commissioner Cole.
Frank T. Cole, Commissioner, HDLC (FC): Pardon me, I have a question for the applicant: Considering the significance and how well it’s received among architects, I know that the City of New Orleans is getting ready to have a national AIA meeting here within just a couple of weeks – either the first or second week of April. Have you reached out to them as far as, they have the expertise and also they may actually have some financial backing that may help defer some of these costs?
LH: In 2008, when the Master Plan was announced, we met with DOCOMOMO and they said they were going to bring resources to bare to help us figure this out and that never came. So we had to come up with funds out of our pocket to spend money on the feasibility study because the challenge we had at that time was if we spent money to study this than that’s a roof I can’t replace on an active building. We didn’t have any of the funds. So the time has passed as far as I’m concerned. My concern is about buildings for children to get them off the buses and reduce our operating costs. So, I don’t believe we can delay this process any more.
JL: Thank you. Commissioner Peychaud.
SP: Yes ma’am, if you can come back up to the podium. I have several questions: just for the record for people watching, did you all have community meetings?
LH: Yes. We’ve had on Wheatley alone, I know we’ve had… let me back up. For the design of every building we have at least 5 community engagement meetings. For every building, regardless of what neighborhood we’re in, for the design of it, we have at least 5. Specifically for the demolition and the hearings, I know we’ve had at least 2-3 community meetings.
Stephen Peychaud, Vice Chairman, HDLC (SP): So, take me through this process. We had the master planning that Concordia did.
LH: Yes, and that Master Plan alone had over 200 community meetings.
SP: And, particularly in this neighborhood, there may have been 5 because I remember going to at least two of them.
SP: For your demolition – no, I’m sorry – for your next set of meetings, you had how many meetings in the community?
LH: For the demolition and the hearings on Wheatley, FEMA sponsored at least 1 public hearing and then we have had at least 1 to 2 public meeting to present the findings of our study to the community so that they could hear what the study’s results were.
SP: And those were the meetings that I attended at Sojourner Truth.
SP: Back to one of the comments about form over function: what’s the new learning… at the community meeting, your architect or someone from RSD mentioned the new model that they were going to, like K-8. In the old days, because my mother was an OPSB teacher for 25 years that worked in horrible conditions in terms of the buildings, the quality of the buildings, and after the storm we said ‘at least we’ll get some renovated or new buildings’. But, the learning model now shifted. It’s not K-6, it’s maybe K-8, correct?
LH: That’s correct. We’re doing K-8.
SP: That’s the mandate, right?
LH: That’s the current model, yes.
SP: From the BESE board or whoever?
LH: Yes. And with that, as you can imagine, it creates some dynamics in the building that you want to make sure that you keep the pre-K -2nd graders essentially in their own, isolated community. You have the small learning community so that the teenagers who are bigger and sometimes their hormones are raging, can be kept away from the little ones and you manage those buildings as they relate to small learning communities. So you try to do Pre-K – 2nd and maybe 2nd – 5th together and then-
SP: And that’s the standard across all RSD schools now?
LH: That’s the goal for all of our buildings. That’s how we’re going to construct all of our buildings.
SP: Is that how Mahalia Jackson is set up?
LH: Mahalia Jackson is a completely different building. It is only focused on early childhood. 0-5 population.
SP: So the new model is K-8.
SP: The existing building, as it stands today. How does that model fit into the existing building?
LH: I believe the existing building was built as a Pre-K through 5 or Pre-K through 6.
SP: How would the new learning model fit in the existing building? Would it work or would it not?
LH: In our study of saving the existing building and adding the new footprint to make sure there was equity across the board we found that you could not isolate and kids would have to travel through other kids’ learning communities so a 5th grader would have to walk all the way across to the second graders’ hallway in order to exit the building. It made the transitions a bit more challenging in that you could not isolate. One community would have to go through another community’s space in order to get to the common spaces like the gymnasium and cafeteria. We evaluated that.
