Game of Zones – the Cup Final

Characters in this story are neither fictitious nor coincidental, although sometimes not quite real, either. They step out in public to advocate and criticize. Give them a C for courage, just for showing up. Nevertheless, when you say dumb stuff, it’s still dumb stuff.

You might have wanted to bring a box lunch for the CZO marathon. If you showed up early enough for the church and national religious bits, it ran just over ten hours to the end. Council Members had been working late into the previous night. Maybe they were pulling all nighters in the old college tradition, getting through the day on various brands of speed.

Amendments! They had to work through a ton of them to so they could vote in a complete CZO “as amended” and go home. Council VP Head, Acting President for the CZO festivities, had prepared lists of amendments graded by date entered and and ascending level of controversy. More were coming off the printer as the session progressed. Soon this thing might be behind them – except for the usual die-hards, who will find something to sue somebody about. They take a shot at finding a crafty combination of lawyer and judge, to say their particular pet peeve is more valid than whatever the city’s legislature decided. Maybe it is, but seeking Truth in Civil District Court across the driveway from City Hall, presided over by elected judges whose campaigns are funded by law firms, well, good luck. Looks to me just another wild shot in a special-interest gunfight.

As the afternoon turned into Bolero, exhaustion increased, nerves frayed, masks cracked, rules dissolved – and I started to get interested. The CZO was turning into the Roberts Rules version of a brawl.

Between the long, grey, necessary readings into the record of each amendment that passed, we had public and Council comments on amendments that they sponsored, supported or that pissed them off. Acting prez Head limited public comment to one minute, no ceding of time to other speakers. It was surprising to see how much most public commenters managed to say in 30 or 40 seconds when they accepted the rule. Pithy was the day. Stacy’s new rule could make Oscar Wildes of us all. Council Members, unfettered by the one minute rule, still had plenty of rope.

By 4.00 PM, the strain was telling. They were awash in amendments. Makeup was cracking, mascara running. The CMs started looking for excuses to recess or continue, but Mr Purcell, the rules guy, wouldn’t let them off. James Gray said it best: “Ron, is there any way we can get out of this?”

There were still hours to go. Lurking here in the duck blind, I might get a shot at the yellow-eyed animal hiding inside some of the speakers, a snarling little varmint that can hear Fox News telepathically.

You can pick the actual amendments up from the news, the Council web site, or watch the video. I’m cynical about the details. Between Article 5 and anarchy, most of them won’t survive reality anyway.

One of the most savory, oak-aged moments of CZO season came late in the evening as the final ritual was drawing towards a close. The amendment on the table was to allow restaurants to serve drinks, i.e., a bottle of wine or a six-pack, with take-away meals. Sounds pretty innocuous, right? You probably never knew there was a problem, because of course, as in every grown-up city in the world, they all do. What would be the option? “Yes, sir, we would be glad to deliver some goutté starters and filet steaks to your conference room across the street, and yes, we do have a case of Haut-Brion 2012 at $680.00 per bottle, which would certainly impress your guests, but I am afraid we are not permitted to supply it with take-away service. You will have to nip down to Rouses to see if they have it in stock.”

Tease it out a little further: you sit down with your date. The waiter brings your lobsters and champagne. Your date suddenly remembers that the baby sitter has a record for child molestation, so he/she says, “Can you pack this, please? We gotta scoot.” And what is the difference, pray, between that and ordering at the desk?

Emotions swelled. Tempers flared. Not from the amendment itself, fairly pale on its own, but from Restaurant Association advocate Chris Young’s taking the microphone to explain its purpose and request acceptance. He took about 40 seconds to explain that this was normal practice everywhere, including New Orleans, and would make no difference at all, so should just for safety be folded into the new CZO. Personally, I cannot understand why such things are even included in zoning. But never mind – we won’t have time to consider it, because Ms Carol Gniady, FQC exec, who had been popping up and down to the mic many an old time, especially since Mme President gave up on the rules at about 4.00 PM, strode to the podium with more indignation in her stride than normal.

Carol is really worked up this time. Masks are down. Mascara has run. Gloves are off. Voice shakes, lip quivers. She glares at the dais. “How can you even listen to this . . . this . . . a paid lobbyist . . . .”

Whee!! Hang on, folks, this could be a ride..

How indeed can Council listen to the representative of the Restaurant Association, the Beer League, the FQBL, about a restaurant-related amendment? What would he know about it? If Council want to understand the restaurant business, they should come to French Quarter Citizens, of course. Wouldn’t you?

Carol crackled with indignation. Every restaurant in the French Quarter would now be a liquor store! How could Council allow restaurants to abuse the fragile gem this way!?!

Almost sputtering with rage, she had trouble getting her thoughts together. How could council entertain such an amendment, when FQC had not had time to get its objections in a row?

