Son and Stace
A Comedie in Three Actes
“He owes a shitload of taxes”
Did La Presidenta cook her own goose, and was it out of golden eggs anyway?
The best commentator might be a theater critic, not a local politics grouch. The Good Guys won. Our beloved Council Members put down two appeals by Prophets of Gloom against the Vieux Carré Commission’s approval of the design of Habana Café for Esplanade and North Rampart.
Will they stay down? Or, inflamed by Boss Smith’s January threat at VCC to take the Great Taco Case to the Supreme Court, will they turn the mini-series into a soap opera? (If it does, I hope this was the season finale. It’s fun, but we have to move on.)
One appeal was by a list of panic merchants including a few usual suspects manning the foggy parapets of their walled dreamtown, armed with rusty legal muskets and damp powder; the other was by Anthony Johnson’s Citizens Bewildered Committee.
Lloyd “Sonny” Shields, esq., once more in dented armor strode to the lectern to save the world. Gladiator Shields (pun unavoidable) seems capable of some considerable style, but is groping unsuccessfully for it in these cases.
Lawyers for neighborhood association dictatorship, SmithStag, Michael Martin and now Shields, make me feel better about not joining the legal profession. I considered it very seriously once. It was at the High Court in London, where the barristers ply their learned theatrical trade in robes and wigs, with great oratory and a lot of standing up and down. The thespian aspects were intriguing, but to use this forum briefly as a confessional, the real reason was that the women barristers were hot. I am not kidding. They come out of court, pull off the grey wig, twirl it around their fingers for a few seconds, shake out their hair a bit, and breeze off to next appointment, at chambers or to Fleet Street for a drink, while I stand and wilt. I would start imagining the process of helping them out of the silky black robes, imagining unsuspected charms of the legal profession.
So how does yesterday’s hearing stack up against my best forensic fantasy?
Why do we care? Habana won, NIMBY lost. Fair maiden rescued, dragon gasping. Hope for North Rampart rekindled. So why go on about it?
Know your local Hoodie, is why! Keep a beady eye on the people that want to sell the idea that preserving unique historical character means denying history, stopping history,
The CZO and a new Noise Ordinance are on the docket. These same moblets of the gentry will be back on the case. If they re-run their standard game plan, we can look forward to dishonesty, coercion, dire predictions, irrelevant “expert” witnesses – anything to get their own way and to limit or remove your rights and choice.
Also, they were funny.
Shields’s opening thrust: the Council should not be considering this matter because the site is within 300 feet of a church.
“Begging your pardon, M’lud. Point of law, Sir.”
Now, outside of the occasional cold sweat about barristers, I generally know as little law as I can get away with, but I have some nice friends. Phone and text messages: “Does this guy call himself a lawyer?”
Section 10-236 of the Louisiana Code of Ordinances:
It is hereby declared the sense and policy of this section and section 10-238 that no permit shall be granted for the opening of any barroom, saloon, cabaret or other place where alcoholic beverages are sold at retail, to be consumed on the premises within 300 feet of any playground, church, public library, or school. Exempted from these provisions are the following: . . .
and the following do not apply, until, down at the bottom:
Sec. 10-239. – Section 10-236 not applicable to hotels, etc.
“The restrictions contained in section 10-236 do not apply to premises which are maintained as a bona fide hotel, restaurant, fraternal organization, bus terminal or railroad station, nor to any premises licensed to deal in alcoholic beverages for a period of one year prior to May 1, 1953.”
My teacher said, “You could open the restaurant inside the damn’ church, if you wanted to.”
I got a chance to ask another savvy lawyer (American; no wig or black robes, so I managed to concentrate) why the CMs didn’t challenge that. She said the appeals were against the VCC decision; churches were irrelevant.
The VCC had approved a change of use, said the doughty gladiator, and that is not within their authority. Wait a minute – no they didn’t. Brutus (for today is the Ides of March) is an honorable man – but my feeble command of language suggests that in accord with normal practice, the VCC noted that the approved design was suitable for the proposed change of use. Restaurant is a permitted use at this address. Absent some other violation, such as a cockfighting ring in the courtyard, the change should be a rubber stamp. But not VCC’s rubber stamp.
Mr S. says the VCC did not consider 8.1, the old tout ensemble catchall. I watched some of the Architecture Committee hearings. That is exactly what they kept considering, and if they happened to forget to mention it for a minute, Anthony “Windmill” Johnson was always ringside to remind them of it.
