First, let’s watch a reminder that there are some bigger issues than the threat to New Orleans by misguided fundamentalist Residentialists, and the some of crazy terror-mongering stuff about Syrians and refugees:
I am pretty sure I got something wrong in “Will the real preservationist please stand up?” I said Meg Lousteau’s aggressive address to Council was lousy technique if she intended to persuade people to vote her way.
But last Thursday VCPORA and their playmates launched another of their lawsuits against the city – against us. Against you. Re-running the algorithm, the result that pops out of the slot is, she knew she was going to lose and had already set up the pieces to start the legal subversion. That corresponds to their conclusion noted in the Brylskileaks memo that they would do better in the courts undermining government than in Council attempting to influence it. So the battlefield general of residentialist insurrection would have been signaling Council her intention to override them.
The Residential Fundamentalists must know they have almost no chance of winning these suits. They want to extend the process, cost people money – the owner and developer by delay and the city – us – for defense and hope their opponents will walk away before the end of having to battle out an essentially frivolous case whose tactics will be one continuance after another. Maybe they figure if they can prolong the thing until next election, they can try to back another addled Clarksonian comic who will validate some of their boring cult notions.
VCPORA, FQC, Louisiana Landmarks, Preservation Resource Center, Faulkner House, Smart Growth Louisiana and a few others joined the suit. Now I have to shore up my interest in Faulkner and Smart Growth against depressing news like this.
It’s the usual yada yada: violated the Master Plan, negative impact, alter the character . . . . Mind-numbing formulaic phrases, clichés of tedium to rock a land use lawyer to sleep.
Needless to say, it is all rubbish of the first order, but somehow a fanatic minority gets to abuse the civil court system to keep parts of the city derelict unless restoration or renewal is conducted according to their blueprint.
The restoration of 121 Royal will do more for the French Quarter than VCPORA and their followers have done for it since they exaggerated their role in getting the river front freeway cancelled in the mid-60s. Last time I heard the VCPORAn interpretation of that, they didn’t like to mention that Robert Moses’ campaigns to sacrifice urban life to traffic and sprawl had become unpopular, giving way to opposition led by Jane Jacobs and the resurrection of city life, as well as budget problems and geology.
I have been chided recently on Nextdoor for calling people idiots. The context was another project, and I don’t think I did say that explicitly. Not out of scruple. Worrying about the feelings of people intentionally undermining the life of the city is not a problem I am likely to have. But it’s not funny, just school yard.
I think it is appropriate here, though. This lawsuit is stupid, dull, wasteful, the work of people with more money in their accounts and reflex genuflection in their poor souls than vision in their brains. It is a move against all of us. And a right shame the city does not have a mechanism to shut this stuff down. Maybe we could counter-sue for harassment.
Just to make sure I have not been ambiguous: the people behind this assault, the phalanx of organizations and officers who are systematically dragging preservationism into disrepute, are being tactically cunning, using money to get their way against the interests of the city. They are subversive, exploitative and yes, stupid. There is a kind of articulate stupidity to which American conservatives seem particularly and embarrassingly subject. This is an example of it.
So I think I have to put my resumé back in the drawer. Meg was telling Council just what she wanted to: “Up yours. We can override you, the Mayor, the Farrells, whoever we want, just by abusing the civil court process.”
Details, in case you like such mundane things as facts, can be found in the Advocate and nola.com. You can see the skyline profiles and compare them to the rubbish in the legal text.
Is there a way we can rise up against this? I can think of a few ways. If you belong to one of these unpleasant organizations, resign. If you know someone in one of them, encourage him or her to resign. I don’t know if you can send letters to Civil Court judges; I am going to try. Try telling Council Members; maybe they can get to the judges. Tell the Mayor’s office. Tell the organizations themselves. If you think their behavior is as awful as I do, tell them. Up to a point, they probably take disapproval as a martyr’s badge of honor. If it passes a point, though, they may reconsider their position.
Make no mistake, as GI Meg says: these self-appointed watch-poodles are damaging the city with their shibboleths and tired mantras, their lack of vision and Benghazi myths, self-righteousness and unattractive pose of injured entitlement, their tub-thumping against real life and history, their programs favoring prohibition, restriction, puritanism and silence. They strain my commitment to freedom of speech.
