This is an opinion on how Neighborland, a for-profit business that wants to improve community, may instead be helping investors and developers at the community’s expense.

New Orleans’ Corporate Realty has been an enthusiastic supporter of Neighborland from the get-go, and it is becoming easier to see why. Over the past year, Neighborland has produced crowd-sourced feedback for a number of Corporate Realty projects. Most recently, Neighborland has been an effective tool for two Corporate Realty agents, Ben Jacobson and Casey Burka, working independently as investors/developers of two concerns named Federated Historic Holdings and Wiltz Development LLC.

The Wiltz Gym, located at 3041 N. Rampart Street between Montegut and Clouet Streets, was sold by the Orleans Parish School Board to John Hazard in 2010, for $230,000

A 2006 NPR interview with Renee Montagne relates Mr. Hazard’s investment philosophy less than six months after the Federal Flood:

Mr. HAZARD:…Sunday evening, boarded up the house, decided to stay in New Orleans, left by boat, was in Houston — a friend of mine who’s an investment banker, within 24 hours, he had $100 million raised and committed to buy property in New Orleans. The city was still flooded! We saw the opportunity and, you know, we said it’s never going to happen again in our lifetime.

MONTAGNE: So, it doesn’t sound like you even think of this as any risk. It sounds like you think of it as pure opportunity–where you’re buying.

Mr. HAZARD: Opportunity–there’s a time in the affairs of men when taken at the flood will bring you fame and fortune–you know, William Shakespeare. And if the opportunity’s there, take it and it’ll hopefully bring you fortune.

In the two years since Hazard’s purchase, the Wiltz Gym is marked by increased physical deterioration and a considerable uptick in market value.

Investors Jacobson and Burka are currently considering purchasing the property, but want the zoning changed before they will commit. The Wiltz Gym is zoned RD-3, which does allow for some commercial and other uses such as a day care or senior center. Federated Historic Holdings (FHH) is asking for B1-A, which opens wide the doors, according to concerned residents, to any number of commercial uses on the block. Residents expressed support for converting the property into a residential development, but were told by Jacobson that he couldn’t “get the numbers to work.” Apparently it would take too much time for FHH to get the kind of financing that could make a residential project feasible. That made residents even more anxious about the intents of the investors, as Jacobson and Burka could offer no long-term commitment.

The investment group went to the Bywater Neighborhood Association (BNA) and asked for a zone change recommendation, but the BNA was hesitant, according to resident Jen Buuck, because although Jacobson and company, hailing from uptown, are “local” FHH has no concrete plans for the property after the proposed zone change (which may add to its re-sale value). A special zoning committee of the BNA agreed to consider the investor’s request at a public meeting. Residents felt little regard was given to their concerns, and according to one observer, were at times treated by some members of the zoning committee with barely-masked contempt. The committee then voted to support the investor’s request for the zone change recommendation and residents came away feeling thwarted.

In the meantime, Jacobson teamed up with Neighborland who co-hosted an informal meet-and-greet at the Wiltz Gym so residents could offer suggestions to FHH. The event was advertised on Neighborland, GNO Real Estate News, and Facebook, and FHH notified residents within a block of the property. Here is Jacobson’s comment on Neighborland:

“We were able to have long conversation about what neighbors wanted to see at the Wiltz, and also what they did not want to see. I think this was a great step for the project; we walked away with some great ideas, and I think other folks walked away with a better feeling that our goal is to build something that will benefit the community.”

But some neighbors at the meet-and-greet felt the developers had little interest in their opinions. A big Neighborland “I want…(blank)…at the Wiltz Gym”  sign hung on the property where attendees could write comments. Jen Buuck noticed after the event that some of the ideas and suggestions neighbors had written on the sign were not reflected on Neighborland’s webpage. She walked a few doors down from the Wiltz Gym to the Civic Center/Neighborland office and asked to see the sign. Buuck was told it had been stolen by a disgruntled neighbor.

Jacobson and Burka recently redeveloped Friar Tucks on Freret Street into the restaurant Origami, and stated in an Uptown Messenger interview last year, “It’s a street we’ve been following for a while,” Jacobson said. “It’s a place we see a lot of potential in, and we want to be a part of reinventing Freret Street.”

Like Freret Street, St. Claude Avenue is -also in the process of “reinvention,”  and the Wiltz Gym event was an opportunity for St. Claude Main Street to advocate for development along the corridor. Michael T. Martin, SCMS’s manager attended. In a September 2011 opinion piece for The Lens Martin noted the  “overabundance of vacant and blighted buildings along St. Claude Avenue that could be rehabilitated to house much-needed providers of goods and services.”