It would have been ungallant at that moment to point out that Ms Gniady, as a salaried exec in the act of advocating for her association, is also a paid lobbyist, but with a considerably smaller client list and no regulations concerning transparency.

Why the lapse from the professional stance? Are we seeing a Kool-Aid moment?

Then came Meg Lousteau into court. More controlled, more chilling, bearing the liquor store fable they claim to have had only seconds to prepare, but still with enough angry rips in the veil that I could get a glimpse of the little yellow eyes of the beast. She tried to sustain her composure, but it was just too late in a long day. She ended with a charge to Council: “It’s insulting!”

Quite a statement, considering the level of rudeness with which the two professionals had just addressed Council and some members of the public.

Okay, yeah, I was chuckling by then.

Time out, with background music: citizen participation is the right way, but people should not be permitted to claim representation of secret societies. With secret membership numbers and decision process, VCPORA/FQC are exactly that. The group title’s significance may just be artificial inflation. The public does not know whether a speaker represents hundreds, dozens or even less; whether the group has a meaningfully diverse mix, or is only the white middle-aged conservative bourgeois types who appear at council; or as Robert Ripley, who is a member, said at one session, the little group of spokesmen represent only themselves. Are positions arrived at by member consensus, decisions of a board, or officers only? The associations that Chris Young represents do not conceal that information, nor does the sane and sensible FQ neighborhood association, French Quarter Advocates. Just because you have heard the name VCPORA repeated thousands of times does not mean you know what it is.

That was just to build suspense until I reveal the insight.


The Stanford experiment, Prisons and Guards, designed by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo in 1971. 24 students were divided into two groups, prisoners and guards. Guards had to set up and enforce rules to keep order among the prisoners. Zimbardo was warden. The role play deepened beyond anyone’s expectation. Guards imposed harsh rules, prisoners accepted passively or rebelled. Guards enforced harder and imposed punishments, down to psychological torture. The role play even affected Professor Zimbardo, who allowed the torment to continue beyond the prudent. Another psychologist pulled the plug after six days.

The light of revelation burst through the clouds. The practical interest could be that Meg and Carol wanted to send some provocateurs in to restaurants to buy a PBR with a take-away Po’boy so they could launch some more of their beloved lawsuits. But was that enough to explain the endorphin floods we were watching?

The Occam’s solution: the presidents and execs of these outfits (really one outfit with two names) are so deep in a role play, they have lost control of it. An Instructor from the past, probably the ghost of Elizebeth Werlein, told them they are Guards. The Night’s Watch. They need invaders for validation. The inner animal eye scans for intruders everywhere. Every drink and cigar and bit of music and sometimes T-shirt is a threat to the fragile, quivering FQ. They try to look normal – except perhaps Susan Guillot, president of FQC, who has a chip on her shoulder like a Waco biker – but that CZO evening, the masks were cracking.

Who is the Warden in this Game of Zones? Maybe it’s their Big Brother, Stuart Smith. Or is he the head of the prisoners’ AB? Maybe it is Council. Maybe Stacy Head, who generally represents their interests and has a good line in finger-wagging, holds the keys. Maybe they are wandering Ronin Guardians in search of a Warden.

In the sound ordinance days, it was their passionate dishonesty that that fascinated many of us, and we wondered why the City Council and others put up with it. Were they in the game, too? Then I wondered: why would people commit with such determination to being pains in the ass? Cui bono? For these guys are not Socratic gadflies puncturing unsupported beliefs to upgrade thinking. They are obstructors. Inhibitors. Suppressors. Zoning hawks.

So perhaps not really evil, just victims of that mysterious Zimbardo nerve in all of us, abandoned by their old Warden to sit around their boardrooms and try to figure it out themselves.

But – whence the frothing antagonism to alcoholic beverages? Drinks and music (unless it is music that they like, in a place and at a time when they want people to play it, with the instruments they want to permit.) They drink. The odd one or two among them is a binger. This tiny detail about take-away meals, which will make no practical difference to anything, was only the last of the Anti-Saloon League pleas of the day. They paraded to the mic to oppose anything to do with alcoholic beverage sales, or to support anything that restricted, opposed or obstructed alcoholic beverage sales.

Then I got it: part of America has not grown up yet. That’s why the federal government lets kids join the military and get killed in imperial wars three years before they can buy a beer. It’s Demon Drink. You would have thought the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act, and the War on Drugs, if it comes to that, had proved the futility. But many of us do not learn from failure. We Believe. We have faith.

They are channeling Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Nation and the Anti-Saloon League. Temperance politics is back.