Don’t be deceived by their abuse of the word “historical.” History is not a snapshot of some 19th century houses and a process of genteel decay. We’re all in history. Can’t get out of it. You own it as much as they do. You are just as historical as people walking along Royal in 1892 when the Royal Cosmopolitan was under construction.
Maybe not quite as much as the Creoles displaced from the French Quarter by the Jim Crow that gained power in 1876 when that wonderful fellow Rutherford B. Hayes secured the presidency after losing the popular vote by promising to end Reconstruction, or “separate but equal” passed in 1890, cemented in place by the Plessy v. Ferguson decision on the lawsuit launched the same year the Royal Cosmo broke ground. The White Supremacist toad of a Chief Justice commemorated on the courthouse steps at 400 Royal helped consign the country to complicity in a vast social crime that started to unravel in 1954 but still poisons the country and has a long way to go before we call ourselves clean. As the Creole culture abandoned the French Quarter, it was increasingly carpetbagged by the ancestors genetic and spiritual of the current VCPORA/FQC stalwarts who have Anglo-gentrified the territory and with petty puritanical initiatives sully the Creole legacy daily. They still look like usurpers to me.
You may think: some guy wants to build a hotel, a few cranks don’t want him to. So what?
The “what” is, every little victory, every little delay, every little pain in the butt they get away with, every time-consuming exploitation of the civil litigation process to undermine representative democracy for their narrow purposes empowers them to obstruct, impede and hack away at a decent future with seemly respect for the artifacts of history.
Let’s find out how to vote by acclaim to put them down.
This second lawsuit against the city makes Stacy Head’s summary speech at the end of the session that conditionally approved 121 Royal even more attractive. She used a tone combining despair and sarcasm, but I take it straight up. We should throw the Master Plan and the CZO out. We are not following them, because they are not right. (Actually, I think the MP is pretty good, but it is being regularly abused to oppose good projects.) One project after another comes looking for variances and we grant them, she said. So what is the law for?
Events are proving her right. The process of creating the Master Plan was overly fussy, too expensive, too complex, too long, too eager to please, too compromised. There was learning in the process, but this version didn’t quite work. Do it again. Distill it to shorter, clearer and cheaper. Tighten the language so it can’t be spun to justify or criticize almost anything.
And the CZO is worse. A lumpy micromanagement document, reflecting too much cranky amateur input. And look what we are getting from the new laws: zoning battles. Challenges. Court cases. Holdups, slow downs, waste and friction.
Council could spin it positive. They could say the CZO was a good first effort that taught us a lot about how not to make a CZO. So let’s do it again. CZO: Repealed, 5 to 2. Master Plan, Repealed, 5 to 2.
Whose help do we need to get it right? Smart Growth has joined this lawsuit. If Duany is down with it, my constellations are falling apart. That’s okay: facts over faith.
Correction. In “Parking is such sweet sorrow,” I said that resident parking permits were $80 a year. Matthew Rufo, Latrobe’s parking adviser, corrected me. There is a one-time setup charge of $40, then ongoing fees are just $30 a year. So your night-time reserved space in front of your house costs less than 58 cents a week. For such have the Homeland Security forces of upper Bywater gone to war to force even the non-parkers of Latrobe to pay at least $35 a week each to park cars they do not have. Even in their Tea Party Neverland, the rules of arithmetic tell us that one Latrobe space could buy reserved parking for 60 houses. If CPC let Latrobe off of two spaces at a construction cost of $25,000 each (it doesn’t work exactly like that but for the sake of simplicity, let’s roll with it) the Latrobe project could buy street parking for 83 of the NFB cypress castle residents for 20 years. I wonder whether they might want to apologize to Bob Rivers for all the fuss.
Leaning on the rail of the fourth floor balcony of Basin Street Station one night last week, looking over the night skyline of downtown, the feature of the play of lights that attracted me was the interface of the CBD and the French Quarter. The tall buildings and hotels of the CBD were bright with neon signs and lights in windows, right up to the Monteleone, which is solidly in the Quarter at street level, but up on higher ground, it is part of the visual skyline of the CBD, the terrain of steel framed giants.
The sudden change from the sparkle of the CBD to the darkness of the French Quarter highlighted an essential definer of cities: diversity. Differentiation and interaction. And yes, from up there, the French Quarter is dark. At ground level along its commercial streets, there is a lot of flash and life, but there is no skyline.
