Neighborhood Watch

by Nathan Stubbs

After sweetening the pot, Capstone developers get a green light for their controversial complex near Freetown.

Alabama-based Capstone Corp. received a green light to build a 142-unit student apartment complex on Stewart Street in the historic Freetown neighborhood ' after an unusual 11th-hour caveat where the developer agreed to make a $200,000 "donation" for neighborhood improvements. The city-parish council approved the deal, reversing an earlier decision by the planning commission to deny Capstone. Residents of Freetown, a tight-knit community of some 800 people near downtown, claim the development endangers the neighborhood's character and quality of life. Capstone also is planning an additional student complex in Freetown; the two complexes could bring a total of 600 college students to the area.

Residents had been working with the city's planning department on a "neighborhood plan" for Freetown. (The plan's centerpiece is a proposed park on the site of the Capstone development.) Capstone argued that the project does not violate any zoning laws and pledged to be a good neighbor.

In an effort to assuage residents' concerns, Capstone Development met with council members and agreed to redesign the apartment complex neighborhood with neighborhood architectural features. The company also signed off on a $200,000 payment to a new neighborhood improvement fund. A committee consisting of one Capstone representative and two Freetown residents will decide how to spend that money.

"Basically, Freetown got sold for a $200,000 bribe," says Istvan Berkeley, a Freetown resident who spearheaded opposition to the development. "There's roughly 800 people that live in Freetown; that works out to roughly $250 a head." Berkeley added that residents are "still just pretty stunned right now," but will meet soon to consider further action. "The residents have taken a very bloody black eye," he says, "but I think the fight will continue."