Carrie Nation

Susan b Anthony
I said I would not do reports but just a bit: the group that Ms Head called “the French Quarter people” did get 8.1 back in. My problem with it is, it helps enable cranks and zoning hawks to harass businesses and the city with malicious, costly lawsuits. The City Attorney’s objection is: under certain conditions, the wording allocates land use jurisdiction to the Vieux Carré Commission, which its establishing legislation prohibits, creating a contradiction. The FQ-favoring CMs said, let’s live with the contradiction and let the courts sort it out.

The Acting Prez fought hard for it. Ms Guidry almost showed strength to resist and go for the more properly legal option, but tough Stacy Head backed her down.

The CMs were mad to pass it. 8.1 assists any old harpy to harass and attack people anywhere in or near the French Quarter, not only where it specifically affects the plaintiff or for architectural preservation. Tout ensemble and 8.1 mean you can channel Susan B. Anthony into all sorts of zoning jihadism. Stacy Head said several times, “We are a nation of laws not of men,” and showed herself willing to let individuals suffer loss of work and income to uphold the letter of pointless laws. Other Council Members fundamentally disagree. Laws can be ugly and men . . . is us.

How many times that day did we hear “the fragile French Quarter”? Even once, disappointingly, from Jason Williams: “The French Quarter is fragile.”

Some of them said the French Quarter is the most important neighborhood. Fortunately for the integrity of Council, James Gray had his BS meter turned on. He countered with, All neighborhoods are important, but if I have to name a most important, it’s mine, District E.


Enough of the preference for pious white folks. (Sorry, Mr Williams, but you know what I mean.) The French Quarter as a physical entity is an important economic resource. The people that live in it are no more important than any other 3,800 people. Especially Lower Ninth people, who have gone through hardships few of them can match.

I think I’m a pretty decent pro-preservationist. Maybe that’s why I lived in Europe most of my life. I had friends whose houses were centuries older than New Orleans, let alone the mid- to late-19th century buildings that are called so fragile here. I like Norman castles and Gothic cathedrals. The “fragile” French Quarter withstood Katrina better than most of the city. Fevers, storms, mosquitos, wars – old N.O. is still there.

The fragility is a myth to enhance the clout of the self-appointed Guardians. Some good rules are in place about the appearance of the buildings. Toughen it up. For instance, I would propose empowering the VCC even more than 8.1 does, but in a more practical direction: somebody should deal with the structural state of the private buildings, not just the outward appearance, to try to avoid a repeat of the collapse on Royal Street. S&P is patently unsuitable. How many other houses have powdered mortar and rotten timbers and might fall down? No one is empowered to find out, and if they did, who would fix them? We need a few simple rules to keep commercial development from damaging the residential stock, but we should have no truck with people dragging exclusionary suburbanism into the city under the cloak of tout ensemble. Cultural management must not be granted to tea-party clubs. People moved to or want to keep living in a city: there are sounds and smells, flowers and mule poo, new and old, and it can happen at any time. It’s all in your Quality of Life reality folder, mate, including chapters from London, Paris, New York, Buenos Aires, Shanghai and Caesar’s Rome. Read the small print. It can be dealt with intelligently, without Susan B. Anthony or post-hypnotic puritanism.

Strengthen the VCC and get rid of 8.1. That would reinforce historical preservation, while preventing the word “history” being used as protective cover for preserving the comfort zone of the current residents.

The Downers, a subset of Downtowners. Role-players in a Zimbardo rut. They are looking pretty irrelevant right now. Maybe we should put them in parody sketches to raise their profile again.

The highlight of the afternoon (at 4:00 on the video slider):

My name is Mary Ann Hammett . . . and I am here on behalf of Bywater Neighborhood Association. We are for the Riverfront Overlay bonus provisions as amended which maintain the historic height limits in Bywater. We’re for all the affordability amendments that have been introduced and we are for music and alcohol in restaurants.

There was a breeze of relieved laughter and applause at the concise simplicity and sanity of this statement, the Gettysburg Address of the season’s downtown politics. I think I heard the lid quietly closing on the exclusionist Riverfront Alliance’s coffin, even though a few of their diehards were still posing in their T-shirts. My runes say their alliance must have already cracked. VCPORA/FQC never made a move to support the acrophobics, and the T-shirts never came up to rant against Demon Drink. With a bit of luck, that’s over.

Or maybe not. Let’s do them next time.

Which allows us to change to a wider lens. Jindal, who exercises his Gollum-like wit to criticize President Obama for executive orders, has decided to implement one of his own, to back-door override the Legislature on “religious freedom.” Any hint of stroking the backwoods base there? The Religious Freedom acts that have become one of the hobbies of Republican governors are a funny thing. We know their intent is to enable discrimination. But what kind? A “Christian” bakery doesn’t want to make a same-sex wedding cake. That’s discrimination. But what if a same-sex couple had a bakery or flower shop and didn’t want to make cakes or arrangements for the weddings of religions that give them a bad time? Suppose they refused service to Mormons or Muslims? Would that be religious freedom? Should service businesses put a list of who they don’t serve for religious reasons in the window? “Evangelicals need not apply?” Suppose they refused to supply Republican governors, on the basis that they may be extra-terrestrial? Or should we just worry about drinks zoning trivia instead?