SP: And the recommendation was that it would not work in the new facility?
LH: That’s correct.
SP: And then I had a couple of questions for Ms. Boucree. Thank you for coming back up. I made some notes about your comments. You attended the school? Because at several of the community meetings that I attended, several of the names, I guess 200+ petition that I just saw. They expressed some of their concerns about the way the school was set up. Can you elaborate on any of those?
EB: Right, well a number of the people in our community both have attended or taught in the school and we heard from two of the teachers who were part of the FEMA consultation process.
SP: And that’s, not to cut you off, but Stella…
EB: Stella Reese.
SP: I saw her name on there.
EB: Yes, Stella Reese as well as Ms. Diane Blanks. They both taught in the school and they both shared the challenges that they faced. One, keeping the students’ attentions because of the windows and the glare they brought into the classroom as well as the movement from the classroom to the cafeteria, using the outdoor corridors. That that was a major challenge for them. And also that there was not a an auditorium space where the students could gather together. The condition of using the play yard underneath the building, because of the rain, was never conducive to them because of blowing rain. It never kept the students dry because it just was not functional. So that there were many challenges that they were faced with. But they were faced with the task of educating their students and they did the very best that they could with that space. So they shared that those were some of the challenge that they face and felt that at this point, we were at an opportunity to be able to give our students the very best. The best that many students across our city are afforded and that we needed to make sure that our students not only have the brick and mortar where they can be comfortable, where they can have access to equipment, but that they also have teachers who are prepared and read to teach them in an environment where they’re comfortable as well.
SP: Thank you.
JL: Commissioners, if there are no problems, somebody in the audience wanted to make a rebuttal comment. Ms. Stock? Oh wait, go ahead, since you’re at the microphone.
Emelda Paul (EP): My name is Emelda Paul. I have my daughters and my grandchildren that went to Phillis Wheatley. Also I was a teacher assistant for 6 years over there and in the cafeteria they had one of these big large fans, which helped keep the place cool for the kids. Not only that, but when the kids had to go to the cafeteria, they had to come downstairs and there was no partition for them and all kind of weather. Also, my granddaughter, she would sit by the window many times and cry to go home and many times my daughter would ask the teacher, ‘please remove her away from the window’. It was a lot of things that should not have been happening. Also, when the kids had to go to the restroom, we had to sit there by the restroom to make sure that they were safe. Thank you.
JL: Thank you. Ms. Stock?
FS: Thank you. A couple of notes: One, regarding the windows, I’ve seen vintage photographs at the Historic New Orleans Collection of the Wheatley School which I don’t believe have ever been published – I only found them recently – by Clarence John Laughlin and they show the school with these wonderful curtains and window shades and I think this was the type of thing that perhaps wasn’t replaced over the years. And so, yes, you might have a problem with glare or children getting distracted if there are no windows or curtain shades. This second is that in this past summer, when the feasibility study was finally released, DOCOMOMO joined up with WMF, NTHP, AIA New Orleans, DOCOMOMO/US, as a consulting party, to present a proposal for a design charrette to address the issues that were still leading and these problems in the feasibility study. Which was primarily not a design study, it was a feasibility study – it was massing. We felt that the considerations were really design considerations that could be fixed as far as the way children are circulating, that could be addressed more efficiently and quickly in a design charrette which we would fund and said we would run it in three weeks’ time. This was rejected before we entered the room by FEMA who said RSD had exercised due diligence in ordering the feasibility study, so it was over. And then after that meeting is when we began the process of starting to withdraw from FEMA. We saw that there really wasn’t any – you can state a desire that you don’t want to demolish it, and that you’re looking at options, but it was only talk.
JL: Thank you. Commissioner Shields.
Lloyd Shields, HDLC (LS): May I ask a question please? When you were up at the podium earlier, did you mention something about a conflict of interest?
FS: Yes we did.
LS: What is that?
FS: Well, we thought there were questions about whether some of the consultants for the RSD were acting in…who they were working for.