But we don’t really care about skylines. We care about the latest muted throw-down between Jason Williams and Stacy Head, and what mischief the preservationist tribes are brewing this week to undermine the life of the city, or if you are a loyalist of the dark side, what evil developers are pulling out of their book of spells to destroy “history.”
In current preservationist groupthink, history is not a process unfolding. It is artifacts of the local past. Abuse of the word “history” is not trivial. It colors what they do and believe, and what uncritical listeners hear.
Looking at that skyline, thinking of that diversity, it was hard not to think of the contentious case of the Royal Cosmopolitan Hotel on that borderline, fought before City Council a few days before. Link that with the Latrobe case, that passed Council this week, and I think I see a business opportunity. I could offer my services – not cheaply either; they’ll find the money – as communications consultant to the residentialist No! clubs in the French Quarter, Marigny and Bywater, for yea and verily, they have lost the plot. But let’s tell the story, It is more fun like that.
In the unlikely event that you are not aware of it, the struggle before City Council over 121 Royal Street was exposing faults in the rickety linking of municipal planning, urbanism, development, construction, architecture, preservationism, Master Plans and CZOs last week. Anger and arguments good and bad. Noisy preservationism showed symptoms of multiple personality, Dissociative Identity Disorder, in the jargon, or D.I.D., although they really DIDn’t. (Okay, it’s a crummy pun. But they deserve it.) Conflicts of interest and strange visual fictions stalked the conversations, exasperating the awake.
121 Royal is the address of the Royal Cosmopolitan Hotel, built in 1892, an elegant example of design by one of New Orleans’ then leading architects, Thomas Sully. It was a working hotel until some point in the 1940s, when it closed its doors. The building moldered and deteriorated until Angelo and Regina Farrell bought it in 2005 and set out to renovate it impeccably to its original state, with the addition of a much higher part behind. But in 2005, at the end of August, you may remember, things went wrong. They resurrected the project in 2007/8 – but the world had a financial hurricane. Money was blown away.
This year, third time lucky (if they are lucky) they requested approval of a revised proposal for a sensitive renovation of the original building with a 268 foot tower section added behind. The tower would be in the center of the block, with no frontage on any street. I understand that VCPORA and the usual suspects went quite magnificently ballistic at the NPP. Sorry I missed it. If you followed this story at all, you might have had an overload of images of this building by now, but let’s do some fundamentals anyway. Here is how it looked about 1900, and the designs for the 2016 update, up to a modification submitted Wednesday.
City Planning’s recommendation of denial was based almost entirely on the tower. There were other questions and objections, but since they approved use as a hotel, and the details were largely operational, they would have fallen away or been resolved without the controversial tower. The afternoon before Thursday’s council session, the architects submitted a revised plan, reducing the tower’s height to 190 feet with a stepped roofline to match neighboring hotels the Wyndham and the Astor Crowne Plaza.
I wonder whether Farrell and the architects were trying to directly appease the height-allergic zoning hawks of the French Quarter, or give CM Nadine Ramsey and the Council better ammunition for dealing with them. Probably the latter; draining the venom out of VCPORA is a specialist snake wrangler’s job. They don’t like high buildings and they don’t like hotels, either. They are driven by cult commandments, not reason. Height: bad. Hotels: bad. Thinking: not necessary. Leads to temptation. Stick with “No!” Trust in “No!”
The drama at council was fun. Public speakers were not residential neighbors. Opponents and proponents were experienced organizations and professionals. Was one of the groups going to make any sense?
The first entertaining opponent was Pat Meadowcroft of VCPORA. Unusually nervous for a frequent speaker, but that was appropriate, given her complicity in and recent exposure at another sleazy little VCPORA gambit, and her comically Clintonian attempt to wriggle out of responsibility. The two French Quarter Tea Party residents’ clubs had not found either the courage to apologize, or to roll a few heads so they could pretend they intended to change, so should still be under interdict of several of the Council Members. The message was, they were going to tough it out and trust our short attention spans to let them slither off the hook. I could imagine Meg Lousteau, the General Patton of hardcore Residentialism, physically shoving poor Ms Meadowcroft, blinking and shaking, onto the stage. Maybe they should give her a little medal. Meg is a battle-hardened condottiere, but the presidents are volunteers, possibly burdened by good intentions.