National events like the Superbowl and political conventions are crossing Religious Freedom states suspected of enabling discrimination off their venue lists. Jindal doesn’t care – he is happily sacrificing Louisiana and New Orleans to follow the path of Huckabee and Palin to a lucrative career as a failed Presidential candidate. Landrieu moved quickly and neatly to head off the damage by barring LGBT discrimination in the city, but event promoters will be aware that the state collects most of the revenue from Superdome and other events. And if Vitter is next, a guy with a well-know track record of hypocrisy, the executive order might even stand as a pacifier to the evangelicals.

Jindal seems destined to become a joke, but this doesn’t:

Check it out. The US Military has practiced a lot of slaughter in the name of security. Usual targets in the last decade or so have been Iraqis, Yemenis, Afghanis – people like that. Some sources say at least eight weddings have been droned to smithereens.

Next month the navy is going to work it out on fish, whales and dolphins – in American waters. Why go all the way to Yemen or Somalia to destroy the livelihood of subsistence villages, when you can do it right here to American native communities?

Come to think of it, doesn’t the FQ clubs’ own little Richelieu claim to be a powerful protector of the environment, with shielding us from Demon Drink and sinful music by private lawsuit a sideline? How did he let the Department of Defense, the world’s largest carbon footprint, slip through his net?

The moral of the story: zoning law’s attempt to micro-manage what you do in every little parcel of property and what you can do in every business and with every house is doomed to failure. Zoning hawks promote laws in their interests and are then shocked – shocked! I say – when somebody dares to transgress their little bit of Mt. Sinai. They look silly in Council and should be more irrelevant than they are.



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The Game of Zones


Not really – I just wanted to get your attention. Zoning and the CZO can get so dry and heavy, you might forget to breathe and drift into a coma. You need a revitalizing fantasy to pull you back from the brink.The problem is especially acute if the writer knows something about the subject. Me, I don’t have a clue; I am just going to noodle around on the keyboard for a while to see what bubbles up.

If you have not read it yet, stop for a peruse.

The shopworn Dementors of the French Quarter are back at their undermining game. The jazz trio at Antoine’s Hermes Bar bothers them. Not physically; the sound doesn’t invade their houses. Music is just a major crime in Dementor-land. It’s much worse than “Cyberstalking.” The Historic Gem is too fragile for a jazz trio.

It’s a zoning kvetch. Antoine’s, which has been a restaurant or bar since before the Civil War, is not in the exact right part of St. Louis Street that VCPORA is prepared to tolerate music in. Venerable as it is, the restaurant has to pay the price for lèse-zoning, say the neighborhood brown shirts. Some say blow it off, Lawyer Voldemort has lost the plot, but I demur. This is New Orleans. Embrace the crazy. And celebrate their losing streak; never let them win.

One of the things that will turn up here (to slip it in while you are still awake) is: WTF does zoning have to do with music? Music isn’t land use. A bar is a kind of land use. A blacksmith’s shop is a kind of land use. A restaurant is a kind of land use. Music is just part of the restaurant’s offering, like silver cutlery or candles. Zoning, you may be starting to see, is a legal trash truck, where people dump all kinds of old crap.

LATE BREAKING: CMs Guidry and Cantrell have just slithered in another Conditional Use exception. Now they need citizen input and I guess right of veto to play music in restaurants in their “overlays.” Another nail in the coffin of that poor old Master Plan. Remember that? It doesn’t exist any more. The Council pledged allegiance to it, then gutted it with Neighborhood Association amendments. We should have a memorial service for the Master Plan, and for the money you spent on getting it written.

Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association, another little clump of caped crusaders, is advertising a lawsuit against the city too, and asking for contributions to support it. Maybe they will open a Kickstarter: Suing New Orleans for Fun and Profit. Their problem is building heights. They say allowing higher than 50feet construction along the levy or on Chartres is a violation of the Master Plan if not the Book of Leviticus. I don’t remember seeing that in there, but if you read some of their stuff, you may learn something about mathematicians’ intuitions of parallel universes.

As we will soon come to, CM Stacy Head is their guy in government, shoehorning a brief, unsavory section called 8.1 back into the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance. The City Planning Commission, a City department whose name gives away its objectives, wants it out. VCPORA, a club of amateurs lacking reasonable diversity and carrying a track record of deep, subterranean dishonesty and wanton litigious aggression, wants it in; so guess who Miz Stacy is going with? 8.1 helps enable these vigilante clubs to sue the city, costing us all money defending their useless crusades; if the Mayor and the other CMs let La Presidenta Head do it, they deserve what they get – a big risk that one day these pesky folks will get their stuff into the right elected judge’s courtroom so they can get a favorable verdict. Democracy in action. Land of the free.

