Decision regarding removal of historic homes tabled until August 11

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 10, 2021

LAPLACE — As plans move forward for the construction of a $10 million library in Reserve, the St. John Parish Historic District Commission has a say in whether two nearly 90-year-old houses should be removed from the site.

The Commission voted 4-1 on July 8 to table the decision of whether to award a certificates of appropriateness for the removal of the houses at 1488 and 1490 Highway 44 in Reserve. Both of these bungalow style homes were built in the 1930s and have been identified as contributing structures to the Reserve Historic District.

Planning and Zoning Director Rene Pastorek said a decision must be made within 45 days, and the matter cannot be tabled again when the Historic District Commission reconvenes on August 11.

Library Director Andrea Tullos reiterated that the intent is not to demolish the historic structures, but to relocate them. She introduced a local couple interested in purchasing one of the old homes and relocating it about half a mile down the road on West Second Street.

Both houses are currently owned by St. John Parish after being purchased with Library funds late last year. If the Historic District Commission approves the removal of the structures, the Parish Council would still need to deem them as surplus properties before the Parish Purchasing Department could place them for sale.

Another contributing historic structure on the land purchased for the library project will be incorporated into the design. Tullos shared that the 1885 House, also known as the Lebrun House, will tie in with the new Reserve Library and the neighboring St. John Theatre to form one large cultural center. Architects recently discussed fully restoring the 1885 House and pulling it to the front of the property so it is easily visible to those traveling along River Road.

According to Tullos, the 1885 House would likely be used to display St. John Parish history, as well as rotating exhibits from local artists. In a recent community survey, residents envisioned a Reserve Library/cultural center that would include a coffee bar, community garden/conference center, event and outdoor space, a small business center, galleries, a veteran’s space and a “makerspace” for creativity.

Tullos said the Reserve Library Project as a whole aligns with several of the Historic District Commission’s goals.

“One, it would strengthen the community and its cultural distinctiveness by means of focused attention on the Parish’s historic resources,” Tullos said. “Two, we will ensure it stimulates sustainable, guided growth within the parish’s historic areas. Three, it would support parish’s economic base through encouragement of small business development and cultural or heritage tourism.”

Members of the Historic District Commission were appreciative of the efforts to incorporate the 1885 House but wanted a more definitive answer on the fate of the 1930s bungalow-style houses. Joy Banner, chairperson of the Historic District Commission, said she wanted more reassurance that there would be continued efforts to preserve the two structures after they are removed from the site.

“The biggest concern for us is that if something falls through with these homes, they would be demolished,” Banner said.

Banner also expressed that the Historic District Commission should have had more opportunities for input throughout the Reserve Library planning process. While Tullos has met with Planning and Zoning and has invited Commissioner Bryan Oubre to be part of the library design process, Banner feels the Library Board hasn’t adequately communicated with the Historic District Commission as a whole.

Commissioner Stephen Guidry said he did not feel comfortable with the ordinances using the word “removal,” without any indication of relocation or future plans for the homes. Pastorek clarified that the COA is limited in scope and only concerns removing the structures from their current site.

“You can’t require that it goes to a certain place,” Pastorek said.

While tabling the matters, Commissioners discussed using the next couple of weeks to explore whether the ordinances can be amended to include intent for relocation or repurposing the structures.

Guidry said the decision is difficult for him because the residents he’s spoken to aren’t in favor of the Library’s plans.

“I never had one person come to me that’s in favor of these houses being torn down and the library being built,” Guidry said. “We can build new buildings every day, but you can never bring back a historic building.”

In other news, the Historic District Commission awarded a certificate of appropriateness of the removal of a historic structure in disrepair at 123 E. 24th Street in Reserve. Since the structure was built around the early 1930s, the property owner was required to receive approval from the Historic District Commission before proceeding with demolition.

Pastorek said  Code Enforcement has received complaints and safety concerns related to this structure. The Commission voted in favor of awarding the COA for removal..