President Pat opened the book on the $6 billion dollar theme which was to recur through the afternoon, but was not very interesting on it, so let’s come back to that with a stronger player. She tried to suggest that the plan revision threw such a mucky horseshoe into the gumbo pot that council should reject and the developer restart the process. Then everything would become clear, and the public would have its chance to vent all over again, at 190 instead of 268 feet. Sounds innocent enough, but she of course knows that that would cost quite a few additional thousands of speculative dollars and take two years to get back to Council. It doesn’t take two years to digest the simple plan revision. Most people seemed able to grasp it in a few minutes. If VCPORA really needed extra time, if their experience in dishing out planning and architecture warnings and strictures for 75 years does not run to sight-reading plans, two weeks should be enough. Meadowcroft’s obstruction would of course demand new traffic studies and all that expensive, meaningless stuff, and another 96 page staff report – the fourth. But VCPORA likes Congressional Republican tactics: delay, obstruct, impede. Never let reality interfere with the goal. The Royal Benghazi Hotel. The strategy had worked fairly well until the 2014 election. VCPORA/FQC has not figured out how to deal with the clearer, saner, smarter legislature we have now. They blame Nadine Ramsey and the five of the 5/2 vote for their failures instead of making a grownup effort to find out what might work better.
That’s why they need me. I am going to send them a resumé.
Meg Lousteau, also trying for early release from purdah, came out swinging, still going with the scolding, finger-wagging manner she does not seem able or willing to leave behind, no matter how much it irritates the people she is supposed to persuade. Her sentences were well formed, her rhytms sound, her arguments well presented, but they were bad arguments. There had been six billion bucks worth of Downtown building that did not request variances, so why did this building need them? (And what, pray, has that to do with the price of plums, Madam?) Then a sermon on the rules. We just passed CZO “as I am sure you remember . . .” says Meg to council. “And you all voted for it . . .” solemnly intoned with a slow, inclusive, horizontal gesture at the ominous 88 beat Foreign Legion pace. “Tiens, voilà le boudin . . . pour les Belges y en a plus . . . ”
The message was clear: We are taking names; when the cauldron next bubbles at Coven Council . . .
(For those who clicked to the video: after the Paris attacks, if anybody is going to sort out ISIS, it might be those guys.)
What was the expected benefit of the tone of petulant thwarted entitlement? The lecturing style might have impressed an audience of hopeful interns there for indoctrination. To the legislators, legislative directors and assistants seated on the dais, it could only be irritating. Maybe Exec Lousteau is playing to a base we could not see, like a Tea Party senator hammering home a lost cause to an empty house. Maybe she is trying to scare the Council: don’t forget how annoying we can be when you mess with us! (Tiens, voila le boudin . . ) Or maybe she knew this was another game in their losing streak, and they wanted to go off the field punching the air.
Still in carping mode, Meg said – “Make no mistake” (How do they expect to win back any respect from Council with communication skills like these?) “the Royal Cosmopolitan will advertise that it is a French Quarter hotel.” Sounds like she was resigned to the hotel opening. She is right, though. The Canal Street hotels already do. So FQ or CBD? Actually by the miracle of Euclidean zoning, it’s both, which ambiguity rather undermines the arguments of people that want strict interpretation of the new CZO. I think her point might have been that if they can place the address in the Quarter, then VCPORA has a special authority. That has a sadness to it, as if she were talking to a lingering shade of Kristin Palmer.
Do you hear any echo of the grouchy Cyclops in the Odyssey, one-eyed in a dark cave? Better, the Cyclops in Ulysses, where the one eye of The Citizen connotes a narrow point of view that can never see beyond its own confined horizons.
Another “Preservationist” opponent, Andrea St Paul Bland, a classier turn, made the $6bn argument more articulately, stylishly, attractively and better supported than the VCPORAns. A developer, renovator and property hustler herself, and, as she reminded us several times, winner of somebody’s Preservationist of the Year award, Ms Bland even owns a building across the street purchased by her great-great-somebody in 1870. Were we seeing an outbreak of old money’s disdain for the new? New Orleanians are always ready to pull out a pedigree to bolster a bad argument or discredit another observer’s position. Ms Bland was definitely the day’s grande dame, tough chick and pinup of right wing preservationism. But standout style did not really hide the fact that the arguments were not about the project in question. They were about other people, other buildings and current zoning rules, which should not be treated as holy writ. They are just the flawed products of consultants and compromises. They look pretty shaky considering the location a few feet from an even higher building, and the benefits of the Cosmo’s renovation.