With St. Claude Avenue in mind, resident Carin Baas asked, “Why change the zoning on a residential street when there are plenty of properties for sale a block away already commercially zoned?” It is unknown if Martin asked the developers the same question.

For its part, FHH seems befuddled why residents are worried by the investor’s vague plans. After all, the redevelopment is supposedly for the neighborhood’s benefit. Patrick Fox, a leading commercial real estate professional is the author of  Nimby Wars, a how-to for developers to diminish genuine residential concern and reconstitute it as narrow-minded thinking. The book offers many employable methods on “overcoming community opposition.”

Are local developers familiar with such methods? In an email response to Ms. Buuck and other residents, Jacobson commented,

“We think it is a little unfair to say that the neighbors did not realize that this property had been used commercially over the entire course of its history.”

Following Jacobson’s claim that the neighbors were being “unfair,” Buuck researched the history of the site:

“Historically, the property has not been in commercial use with the exception of a listing in 1897 as butcher shop and a rifle club.  Of course, this was before the fire and rebuilding of the structure in 1916 that is still there today.  Also the lots were separated at that time.  3037 was a residence, 3039 was a butcher shop, and 3043 was the rifle club building. The building has been zoned residential with conditional uses 6 and 8 of section 4.6.5 of the municipal code for the two commercial purposes listed above and also was a community building for educational and recreational use since 1912 serving as a gymnasium for athletic events and community swimming facility.  Under 4.6.5 conditional use 2 it has also been in use as a philanthropic or educational site for the Boys and Girls Club and was used by the New Orleans School Board.”

So it’s true, the site of the Wiltz Gym was commercial, two buildings prior to the one currently for sale, back in the 19th century (Interestingly, a rifle range is still a permitted use under the current RD-3 classification). The investment group’s reinterpretation of historic use prompted Ms. Buuck to create a petition opposing FHH’s request. Days later, at the Neighborland event, attendees could also sign a petition, one to support FHH and the zone change. According to Ms. Buuck, the resident’s petition had three times the number of signers than the one submitted to the neighborhood association board at a final meeting with the investors. The residents were not notified that FHH’s zone change request was on the agenda.

At that meeting, the BNA voted in favor of the investors, despite the fact that there is still no concrete plan for the property once it is purchased.

One neighbor commented “Those guys were fighting an uphill battle until Neighborland was mentioned. Immediately after that the sham shindig was held and they magically got the support of the “neighbors” with Neighborland’s assistance.”

On the Neighborland website, Candy Chang, co-founder, Alan Joseph Williams, Community Manager, and Rob Chappell, a one-time resident now Neighborland employee based in San Francisco, are 3 of a group of “4 neighbors (who) want to know the latest on the historic Wiltz Gym in the Bywater.” The fourth neighbor lives in Bayou St. John.

The Neighborland page did not illustrate whether or not “the community” supported the investor’s request. It heralded any and all development ideas for the property. More whimsy, nothing concrete. Anyone can post on Neighborland from whatever city they call home. Many posters do not live in New Orleans, let alone the area that will be affected by the potential zone change. Did the BNA click on every icon to ascertain whether a post came from a New Orleans resident? Who knows?

Two weeks ago, for the “latest” on Wiltz Gym, Jacobson commented:

“Your input on Neighborland regarding the Wiltz Gym resulted in the Bywater Neighborhood Association reconsidering its previous position, and voted in favor of supporting the change from RD-3 to B1-A. Thanks to everyone who gave us their feedback.”

Is this more display of Neighborland working hard for “the community”? Did Neighborland, a for-profit business, produce favorable outcomes for an investment group over the objections and efforts of neighbors?  If so, what it might say about the Bywater Neighborhood Association is for another post. But regarding influence, keep in mind it was not FHH’s change of plans, nor a petition that convinced the right minds, but the image of community support and participation exhibited on Neighborland. Neighborland’s well-designed package potentially offers more influence than real civic input. And for clients such as Federated Historic Holdings, Wiltz Gym LLC, and Corporate Realty, that could prove to be an invaluable service.

Update:

On November 27, in response to another critic commenting upon the Neighborland product, Alan Joseph Williams tweeted what has become the company’s self-legitimizing retort “We’re trying to help any org make civic conversations more accessible whether private prop, nonprof, govt, neighborhood assoc etc”

The day before on Twitter, Neighborland co-founder Dan Parham framed the success of the Wiltz Gym campaign to Google’s director of product management Hunter Walk.

“here’s a recent re-zoning win from a local entrepreneur in Nola”

So which is it Neighborland? Civic conversations or wins for entrepreneurs? It sure ain’t both.

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