By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Instead of waiting for the project to wind its way through the system, its opponents adopted their own hardball plan: They teamed up with Albertson's competitor Sav-A-Center (a subsidiary of A&P) and purchased three 19th-century houses situated in the center of the proposed site. As part of the deal, the buyers agreed not to sell the properties to Albertson's and promised to donate the homes to preservationists with a mind toward renovation.
The purchase brought the project to a grinding halt and escalated the battle to a new level. New Orleans Councilman Oliver Thomas, a proponent of the store, said the two sides needed to find common ground before the situation spiraled out of control.
"Black vs. white, rich vs. poor, St. Charles vs. Central City, we don't need those kinds of fights," Thomas told The Times-Picayune.
Weeks later, St. Charles Ventures retaliated with a lawsuit.
Earlier that summer, before Albertson's had committed to the project, Sav-A-Center had been negotiating with the developers to build its own store at the site, but the negotiations fell through. As part of the suit, the developers argued that the preservationists did not have proper legal title to the properties, but on July 28 a New Orleans judge rejected their argument.
Five days later, the homes caught fire three times in the span of 48 hours. The fires have been ruled arson, though no arrests have been made. Richardson says that as far as he knows, none of his clients is considered a suspect in the case.
Richardson is now representing the developers in a second lawsuit that names A&P and the preservationists as defendants. In that case, the developers argue that A&P engaged in unfair trade practices and violated the Louisiana Uniform Trade Secrets Act by using information it gained in the confidential negotiations with the developers in the purchase of the three 19th-century homes.
"They [A&P] are not at liberty to take the information when the negotiations go bad and use the information against you," says Richardson, who concedes that if the preservationists retain control of the homes, "it's gonna wreck the development as planned."
(A&P's attorney Peter Title declined to comment on the matter.)
Albertson's Bob Rissing calls the arson attacks in New Orleans a "tragedy," but he's not prepared to let the increasingly volatile situation get in the way of Albertson's plan of securing its first foothold in the New Orleans market. For now, he can only wait for the developers' lawsuit to wind its way through the court system and hope either to regain control of the houses or to find another way around the obstacle.
"Our resolve remains to find a location," Rissing says. "While it [the opponents' strategy] may have stopped us momentarily, it has not stopped our resolve to locate there. It's a problem. It's a roadblock. Now, it's what we can do to overcome it."
On a dreary Friday afternoon, two days after capturing her third election in District 107, state Rep. Harryette Ehrhardt is out knocking on doors inside the run-down apartment buildings along Live Oak Street directly across from the proposed Albertson's site.
Team Albertson's has already been to this building, asking tenants to sign petitions in support of the store by telling them it will bring them cheaper groceries and new jobs. Ehrhardt is here to fill them in on the rest of the story.
"I trust the system. I think if the majority of them don't want it, they'll listen," Ehrhardt says, her voice brimming with optimism. "Especially if there's some clout behind 'em."
Accompanied by two assistants, both high school students fluent in Spanish, Ehrhardt goes from door to door, telling the few residents who are at home during this weekday afternoon that if the Albertson's store is built, 350 renters will have to move immediately and others may eventually have to move.
Ordinarily, Ehrhardt says, she doesn't get involved in city zoning issues, but the longtime housing advocate entered this battle because she is against any proposal that would eliminate a large number of affordable homes. Ehrhardt is also troubled by Albertson's failure to fully inform these tenants about the impact the project will have on them.
"These people, nobody had told them anything," Ehrhardt says. "Albertson's apparently thought that no one would care if they tore down the houses that poor people live in."
From the outside, the Live Oak Crossing apartments at 4916 Live Oak aren't much to look at. Stairs are cracked, and railings are loose. A middle-aged Hispanic woman dumps a bucket of soapy water in the middle of a muddy courtyard, where the outlines of a buried swimming pool are still visible, a reminder of the complex's heyday in the 1970s, when these buildings were the heart of the East Dallas swinging-singles scene.
The apartments aren't much to look at from the inside, either, but they are home to the families that live here. After hearing Ehrhardt and her assistants talk, a young Spanish-speaking woman happily signs a petition in opposition to the store. In the background, the woman's mother, or perhaps her grandmother, places an infant in a crib lined with powder-blue blankets. A television blurts Spanish in the living room. A portrait of Jesus hangs on a wall, its frame balancing a line of plastic flowers.