Several CBD developers were in opposition. They had not required variances, so why should Farrell?
It seemed like there was an Old Boys (and Girls) club of CBD developers, and Farrell wasn’t a member. To the rest of us, the point seemed to be to create a good operating venue that did not violate the space, not to play a game just like some other guys did, even if one of them was the impressive Ms Bland. Maybe it’s his bar, the Bourbon Heat. Is Bourbon Street compatible with The Ancestors?
Two significant representatives of the hotel industry joined the opposition, Mavis Early, exec of the Hotel Association, and Steven Caputo, general manager of the Monteleone. For them, the service and back-office issues were more than extras; they are essential functions. Early said the Association was in favor of new hotels, but built within the rules. The CMs rarely reply in these presentations, but if they did, one of them might have mentioned that one of the rules is that CIty Council can grant a variance when they think it appropriate.
Caputo said that the Royal Cosmopolitan would not have the functional facilities a modern hotel required for guest arrival, deliveries and trash removal.
I felt the needle on my BS meter stirring. Caputo’s hotel diagonally across the street is a direct competitor, and so far the only hotel in the undisputed Quarter with a height variance earned through pre-zoning grandfathering. I was even wondering, could the Monteleone have been the competition that caused the Cosmo to fizzle in the 1940s? Too much conflict of interest for me. I dismissed that testimony. I suspect at least some of the Council Members did as well.
Jump cut to supporters.
The most informative was Reed Nassman of McDonnell Construction, the contractor. His PowerPoint showed clearly how the existing building would be restored, and how the new tower design at 190 feet would impact the visual field of the area. Hardly at all, as it turns out. Since it is in the middle of block, in the middle of a triad of fairly high hotels: the Wyndham, higher at 205 feet high – its entrance and address 124 Royal, not Canal Street; The Monteleone at 200 Royal, probably about 165 or 170 feet high; and the Crowne Plaza on the other side at 165 feet. The Cosmo will have a smaller footprint than any of them, and since the view uptown from Royal is massively dominated by Place St Charles two blocks over Canal, 53 stories and 658 feet high, Royal Cosmopolitan’s tower would be almost invisible from the upper quarter unless you looked for it. It was the tower that would add the rooms that would enable the restoration of the original building, which was the key to revitalizing the block.
One of CPC’s objections, the only one I agreed with, was that the tower did not have quite the design quality to stand as a skyline icon. Nassman said they were open to redesigning the skin of the building, including with collaboration, which I took to mean bringing in another architecture firm to find a more sensitive touch for the outward appearance.
Bob Simms spoke for the project. A French Quarter resident, Simms is FQMD’s leader on security, originator of SafeCam NOLA, and a NASA engineer. He keeps well clear of residents’ associations, but you can’t touch his credentials or commitment to the integrity and health of the neighborhood. Unlike some who claimed bewilderment (if you believed them) Simms was able to grasp Nassman’s overlays and photos in less than two years, closer to two minutes if not two seconds, and could say with confidence: you almost can’t see the tower. This project has been ten years in preparation, he said. The developer has done everything anyone could have asked. The block is a shabby mess and a nightly crime scene that a new active hotel with bright lighting, doormen and people and would end. The alternative is continued decay. Let’s stop messing around and get it done.
These engineers. They must be frustrating for VCPORA/FQC, Louisiana Landmarks and Preservation Resource Center, now that that formerly respected organization has taken the sad decision to leave their practical mission and ally with the cults. Those damn engineers just keep referring to facts, reality, evidence. What happened to faith? Is the fragile gem of the Vieux Carre to be given over to reality-based rationalists instead of the devotion of Believers? Don’t you see how worked up we are? How angry we are that decision makers are not treating the 660 pages of the CZO, at least the ones we like, as equivalent to the Constitution?
They are so cold, these engineers. They don’t show deference to let alone experience the joy of our satisfying feelings of indignation. We stand bravely against the Enemy in a community of resentment. But the engineers – they walk quietly 360 degrees around the problem, measuring, photographing. They design, correct, test, evaluate, improve, integrate. They look for the best net benefit. A godless trade. They take our Behemoth away.