Questionable as it is as a decision tool, 8.1 is still in force. The annoying “quaint” part of “quaint and distinctive” is still on the books, and the VCC understands it well. The difference of opinion is that the appellant caste wants tout ensemble to mean veto power for neighborhood association directors, not a fuzzy guideline for professionals.
Habana Café is a “beach party,” declares Shields, feeding the fevered imaginations of his clients.
Give us a break, Son. Keep your Cuban fantasies for a more private place. Sean Meenan speaks about what he intends to do. Even Stacy Head, a sky-is-falling preservationist who will go all Blanche in Act III, said she was nervous of what might happen. Future conditional. The appellants speak about what it is, as if their fantasies were real and crowds of drunken zombies were already pressing through the fence.
And so it goes. Irrelevant stuff about Fire Marshals, table placement, disreputable behavior of imaginary people on patios that don’t exist yet. The CMs waited in vain for a hit.
Shields’s slightly softened version of the condescending, snippy tone he had used addressing the City Planning Commission seemed a poor choice for a losing cause using irrelevant arguments based on faked-up law. With a solid population of lawyers and maybe a future mayor or two up on the dais, he could have played it better.
Anthony Johnson’s arguments were as forlorn as usual. The VCC, he told us, does not understand traffic, pedestrians, building design, customers, restaurants, the neighborhood or anything much. The law is clear, you see, but the VCC just doesn’t get it. Johnson can teach them planning, architecture and restaurant management.
Send it all back to the VCC, the querulous Quixote concludes. Make them do their job right. On the video, you can see vigorous nodding with grave mien just behind, by Mr Albin Guillot of FQC. He also must understand architecture and town design better than the VCC and the City Planning Commission and their staffs, and restaurant operation better than the creator of the Habana group. The FQ clubs for residential myopia are certainly fortunate to have such experts among their members.
Lisa Suarez steps to the plate for Marigny Improvement. Her voice and style are kinda cute. If you look up her careers on the internet, you will see that she is a gutsy, resourceful lady. The contrast is attractive. I really want to like her, but saying kooky stuff makes it hard. “We are in a fight for our lives in Marigny.” Really? A restaurant is going to kill you?
“We do not want to see rooftop and canopy chairs and tables.” The “rooftop” is at the floor level of the second floor, just like a balcony or gallery. How can tables on a balcony – a pretty common phenomenon, don’t you think? – facing North Rampart on the FQ side of Esplanade threaten the life of Marigny?
“We need you to stick to the rules; I’m not an expert on that . . .” No, but the VCC staff, commissioners and executive director are. So whence, pray, your unsupported claim that you or Johnson know better than they? Ms Suarez is not “really happy” with glass doors enclosing the space under the canopy. I guess she wants glass in wooden frames, perhaps with some quaint and distinctive gold lettering. Ye Olde Café.
“We need the ability to negotiate; so far we just come up against a brick wall.” (Glass wall?)
Negotiate what? It’s been going on for years. If Habana didn’t like your suggestions, VCC did not see fit to impose them and CPC did not see that as a deal breaker, then you didn’t win that one. Let it go.
Ms Suarez mentioned future appeals. That suggests that FMIA, the French Quarter Jihadis and their allies by treaty, the Riverfront Alliance, who have no more skin in this game than I do, will be back trying to ensure that the corner remains a black hole for a few more decades.
John Reid was back for Johnson’s group, with the death-by-a-thousand cuts riff. Reid could be their best spokesman. Good voice, tone, understands rhythm and rhetoric, stays on the mic. Just missing one thing: a good argument. He exposed a big weakness of the appellants’ case, which most of them disguise more successfully: “I, I, I”. “Nothing wrong with a bar; I go to bars. Nothing wrong with a restaurant; I go to restaurants.” I am sure I was not the only one in the audience thinking, “So what?”
Johnson wants Habana to be another restaurant with a courtyard. No glass doors, because other restaurants don’t have glass. (Actually, some do.) No balcony, because other restaurants don’t have balcony tables. (Actually, some do.) Build a high wall, not a low wall, because other restaurants don’t do that. Pave the yard with bricks, install a wrought iron gate, plant some ivy for the quaint of it, hire a celebrity chef. Just what New Orleans needs – another foodie temple.
The French Quarter is a regulated area. We get that. But it is the Habana company that invested in the buildings and has sat on them while the city’s Byzantine procedures grind slowly on. Habana has to operate the restaurant, not Johnson and the Sanchos. If they wanted to decide design and operation, at any time in the past 40 years or so they could have formed a co-op, bought the site, built a wall and painted it quaint, but they didn’t. What’s the logic of this lot deciding the decor on someone else’s private dime?