LS: Without naming any names, would you please state what you’re talking about? If you feel comfortable. If you don’t, don’t worry about it.
FS: Yeah, I’d prefer not to.
LS: Alright, fine. Thank you very much. I have a question for the applicant please. Who are the architects who did the schematic design of which you spoke earlier?
LH: Holly and Smith was commissioned. They are Jeffrey Smith was the former president of the Louisiana chapter of the AIA.
LS: So they’re doing the new school
LH: That’s correct.
LS: Well I read here, in my report, that they’re also the ones who determined that the existing school had to be demolished.
LH: They provided the feasibility study, yes. They gave the RSD the data, the study. When we hired him, we asked him, could he do an objective study?
LS: So you go the same person who gets the job for the new school, and you’re gonna ask them, ‘can you adaptively reuse this’ as RSD says? You asked the person who gets the new school whether the old school can be adaptively reused? And if they say yes, it can, they don’t get to design the new school?
LH: They gave a study that said it could be reused. We said, the RSD said, for financial reasons, for the waivers they were trying to get us to do, things like the fire, life safety issues, things like HVAC and acoustics. We said that was practicable or feasible. That was our determination. They provided a study of two option and the RSD then made the recommendation and said we don’t want to spend the additional money and the additional learning environment issues.
LS: Do you see any conflict of interest? Or perhaps that’s too strong a term. Do you see an issue that some might raise where you have the same firm doing the feasibility study, adaptive reuse or new, as the same firm whose going to get the work either way?
LH: We do feasibility studies and if an architect is gonna be conflicted out, I guess we rely on the judgement of that architect to say ‘I can’t do that’. I don’t see a problem. I guess, let me rephrase that:
LH: I don’t a see where this is an issue to hire a firm to study something and if they come back with the two options and we make a decision to then hire the firm to continue the design, that’s, in my opinion, that’s not different than what we’ve done in some of our other projects when we’ve found problems as we’ve done feasibility studies – found problems with mortar and brick, such as the Colton School, and they gave us a design to solve that problem.
LS: Well that’s how the RSD thinks, is what you’re saying? It is ok for the same firm to make the feasibility study as is the same firm who’s going to do the work, ultimately?
LH: I didn’t see a problem with it.
LS: I take it that this feasibility study was done in detail. I mean, I read here what must be what some would call an executive summary. It just gives conclusions. I take it that there was detailed study which included the cost of adaptive reuse for whatever your needs are versus the cost of the new facility for those same needs.
LS: And that’s available? It must be a public document?
LH: Yes. That has been provided to FEMA and I believe the consulting parties all had copies of it.
LS: Is that online somewhere?
LH: It’s not online, but we can provide it to whomever needs it.
LS: So DOCOMOMO got a copy of that?
LS: Ok, thank you very much.
JL: Ms. Hankins? I’m just curious from something you just said. So this feasibility study that was done – the people who did the study said ‘Option A was saving the Wheatley School or portions thereof and making it work into a new plan and Option B was tear down the Wheatley School and building a whole new school?’ And the RSD selected basically Option 2.
LH: That’s correct.