Bryan Drude, President of French Quarter Advocates, a neighborhood association (a real one that welcomes dialogue and contribution from businesses and employees, not a residentialist mob) spoke in favor of the hotel. He had visited the site and explored it carefully – not only the building, the space and the plans, but the activity outside – the drug trades and prostitution that goes on in that block, a gateway to the French Quarter. He is a real estate guy; lots of experience of scouting and evaluating properties. Bryan said firmly, looking close to anger, he did not see how anyone who claimed to be a preservationist could oppose this project, because of the net benefit it brought to the area.
Well, I’m not so ferociously against drugs and prostitution, but I appreciate Bryan’s exercise of reason on behalf of FQA, which is just as careful of the French Quarter as any of the others. He brought the theme of the afternoon into clearer focus: everybody in this melodrama is a preservationist. There are positive, Yes! preservationists, and negative, No! preservationists. The Farrells’ restoration is a Yes!
Nothing is to be destroyed in this project. Not one brick of an old building was to be removed. It was as far away as you can get inside the territory from the predominantly residential areas of the French Quarter.
The little gangs of No!, VCPORA and the others, are not operating from a grounding in reason. They have become cults, or religions, if you want to be delicate.
Muslims have five prayer sessions a day, Jews three. Monasteries have very special prayer rituals. Catholics should eat fish on Friday. Baptists are baptized one way, Roman Catholics another. Why? Because those are the rules. You follow your rules, because it is the rule and the faith that make the Muslim, the Jew, the Baptist and the Preservationist. Rules and beliefs. God is this, God said that, The common element among them is lack of evidence. The arguments can have valid structure, but the premises are never free of question.
The two French Quarter No! clubs have their rituals and mantras to express, and their commandments: music, loud conversation, high buildings, hotels and alcohol drinks are ingredients of the devil’s brew. And don’t forget the CZO, 660 pages, includes many an odd-shaped camel designed by committees and revised by other committees. By reflex the No! brigades drop into a creaky battle crouch when one of those things is on the table. And they are martyred by an inability to break out of the shtick that used to work in the rattle-brained old Clarkson days.
Preservation and restoration are complex jobs of practical work. If the government takes it on to make the property a monument, okay, job over. But if a person or a business has to bring a property to life and get a return, it has to be done with sensitivity to the architecture and the meticulous restoration required – otherwise you don’t get your tax credits – but also with sensitivity to covering the costs. Or at least it should; I don’t think a hotel in the French Quarter is an appropriate hobby business, unless you want to make a small fortune by starting with a large one.
So the real preservationists that day were the Farrells, and McDonnell Engineering and the architect, who were going to restore this hotel to its classic state and bring it back to life, not the cultists who stand sniping at the side.
The Cosmo case brought some new or unusual dimensions into the conversation. We are familiar with the clubs that call themselves “watchdogs” now: they do nothing positive. They do nothing for anybody. Except for PRC, a latecomer to the set, who we may hope will soon leave again, they neither build nor repair nor restore. They complain, I have never yet caught them trying to contribute to making a project better so it would contribute more to the city. Objecting, obstructing and asking CPC, Council or a court to stop, block, impede or tear down a project is their way. Remember that after four years of battle, the old derelict gas station at Esplanade and North Rampart still crumbles in full, embarrassing view, thanks to your No! clubs preferring decay to life. See the Brylskileaks document they are even proud of their abuse of the courts to subvert council.
I never expected to speak so positively of a set of politicians, but following this City Council, I see people whose commitment and inclination is to enabling the city to get better. Enabling. They can’t do it themselves, but they can get out of the way of it, and into the face of the obstructors.
I have been following another project, the Via Latrobe apartments on the tricky Press Street site, also dogged all the way by people thinking they were preservationists. What we see, tough, is fear of change – not the same thing. Let’s do that story soon. Maybe by then I will be Director of Public Communications for VCPORA, starting to re-balance the scales to give the Dark Side a fighting chance.
The real people of New Orleans have to ask themselves, Who are the real preservationists? Who really can take care of worthy older properties and understand that history is not just artifacts. History has not stopped, like an old cracked clock. We are still here. Still alive. Sort of.
The vote went 5-2, predictably, in favor of giving the development time to work on a few things and meet some provisos.
Stacy Head, voting to reject, had some interesting things to say about the Master Plan and the CZO. Criticizing the variances that Council still frequently allowed, as opposed to strict adherence to the CZO, she said we might as well throw it out. Declare the whole years-long exercise a waste of time, and send evey project to Council for individual judgment.