Both appellants’ cases rested on the claim that the lower Quarter is traditionally, historically, a quiet residential area. If you accept re-starting history after the 1930s wave of Anglo invasion and gentrification, maybe they can make a case. It would be a tough one in a fair court, though. Why should the most recent occupier get to declare itself the authentic tradition? The back or lake side streets had a pretty raucous history between the Creole culture that built it, through their gradual departure and several waves of immigration that fed the lively ethnic, social and commercial mix. Claiming that the neighborhood was always a dull memory lane inhabited by bland retirees building walls of social exclusion devalues their story. I would have more sympathy for their cause if they just said, “We bought it. It is ours now. Go away. Shut up. We need to sleep . . . to dream.”
Act II. Habana sallies forth
Robert Ripley gave a well-reasoned and composed riff on the dark, unsafe corner coming back to life due to this well thought out standard restaurant, which had patiently dotted every i and crossed every t of a painstaking process over vitriolic opposition who had been given every consideration by the commissions.
Mr Ripley pointed out that as a member of several of the organizations participating in the appeals, he had never once been asked his opinion, by any of them. There was no poll of members. Small cliques have taken over these neighborhood clubs. Not even democratically representing their own couple of hundred members, they imply that they speak for all 4,000 residents of the FQ, and by allying with other, similar tribelets, for thousands of people.
They represent only themselves, said Mr Ripley.
Bryan Drude spoke in support for French Quarter Advocates, a neighborhood group with a sane operating system, which does explain its status and poll its members before telling government what their opinion is. There were more, but we must rush.
Act III: The Council Speaks. The Nays lose it, in more ways than one.
CM Nadine Ramsey’s opened the curtain with a carefully logical introduction and motion to deny the appeals.
Stacy Head was unnervingly animated. Her team was losing. Whence the froth? What did she have cooking up her sleeve?
She just loved this project. Fabulous! It looked like so much fun and so full of life . . . she just couldn’t wait. But not here! Take it to areas that need it, like OC Haley or Freret.
Government sponsored Nimbyism: go someplace else! Maybe they will love thee there, Doctor Fell. Wrong, Madam! OC Haley and Freret are well along in their renaissances. North Rampart is in bad need of revitalizing. Its Soviet aspect may be sustained by the hostility of these same people to all things lively. Habana might just break the ice and bring the music back. The Council prez acknowledged that her side was going to lose, but she was in danger of palpitations from what Habana might do to the French Quarter. Just think of Lucy’s in the CBD or Big Box furniture like at Bacchanal. (Shields had done a Lucy’s number in his 15 minutes.) Or Dat Dog! It would just be . . . just be . . . .
There is a Buddhist story that a man painted a picture of a tiger on the wall of a cave. His mind wandered. Later, he looked at the tiger, took fright and ran from the cave. CM Head’s palpitations come from the same place as the ancient artist’s tiger: fear of images you painted in your own imagination.
Habana could be like Lucy’s because of the low wall of its open space, they say. But what exactly are the architectural characteristics that get the sidewalk crowd going at Lucy’s? Nothing that I can see. The gathering is a social phenomenon, not building design.
CM Head said “us older folks” have to adapt to Tactical Urbanism, a term we picked up from Andrés Duany’s talk about planning, Bywater and the CZO a few weeks ago. We have to use the good parts, discard the bad.
Duany is a renowned planner and leader of the Smart Growth movement. His contempt for the draft CZO is unfathomable. He suggests, don’t try to fix it; toss it. Not much chance of that, though. They paid the consultants too much to admit it is no good.
Tactical Urbanism refers to building and creating in gaps between the domains of red tape. Maybe it is a positive example of the Shock Doctrine. Examples can be found in pockets of Detroit, where regulation has broken down and there is no way through the civic muddle. Free development has re-emerged, with some creative results. With three years of painful red tape so far, before operations permitting even begins, the Habana case is the opposite of Tactical. The traditional regulators – eg, Stacy Head – picking-and-mixing a plan means ipso facto it ain’t tactical urbanism any more. It isn’t tactical until the Staceys step out of the way. It can’t be the intensely regulated French Quarter.
But at least she listened to Duany. Maybe our Council President will read his stuff and get it. In downtown NO we don’t have to worry too much about Smart Growth’s principal demon, suburban sprawl, but we have to resist imported suburban segregation zoning, which not only the fogey mob engages in. Watch out for the new California-style yuppies, full of beaming self belief, and no self-awareness, accumulating property in Bywater and Marigny, thinking they are much cooler than the old New Orleans crowd. Keep an eye on the Riverfront Alliance for lip service to mixed use and real pressure in favor of enclave zoning. Nimby is going on here. Fearful residents are telling you this restaurant will attract undesirable elements. You know, them. People not like us. A key theme of Smart Growth is that neighborhood democracy requires diversity. Requires. Diversity in age, income, gender, viewpoint. Take a look at the appellants – what do you see? All one kind of people clumping together. The mentality is mob not democracy.