NOLAscape has an editorial position, and here it comes: Council, vote that amendment out.

Maybe FMIA thinks running a law suit will hike them up a notch closer in the sight of hoodie heaven to their FQ brothers and sisters in militant fantasy, VCPORA/FQC. Maybe even closer communion with Council President Head herself, our civic Church Militant for any old ragtag of Downtowners with preservationist pretensions.

Do you remember when “neighbor” had a warm feeling about it? Neighbors were the elements of neighborhood – people disposed to be friendly and create a community. The Next Door Neighbor was immortalized in the Commedia del Sitcom from I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners to Louie (urban) and Ozzie and Harriet, 2.4 Children and Californication (largely sprawl). The protagonist pair or family needed next-door to complete the picture. Fred and Ethel and Norton were the necessary foils, like Sancho to Quixote or Robin to Batman.

What happened? Since Historic Preservationism, spiked with historical ignorance, became a popular hobby for people of a certain age, “neighbors” suggests a French Revolution mob, roaming the streets looking for a guest for the guillotine.

Zoning is a strange combination of urban idealism and covert corruption resulting in junk law. Planners are asked to design great neighborhoods, towns or cities. Sometimes they really try. Then people that have some particular interest or project within the space start to pick it apart while genuflecting to the ideal. Consultants write the plans in consultantese, a job-creation dialect, so that the city has to hire them back to tell them what they said. Exceptions and amendments that quickly start to slither out of the woodwork are often composed in the same thick accent.

Two categories of amendment emerge. One is for developers and others looking to the future to get exceptions to rules preventing something; the other is by “neighbors” to get exceptions to rules permitting something.

Everyone except the faithful few in the cult clubs knows that Antoine’s and the Hermes bring more pleasure and benefit to New Orleans and the French Quarter every month than VCPORA/FQC has for the last 50 years or so. At the turn of 2013/14, in the sound ordinance battles, these “residents” who are trying to find an elected judge to overturn popular will and previous decisions were caught in more lies than Fox News. They have a Greater Truth, by their faith they know it, which justifies any old means to dominate and subvert, and let the city take the hindmost.

Track Record
The objectors don’t give up. A real Joe Palooka doll. In 2014, VCPORA got smacked down by the Board of Zoning Adjustments after a wasteful, costly assault on T-shirt retailers, which even involved them hitting a moral low point when they knew they had wrongly accused a man but would not admit it. Michael Martin, also a lawyer in the Hermes case, tried to sell the Board of Zoning Adjustments a Jabberwocky interpretation of the grandfather clause.

Bourbon Street
More recently, they got a smackdown from a jury for another of their attempts to rule the French Quarter and Bourbon Street by lawsuit against the 544 bar. The formal plaintiff is SmithStag’s pet Bourbon Street scarecrow, a guy called Peterson Yokum. The Brown Shirt “neighbor” clubs would be in there, but judges ruled they have no standing in Bourbon Street sound matters, so they are relegated to cheering section. Smith and Yokum still have a bunch of open lawsuits trying to coerce lower volume in Bourbon Street by one-man vigilante action, one defendant at a time. They voted against decent legislation for improvement It would have blunted their weapons. They prefer assault suing. So far, the courts are not cooperating enthusiastically.

Habana Café
They lost one judgement after another trying to block Habana Café, spinning imaginary pictures as if they were legal arguments for grownups, through every hoop of the civic process, and now they are suing the city to try to get a civil court judge to override the Council as well as the commissions. Isn’t it wonderful? Government by elected judges. Paragraph 8.1 is the enabler. Please try to keep that in mind..

Messy zoning law is the pretext that allows civic nuisances to bug everybody and cost individuals, businesses and the city shedloads of money. They keep losing, so judges and juries don’t seem to favor the squelch squad; but they keep going, probably in the hope that at least one political judge sometime will swing the other way.

How come groups like this even exist here? What happened to New Orleans? A Caribbean Creole city with an unusual history, in a position to sidestep some of the worst traps of Americanism; trying to keep its mojo together while recovering from a disaster, against a background of one of the century’s worst periodic breakdowns of capitalism skewing most of the money out of the marketplace into corporate asset accumulation; but real people have to put up with petty oppression by local teabag-types mimicking the national fascism. (Think they’re not? Check out their attitudes on “NOLA Patrol” and New York’s Brown Shirt “Broken Windows” theory of law enforcement.)

Building height was a big thing at the CZO vent session a few weeks ago, signaled by T-shirts printed “SIZE MATTERS.” I hoped they did not mean me; but no, the shirts were about the height of buildings to go along the levee on the river side of Chartres in Bywater and possibly along North Peters in Marigny.