CM Head was making a good point, although what I was hearing was probably not what she thought she was saying. The CZO may be unworkable as a code, without its proviso that Council can override anything. It is too long, too detailed, too fussy, too protectionist, too interfering in operational matters. Why were people arguing in council in the War of the Restaurant Amendments about what percentage of floor space the bar in a restaurant could take up? Holding bars and bars you eat at are inside the restaurant, part of operations, part of style or marketing, perhaps. Regulations like that are anti-innovative. What percentage of the customer space is the bar in Coops? Does somebody have such a dead spot in their life that they want to measure that? Why was a zoning law saying whether music should be acoustic or amplified? They think it has to do with noise. That means keyboards are out, but Soul Rebels is okay. Actually, Soul Rebels is okay, but it’s still a stupid law. By what authority do zoning reg writers and the committees of Carrie Nations who poked their long spoons into CZO hotpot judge the creation of music, or painting, sculpture, acting, playwriting or cooking? Music can trespass in ways that other arts do not. A noise ordinance – a sane one (not what I fear the Sound Check nanny program might soon dump on us) can take care of that. For zoning hawks to tell musicians how to play – what could be uglier or more arrogant?
Andrés Duany, Great Spirit of Smart Growth and New Urbanism, tries to get cities to use simplified codes built on templates they supply free. It runs to about 60 pages. Unfortunately, Bob Rivers and our CPC staff are not fans, we hear. Understandable – Wall Street guys make vast fortunes from mastery of nuance of complex financial and tax code that their lobbyists write for Congress to pass. City planners in the employ of a municipality may protect their fiefdom by mastery of the intricacies of long, unpalatable planning, design and building codes.
So perhaps Stacy is right. It didn’t work. That could be why CPC is recommending waivers every week. That is why Council has to take a real look at the 100 block of Royal and think about what is happening in that space, not just say: 70 feet is the maximum height of any building . . . except the Monteleone, the Wyndham and the Crowne Plaza. No new competitors for them. Maybe writing a blueprint instead of a guide didn’t work. Start over, not with a big expensive team of consultants speaking incomprehensible jargon. I listened to some of it. I’m not even sure it had any meaning. Maybe we should write it off and start over, using New Urbanist consultants, who will know how to start with a free template and bring in a sub-100 page working code for a tiny fraction of the old cost. And consider not allowing five years for amateurs to fight for inclusion of special interest details. .
When the wind of change blows, some build walls, others build windmills. Old Chinese proverb
The superficial enthusiasms of New Orleans are Mardi Gras and other occasions to dress up and forget it; music; food – eating, celebrating chefs, bragging about our stuff. But underneath, the darker passion of your fine upstanding New Orleanian is complaining about what somebody else is doing, and trying to block it or mess it up. This is usually structured as defending something vital to our survival – the neighborhood or our quality of life. Our historical quality of life.
But even that deeper, smokier addiction is low voltage.
The real subterranean volcanic passion of New Orleans upon which all others depend, the one that makes the dark hormones flow, is parking. Parking brings out the festering, fragrant, coal black truth. Parking makes blood brothers of old enemies, and enemies of old friends. Parking, brothers and sisters, is life. Even seafood and dressing up with feathers is just what you do when your emotional batteries need recharging from fighting about parking. When your friend speaks to you about his new business plan, his doubts about his wife or the inebriating sensuality of his new mistress – it is protest-too-much for the video loop in his lizard brain about parking. When he or she is confessing to erotic visions that mock his spiritual yearnings, he is spinning a scenario to cover the sweaty parking fantasies he can’t confess to.
And I can’t even let myself off this hook. I got caught up in it. On the side of the angels, of course, but still . . . .
Parking was the trigger cause of the second Battle of New Orleans – the Battle of Via Latrobe. The intro and cover story was a little flap about the structure as well, a group of buildings of various sizes to include 260 apartments and some shops and commercial space. “Grossly out of scale” and all that, but that was just an entry-level issue for most of the rebel army. (Or were they the Union? Hard to say. The Noes.)
