By Maddie Kerth, Fox 8
August 21, 2023
New Orleans’ Inspector General Ed Michel on Monday (Aug. 21) advised the City of New Orleans to take a firmer stand over code violations at the blighted downtown Plaza Tower.
With multiple calls for service, fires and a falling death in 2023 alone, the Office of Inspector General estimates the city could ask the building’s owner for more than $1 million in restitution for problems at the site.
The property has sat undeveloped on Howard Avenue since its last tenant left in 2002. Falling debris causes major concerns for neighboring residents and workers.
One of those workers is Anne Wolff, whose office is just steps away from the building. She joined the OIG in criticizing the building’s owner — developer Joe Jeager — and the City of New Orleans for failing to maintain safety in the area.
“I don’t understand why he can’t be held accountable,” Wolff said of Jaeger. “The rest of us would be held accountable for something like this.”
In 2021, the city fined Jaeger $4,075, citing 11 different code violations with a $250 fee for every day the violations were not resolved after a 30-day grace period.
But in a public letter released Monday, Michel called on the city to further penalize Jaeger, who Michel says has made no effort to renovate the property in more than six years.
“They haven’t made any substantial changes to anything,” agreed Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. “The only permit that they’ve obtained is a permit to encase the top of the building with a safety net, because they realize that there’s a real threat that the top of the building will continue to break off and fall off in pieces.
“So, that’s pretty obvious that the owners recognize the safety threats that the building poses. But the city is not doing anything to compel the owners to follow the city policies and rules.”
Michel cites more than 170 calls to 911 for criminal activity from January 2021-July 2023.
“That’s a significant drain on manpower,” Goyeneche said. “And that’s not police officers coming from all over the city, that’s police officers coming from one district. Which means that the rest of the district is suffering, because the police are having to be deployed in that particular area as frequently as they are.”
Wolff says police response time is always in the back of her mind. But she said she also fears for the people around the property.
“I just think we already have a housing shortage nationwide and New Orleans is no exception,” she said. “A lot of people are temporarily living in there. That can’t be safe for them. And, not to mention, the safety of the building. It’s just falling apart.”
The next step comes Tuesday, when a cost hearing will determine how much money the city has paid as a result of the building’s blight.
Michel further suggests the building should be sold to another owner whose development plans should be closely monitored by the city, to end years of hazardous conditions above Howard Avenue.
“I don’t see that coming anytime soon, but I would love to see it,” Wolff said.
Attorneys for Jaeger and officials from the city’s Office of Code Enforcement did not respond when asked for comment on Michel’s letter.