The T-shirt tribe were members of the Riverfront Alliance battle pact of neighborhood associations. Their coat of arms is building height.

They express absolute certainty that if the height of a building exceeds 50 feet, the Miami beachfront will come to town in tanks.

The other side says 75 feet is okay. Their cause may be in danger, because they did not have T-shirts.

They call the 25 foot difference a “bonus.” I wonder if it would be right in Bywater to call it the Sean Cummings bonus. The best, maybe the only, apartment building on the river side of Chartres in Bywater is The Rice Mill Lofts, an excellent conversion from a rice mill built in 1892. A great mixed use industrial conversion, with commercial space including an excellent restaurant on the ground floor, and roof space set up so that it could support public use, such as a café. The developer, Mr Cummings, wants to build more buildings coordinating with the Rice Mill, which from what I know of them sound like top-drawer design, and would of course be around the same size – close to 80 feet, not 50. Across the street are mostly industrial buildings, so not too many double shotguns to frighten.

So what’s going on? Are the microphones of Riverfront Alliance, Lisa Suarez of Faubourg Marigny, Mark Gonzalez of Neighbors First and Brian Luckett of Neverland trying to shut down or limit the extended Rice Mill complex? If so, why? The claim is that 75 foot buildings would be incompatible with the residential architecture. How does that make sense? 75 foot buildings would be perfectly consistent with the existing model of loft structure, and the facing properties are not residential.

Maybe they mean other buildings further downriver or across the tracks in Marigny. My take: even so, wrong question from both sides. Height is just one component of a building’s design. On its own, neither 75 not 50 feet will tell you much of about what the riverfront will look like when new buildings are built. Location, design quality, aspect from city and river sides, parking, landscaping, separation, variety and public access to the riverside park will make more difference than the height, especially of there is one legislated height, so apartment blocks line up like giant bricks in a row. How much difference would it make if they all stood on the long side or the short side? 50 feet is little more than an arbitrary number that a couple of gangs of “neighbors” have hooked on to with a crusader’s faith. Ask a better question.

The Mississippi Nato has added some humor redeeming its representation. A fellow named Brian Luckett took the podium at the CZO hearing, and woke us up. I blinked; my heart re-started. In two minutes of almost total incoherence, he rescued the afternoon from life-threatening torpor. “We are not for Smart Growth or the New Urbanism. We support the Old Urbanism, the tradition that built our city!” thundered the Honorable Member. A veritable Danton of zoning.

Er . . . what? These guys are zoning hawks. The tradition he is inventing would be flatly illegal. I would be more likely to favor it than they would. The old houses were built to no code, especially not the onerous ones imposed on construction now. Back in the not-so-distant times loosely referred to in New Orleans as History, there was no zoning and no esthetically imposed height limits.

I think he means that all new construction should be copies of building styles already here, like Creole Cottages and other common styles. There is a Riverfront Alliance manifesto where he describes it. I am not even sure how to discuss this peculiar idea. You might not even need real architects any more, just a computer program to fit a selected old pattern into the space. McCreole buildings would pop up along the river. The implications for other art and design fields are intriguing. What would be the reference baseline for music and painting? Would playing music that did not comply with Buddy Bolden’s style be illegal within the city limits, or just inside the imitation buildings? Would imitation Picasso be acceptable in painting? Imitation Impressionists? The Riverfront Alliance will have to appoint a Board of Artistic Orthodoxy. With the force of law. New Orleans has a lot of houses and buildings. Luckett’s Inquisition can tell us which ones are approved models and which are heterodox, sentenced to the stake.

Have the Riverfront folk really thought this through, or are they messin’ with us?

Smart Growth and New Urbanism are names related to the trend back to the city from suburban sprawl and waste, intended to encourage townscapes like traditional towns and cities that functioned best as communities before detailed zoning started segregating everything, reaching its isolating apogee in suburbia. Smart Growth emphasizes traditional principles of design, narrow streets, 90 degree corners, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, in-fill construction harmonious with the surrounding built environment, keeping car storage around the back and out of sight so aspects are not disfigured by parking lots and garage doors – all the things that made old cities great to walk around in, but understanding that construction has changed. That’s what Bywater is! Or would be, if it were not for the current threat of over-fussy zoning.

Another Luckettism: Pres Kabakoff, well known developer, said at Council that the lower buildings did not return enough profit, 4% when the builders need 12%. Later that day on the Angela show, Luckett said that was profit gouging or some such. I was surprised that he would express such a pure blank lack of understanding of how stuff works in public. Lower buildings have less rentable or salable space per square foot. If the builders can’t make the right money out of them, they have some choices: walk away; make cheap, ugly buildings; build and decorate to a higher standard, reduce the density and charge exorbitant prices or rents; require subsidy and tax breaks. Amateur Luckett’s unrealistic assessment of a pro developer’s input sounded pretty silly to me. But the T-shirts looked pretty silly, too, so they are probably okay with it.