JL: And based on cost considerations, you felt that it wasn’t-
LH: Cost and educational adequacy. And education adequacy was all the other things that I sited: the health safety issue around the width of the corridor. In order to make this building viable such that children don’t have to walk outside, you have to enclose the corridor. I think then folks would start challenging the architectural – are we keeping and maintaining the architectural integrity of the building at that point? Because then you’d have to start adding additional egresses, you have to close in the corridor in order to make it a dry place for kids to function and then you’d have the corridor width which we’d have to be required to either get a variance from the fire marshal on fire life safety issues and I don’t think anybody wants to put children in jeopardy. The other issue is, as it relates to the HVAC in lower ceilings, we are striving for a lower decibel rating in the classrooms so that the teachers do not have to yell and the children can pay attention. By putting air conditioning inside the classrooms in a way in order to accommodate the lower ceiling height. Ceiling height, I believe in this building’s only like 7’3”. It’s not the cavernous ceiling heights that you have in other schools. My young son today to me that Magic Johnson was 6’3” in the 8th grade. I don’t think he could function in this building. Now, do we have a lot of Magic Johnsons running around? Maybe not, but we have some. So, what does that do for that child? And then when you’re talking about part of their feasibility study they said you can bring some of the building down to the first floor, close in the open air breezeway and make it wider. If I do that, it doesn’t meet ABFE, so now I have to spend more money to try to flood-proof this building. And while everybody’s excited that the RSD has a lot of money right now, that lot of money has to go a lot of different places. And so from a district’s perspective, to spend more money in this particular neighborhood, may mean another neighborhood doesn’t get a school. And that’s the predicament we’re in, in looking at the city as a whole and trying to recover the entire city.
JL: Thank you. Commissioner French.
Elizabeth Shane French, HDLC (ESF): Always, the amount of money that you have is an issue. Did y’all put this new building out to bid or was it just given to the person that made the …
LH: So the architects, and that’s where we are right now, with the architectural design. We selected architects back in 2008, and we have several pools of architects for different categories. New schools, historic buildings built before 1940s and historic building built after 1940s because we understand and recognize that those are two different types of buildings and you may need a different type of skill set. And so we rotate through the pool list of available architects and that’s how this architect was selected.
ESF: Was it put out to bid?
LH: Yes, through an RFP process. But we have not put anything out to bid yet because you bid construction. An RFQ process to create our pool was publicly done.
ESF: So the building will be put out to bid as well?
LH: We’re required by state law to bid everything.
JL: Do we have any questions by any commissioners or anyone in the audience?
SP: Just an overall comment: I’ve attended meetings as well as, I remember some of the DOCOMOMO members being in the audience at the Sojourner Truth meetings. Tough decisions, I know that you all make them all the time. I’m looking at this building, I pass it every day. I actually have seen people go in the building with the fence locked. So it wasn’t an issue of me calling RSD security and going ‘you know what?’ and won’t even mention some of the people I was with, they were like ‘how could that happen?’ 6 years later, we have an empty building; you have kids being bused at 5:45 in the morning; we got a new development coming up two blocks away, Faubourg Lafitte; we have new residents, our Latin friends are moving in; and we have new residents from other parts of the country moving in. I think we should have a world-class facility for these people moving in, whether they’re white, black, green, whatever, it doesn’t matter. Versus a building that is very significant, but when you mention the facts of how it was built, when it was built, Mr. Ducote, during the separate but equal time, which meant to me, in my opinion, wasn’t even built equal at that point, I have a hard time voting to keep a building that doesn’t even fit the new learning model that the RSD, the BESE board, whoever governs all these models, deems not sufficient. If you’re gonna make that kind of investment in the community… you were here earlier. You heard some of my comments I’ve made. I don’t take these demolitions lightly because you can have a whole footprint gone. My concern, again, I’m in support of the demolition, but my concern is the design. And I’ve heard several comments, or seen several comments from the ARC about the design. We don’t have much teeth in terms of what we can advice you, but what I would like, if it is passed today, which I don’t know but probably not, is that you all make a commitment to continue to work with the staff to design something that’s appropriate.