Stacy Head is a clever, energetic woman. Hard to understand why she does not see that mob action by discredited right wing neighborhood associations is the real danger, not a restaurant finally bringing life back to a derelict location.
The Congress for the New Urbanism views divestment in central cities, the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing separation by race and income, environmental deterioration, loss of agricultural lands and wilderness, and the erosion of society’s built heritage as one interrelated community- building challenge.
That is a quote from Suburban Nation, of which Andres Duany is co-author. I added the bold type. Enclave zoning is ugly in a city. Segregation or stratification has led to some of the most vile practices and betrayals of the original promise of America to the society of fear, surveillance and widespread injustice that it has become.
Then Mme President pulled the stunt of the afternoon. She brought out some pages to wave, McCarthy-like. Is Mr Meenan going to be a good business citizen, pay his taxes, comply with the rules? Absolutely, he says from his seat. She asks a muddled question – did you buy the properties on a tax sale or from a tax sale . . . ? Question too muddled to answer. Then she says, It was on the way to a tax sale, for an outstanding amount. $3.00. She summons Meenan to the mic.
If this was a comic strip, there would be “gasp” balloons over the audience.
Sean Meenan usually sounds optimistic and congenial, but you couldn’t build a business like his if. that was your only voice. Now we saw another one, quiet and cold: “Are you saying I owe $3.00?”
“That is not the point. It says the property was on the way to a tax sale for non-payment/”
The insinuations got worse, with repeated qualifiers that the city got things wrong “all the time,” so is it correct? No, said Meenan. Didn’t stop her.
This was low comedy, even for City Hall. Stunned looks in the audience. What was Stacy playing at? She justified it: we have to know whether you are a good guy, a reliable operator.
With incredible vulgarity even for them, the claque of Residents for Urban Coma dropped their gentrified mask and began to applaud! Abandonment of any pretense of dignity is what they want in their civic representatives? Is Stacy Head trying to channel Clarkson back into the chamber?
Did Madame President cook her own political goose right there in front of our eyes? Were there any golden eggs left, or might she as well shove the bird in the oven? She may have cemented ten votes with the embittered clubs, but the low blow lost her 1,000 in the space of a minute.
Jason Williams came through! The Fortinbras of Habana. Well done, Mr Williams! Glad I voted for you. He said as a resident of the FQ and friend of the restaurant’s next door neighbors and some of the opponents, he personally could do without Habana Café on that corner, but his job as a public servant was to vote the broader needs of the area and the city, not his own or his friends’ comfort. Bravo, Sir!
James Gray, as we have come to expect, asked intelligent questions and reached wise conclusions. Gray is a threat to satire. NOLAscape’s mission is to kickstart your bullshit meter. On the Ides of March, we come to bury Caesar quick because he is getting ripe – not praise him. But James Gray keeps on being uncooperatively cool and smart.
Susan Guidry’s conclusion followed President Stacy’s, reiterating the Hoodie appellants’ mantras – mega-parcel, fragile and all that.
The French Quarter will be all right either way. What Habana endangers is the controlling grip of a narrow demographic that wants veto rights over all activity from Canal Street to Arabi. However, since CM Susan went out on the Bernard Noble protest, sponsored more civilized marijuana law, and has shown principle and courage outside of the hypnosis range of faux-preservationists, we award her a NOLAscape Get-out-of-Jail Card.
So after three years of round-and-round, Habana wins on points. Is it over? Who knows? Malign fogeydom might keep trying to keep the corner dark and derelict and North Rampart bleak, to the detriment of all except their grumpy little groups. If they keep causing Habana more waste and expense, it would serve them right if Meenan sold the two properties to Pepsico for Pizza Hut. Let VCPORA/FQC see what a legal war chest can look like.
We thought it was all over. The chamber mikes were turned off. But the video mikes were on!
CM Ramsey to CM Stacey, “He does not owe all that money. My staff checked.”
CM Stacey to CM Ramsey: “A steak dinner on it. He owes a shitload of money. At least $5,000.”
It is funny when people do this. It’s also pretty funny to think that $5,000 of tax questions covering eight or ten properties in renovation worth a few million bucks qualifies as a shitload.
Will our Dear Leaders tell us who won the dinner?
15 March 2015
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