Soon City Council may vote on the bloated Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance. May 14th seems to be the latest predicted date, but they have put it off before.

The CZO is supposed to fulfill the Master Plan, make it practical. Put six people around the CZO to work it over, you probably have a dozen opinions already. Heights, minimum lot size, minimum square foot size, ceiling height, land use, roof shape, parapets, air conditioning, parking rules. Can a shop be a shop unless the residential neighbors take a vote first? What, music? Shut it down! Oh, it’s not live music. That’s okay then. This could be a libretto composed by Jackie Clarkson.

Wait, let’s change that: restaurants can have music but only three players, and no amplification, everywhere but in the French Quarter, where restaurants can’t have music. Antoine’s again, right?. What is an obviously gaga rule about how many players it takes to make a song sound right, and what instruments you can play it with, doing in a zoning law? Do you see the hand of petty special interest in this kind of stuff, or am I just suspicious, think it is law for the VCPORA agenda? Fortunately, the mayor’s office threw a lot of this junk out.

Zoning starts off with ideals and a vision, and eventually devolves into confusion and crap law. New Orleans paid consultants a few gazillion bucks to create the Master Plan for the 21st Century, made a great to-do of citizen input and then voted it in with “the force of law,” a hazy concept often cited by both sides of a dust-up to justify their points.

The Master Plan – I am going to call it MP21 to save keystrokes – gives us a vision of walkable neighborhoods. The basic walkable structure of most downtown neighborhoods, and Lower Garden, Irish Channel and Uptown, is already there – short blocks, narrow streets, small corner radiuses, house fronts close to the sidewalk. MP21 makes future New Orleans look like a corner of heaven, with streetcars, squares and parks everywhere like a smaller London. Everybody would be able to walk to stores, restaurants, bars, entertainments and parks, with lots of space and opportunity for social interaction, and public transportation so effective, your SUV would grow rusty sitting there.

The CZO was to put flesh on MP21 and enable the vision. A grand idea, but at 660-plus pages, the actual CZO is complicated and soporific, a potential money mine for consultants and lawyers. Now that the CZO has made the rounds and people have had time to fiddle with it, it has been shoved full of amendments and overlays and voodoo spells so that in some parts, mixed use has become an Orwellian synonym for Not In My Backyard.

The river neighborhoods’ associations are vocal players in the distortion process. The infrastructure for walkability is mostly there by legacy, but the discussion heats up when it comes to what is going to be in those neighborhoods. Will there be anything to walk to, or just to your car? Urbanism (New Urbanism – Luckett’s creation, Old Urbanism, was silent on it) and the MP21 say you need to be able to stroll to the amenities of life in five minutes, as in a classic Italian town or Paris or New York. Suburbanism separates everything from everything else: residents here, subdivided into little islands by house value, so sorted by income band; shopping there, offices there, industrial out of sight; huge schools and malls in the center of parking lots for 2,000 cars. Each functional district (planners’ word for single-use area) reachable by car only. If you try walking anywhere, especially without a dog, get ready for a talk with the local constabulary. The rule for suburbs is functional and socio-economic segregation.

A modern non-sprawl planner would probably say justified single-use districts include civic buildings, university campuses, medical and hospital buildings, agricultural and industrial facilities that would damage other environments, and transportation hubs like airports, and some enormous entertainment complexes – Disneyland or Grand Ole Opry.

Unjustified sequestration would be housing, apartment buildings, shopping and shopping centers, and business offices. They do not need protection from each other. That is what MP21 tells me.

But another trick in the zoning playbook is overlays. Post-MP21 zoning activists work on things like cultural overlays – areas where entertainment is encouraged. The overlay is supposed to protect projects in the area from the No! people, who attack every new project, one by one, costing the entrepreneur so much money up front that most just never start.

But what the overlays also do is set out unjustified districts. I think I can see why well-meaning people do it – protection against the NIMBY forces. But should we stop pretending that the Master Plan is still about anything yet?

A part of the process that interests me is that you can take the boy out of the tract shack, but you can’t get the two car garage out of a lot of the boys. And girls. The most vitriolic of the new urban residents, or even some of the old who perhaps watch too much TV, want their neighborhood to look like a city, but they don’t want it to live like one. They pledge allegiance to mixed use and the MP21, but on a deeper level, they can’t stand it.