LH: Absolutely, and I was excited to hear that you guys have design guidelines that have been adopted so I told my staff-
SP: Well a building like this would go beyond… a building like this, it would be on another level, but you know, you all have reached out to the community because I remember some of the meetings, you all were beyond the demolition, you all had schematics of Plan A, Plan B and the dumpsters being placed here and there, so you all are taking it to another level but the in-house architecture review, they had some issues. So again, I don’t know how this is going to play out today, I in favor of demolition. I’ve been in your meetings, I’ve listened to both sides. I’ve listened to the community. And I’ve listened to former problems that some of the teachers, former students have had there. And I don’t want to see kids go, quite frankly, if you’re telling me the ceiling’s are 7’ something and you’ve got to drop it to put in air conditioning, I don’t want them going to a cage, because that reminds me of an incarcerated cage. So, you know, I’m just one person. I wish you all the best of luck. I do applaud you all for at least – I know you weren’t required to do it, but going through master plan and 106 – but to continue not only in this neighborhood but in other neighborhoods to continue to work with the residents and find out what the residents want. Because at the end of the day, those are the people that go to these schools and have knowledge of how these schools work in the communities. Just always keep in mind, go to them. And don’t just do it to have 5 meetings, actually include their recommendations. And then whatever board you have to go to, they decide whether or not it gets approved or not, but at least the residents have had a chance, a sincere change to voice their opinions.
LH: We have found the community engagement piece one of the most wonderful pieces of this process because it give me, the owner, some level of context to go and advocate on behalf of when the architect the architect is bringing me a wonderful design, because sometimes that wonderful design doesn’t fit in with their visions. So that gives me that ammunition to push back on the architect. Because I’m not the architect, I’m not the artist – I don’t understand that. But it gives me that knowledge to say, ‘Well, no, no, no, the community wants round windows, not the new modern ones you gave me.’
JL: You mentioned our design guidelines and we do have design guidelines. We also have an Architectural Review Committee, composed of 5 very talented architects and although they don’t have final say on your new building, I think if you at least involve them in the process, I’ve learned in the many years I’ve been on this commission that a lot of times, they come up with some suggestions and since their services are free, they’re not going to cost RSD any money and sometimes they’re looking at the building from a different perspective than architects that have the building or designed the building and some of their suggestions may make the building blend better with the community and fit in more with the historic context where it sits. And I would strongly encourage RSD to take advantage of the HDLC’s ARC and get some design input from us and I think you’ll find that you’ll end up with a building that will be more integrated with the community.
LH: Yes, and if we can do that quickly, we’d love to do that.
JL: It can be done quickly. The other question I have: what is the budget for this new school?
LH: The budgets for our new schools run about $21 million.
JL: Thank you. Commissioners, I think we’ve had all the comments- Commissioner Jaffe?
Marlene Jaffe, HDLC (MJ): One more: if this building does get demolished, has there been any discussion about keeping any documentation either physical or on paper?
LH: Yes, we are required to do HABS drawing and photo for the history. That level of documentation for this building.
JL: Commissioner Shields
LS: Just another question ma’am: Was the architect and person who did the feasibility study aware of that budget at the time they did the feasibility study?
LH: We gave them a cost per square foot, yes.
LS: Ok, so it just came out by sheer coincidence that replacement and new build was $21 million and the adaptive reuse was $22 million?
LH: I didn’t do the study. I’m assuming he’s a professional and he did the analysis in the appropriate way.
LS: Thank you.
JL: Commissioners, we’ve been asked to give our advice on this demolition. We can offer a motion that we’re in support of the demolition of the Wheatley School or we can offer a motion that we’re not in support of the demolition of the Wheatley School. Do I have a motion either way? Commissioner Peychaud.
SP: I’ll make a motion in support.
JL: Is there a second to Comm. Peychaud’s motion in support of the demolition of the Wheatley School? Mr. Dupree. We have a motion on the floor and a second to offer that we are in support of the demolition of the Wheatley School. All those in favor of the motion? (pause). Three in support, so the motion fails. Is there an alternative motion? There does not have to be one, just is there one? (pause). The motion fails, so basically the HDLC is not making a recommendation one way or the other on the building, but I think you heard the committee input and our input and, you know, we wish you success with the project and good luck. And we appreciate everyone in the audience who came down. Commissioner Shields?
SS: Yes sir, I don’t think it’s fair to say the commission doesn’t make a recommendation, because there was a motion to support the demolition and the commission did not carry that motion, so I think that speaks for itself.
EP: That’s correct. I stand corrected.
William S. Wiedorn
1 day ago