Don’t underestimate it. Suburban sprawl has been a huge economic and cultural influence. David Harvey, a geographer/economist, says suburban development was the major US economic driver after WWII. Think of just some of the elements of its ecosystem: building new tracts and subdivisions, big supermarkets for the weekly shop, home freezers, cars, six lane roads, the 20 mile commute to the city or to a sequestered office park. Stores, offices and schools are sited in the center of acres of black asphalt desert with yellow and white highlights reserved for car storage. And don’t forget the cultural driver: white flight. All the Ozzie and Harriets wanted to be together, where all the children could be above average. The suburban mentality was built into pop culture. By the time of 2.4 Children, it was into deep satire, and with The Americans it is taken to a new level, but many Americans are irony-proof, so the shows still functioned as affirmation for many. The structure was probably conceived for the nine-to-five corporate dad and the home-maker mom and apple pie, but then both parents started to work, so more cars and bigger driveways. The kids had to drive themselves everywhere, and on and on. Like most things, it got boring.

Moving back to the city generated some still intractable problems like gentrification, property value and rent explosion. Nobody has an answer.

Density is an issue. The urban environment requires high density. You can’t support a corner store if there are not enough people on the block to use it. There is an imperative for a certain percentage of affordable housing, a formal way of encouraging diversity. Affordable housing requires economical construction requires high density. So everybody pledges allegiance to density. But what some of the people around that table mean by density is a minimum lot size just like their Home Sweet Home, to support the house prices, while others, who seem to better understand what a city is, want variety, shops, cafes, bars, studios, apartments – lots of people, lots going on. But everybody says they are loyal to that MP21, even while, as Orwell is my savior, they are preaching the gospel of a suburb of Omaha.

CM Susan Guidry entered an amendment to make commercial uses of the old corner stores in “historical” neighborhoods conditional instead of permitted. What can that mean, except that some cliques of her uptown constituents, while surely genuflecting dutifully before MP21, are deeply suspicious of actual stores operating in the buildings built to be and previously operated as corner stores? Now in the land-use obsessed gentrification spaces, with their mantra of traffic, parking, noise and trash always ready and primed, they want to make sure that a corner store isn’t one that anyone actually wants to come to. If it sells Alpaca knitting wool or 17th century chronometers, okay. But food and Po’boys, beer and snacks, records or music – oh no. Veto power for the resident neighbors, who, you will also almost certainly find, are not themselves mixed. Not a lot of biodiversity in the decorous little mobs against almost everything.

To be fair to our fair city, other CMs immediately pushed back. James Gray, wisest in Council, said “Wait a minute: we need economic activity in the Lower Ninth. If your people want to make life hard for stores, make an uptown overlay or something. Let my people be.” Another nail in MP21’s coffin.

The City Planning Commission dropped this out of the CZO. VCPORA/FQC and its allies have wangled it back in via their ally CM Stacy Head and her reliable sidekick in stuff with preservationist pretension, Susan Guidry.

Section 8.2 sequesters and protects the residential sector of the French Quarter.

Section 8.1 is the section written in 1936 that the busybody associations of FQ residents exploit to attack and sue and object to what ever they want to not only in the residential area where they, but the commercial and entertainment areas. The overly vague text enables VCPORA to object to buildings on Canal Street and musicians in Antoine’s, and to sue the City about Habana Café, whose site is commercial.

Mr Rivers, Chairman of the CPC, defended its excision to Council.

So why did they let it back in? It is a rod for the City’s back. We can understand why Stacy Head would propose it; in FQ matters, she is like a crypto-member of VCPORA, and Guidry pretty much always follows her lead. But why would the other Council Members accept it? Why is the Mayor’s office not acting against it?

Maybe they will. Ask them to. 8.1 is not in your interest. A better legal support for maintaining the historical built environment of the French Quarter commercial areas can and should be written.

Here it is, short and damaging:

  1. Section 8.1. – Procedures In Vieux Carré Historic Districts.
  2. No occupancy permit shall be issued by the Director of Safety and Permits, for any change in the use of any existing building until and unless a special permit shall have been issued by the Vieux Carré Commission, except that where no change of exterior appearance is contemplated such permit by the Vieux Carré Commission shall not be required. Where any change in exterior appearance is contemplated, the Vieux Carré Commission shall hold a hearing, and if it approves such change, it shall issue a special permit to continue the same use, or for any other use not otherwise prohibited in this district, subject to the following conditions and safeguards:
    1. The historic character of the Vieux Carré shall not be injuriously affected.
    2. Signs which are garish or otherwise out of keeping with the character of the Vieux Carré shall not be permitted.
    3. Building designs shall be in harmony with the traditional architectural character of the Vieux Carré.
    4. The value of the Vieux Carré as a place of unique interest and character shall not be impaired.

Awright. This is getting long. What I am looking for is the crossroads where the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance meets the Roadrunner. Where the pompous discover they already ran over the edge of the cliff. If you read this far, you have met some of them.

And what would the world be like if sane people said: enough!

Kirk out.

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