On the off chance somebody doesn’t know the terrain, some map-reading: the upriver border of what we now call Bywater (the name isn’t very old) is Press Street. The street itself is just on the upriver side of train tracks – a wider than normal street for the area, separated from the tracks by a broad strip of scrubland that looks like it was struggling to be a median or neutral ground. On the other side of the tracks is some more weed patch, then the old warehouses. You can experience the charms of the Bywater tracks most days by driving along St Claude when the whistle blows, the lights flash, and a mile long freight train gets across all the streets between St Claude and the river, stops and then slowly jogs back and forth in a mysterious switching dance while you look at your watch.
Turning off St Claude toward the river on Press you pass some desolate ground on your left, the scrub median and the tracks, and in a few blocks some uninspiring old warehouses, and finally, straight ahead, on the other side of Chartres, the view turns to the repurposed industrial tall buildings of NOCCA and the Rice Mill Lofts. They look good – industrial archaeology, attractively redesigned. But look hard left – those warehouses are still there. They look like they are waiting for a new Steinbeck to document desolate lives that might have happened in them, so they can settle back into the earth and let it heal over them.
On the Marigny side of Press, most of the wasteland bordering the tracks has recently been converted into urban farms, a few new buildings for the school, and an informal restaurant called Press Street Station.
On the other side of the warehouses is Montegut Street, featuring regular New Orleans faubourg houses, double shotguns and so forth. Wooden houses. “Historical.” You can’t get very far in this saga without “historical.” Plenty of gentrifying going on, of course. The house residents sometimes like to point to its being “traditionally” a working class neighborhood. They emphasize that when accusing Latrobe of luxury expensive flats that the historical working class would not be able to afford. In meetings, they conceal or make sure they are constructively ignorant of the $1,450 a month rental of the nearest one bedroom I can find for rent in the historical wooden houses. They don’t mention the $645,000 price tag on the nearest three bedroom two bath on Realtor.om.
That tells you one of two things: either dollars are worth less than wallpaper, or warehousing is really not an optimal land use by the riverside this close to Marigny, therefore to Frenchmen, the French Quarter and the CBD, where property prices are on a steep upward trajectory. The ROI for using them to store anything legal would be questionable.
So what to do with them? It’s a big chunk of land, requiring demolition as well as construction. It wouldn’t work as piecemeal small projects, because first someone has to get the warehouse down. It is tricky terrain. Little houses, duplexes or weak flats facing tracks and train whistles all night, you get an instant railroad slum.
Sean Cummings and architect Wayne Troyer cracked it. Cummings bought two blocks, from Chartres to Dauphine, and they designed buildings to make it work. High on the train side, low on the side facing Montegut’s wooden houses; a new street running through the middle modeled on a street in Rome; 260 apartments, some shops and artisanal manufacturing in the original plan.
It’s a great design and a great plan, confinuing the rehabilitation of Press Street from an industrial wasteland that you close your eyes to as you cross it, to a part of the city.
But even though Press Street would look at home in Detroit, we are in New Orleans. Our battles are not with destiny. They are with the neighbors.
The Montegut Mujaheddin quickly formed. This is where I came in, like an explorer from the far side, with my field microscope, collecting net, color pictures of native species, notebook and sense of Darwinian wonder. Mixing those with a hefty dollop of blood lust, I headed off for the battles the NPP was sure to offer.
Bywater likes to call itself “creative,” whatever that means referring to an area rather than a person, but a chunk of the residents is intensely conservative. It is generally fronted by Neighbors First for Bywater, a Tea Party of a neighborhood noise box.
The Mujaheddin declared war and NFB angled for the lead. NFB and some near neighbors. The Brown Shirt wing of Residentialism goes bravely to the front, ready and willing to stop anything that looks new. Block innovation. Stomp on creativity before it has impact. They hate impact. They are okay with “creative” as a clothing style that suggests you make nice things out of clay in your spare room, but not as vision and work that accomplishes change.
NFB’s memo to members says, “The Board . . . has been engaged with the City Planning Commission to find ways to reduce the impact . . . on the near neighbors and Bywater as a whole.” As you cruised down Press, though, in your car or your imagination or Google Earth, didn’t the view to the left scream out for impact? It’s not a graveyard sacred to the Great Spirit there. It is just some buildings from another time, that have to make way for what works now. The two blocks and the others up to St Claude are crying out for a heavy kick in the ass.
At the first NPP, many had already seen the plans on the internet and the first-wave protest mantra started: “grossly out of scale.”
That is an additional verse to the NIMBY anthem, People, Parking, Noise and Trash. PPNT.
It was quickly clear that most of the people protesting “scale” were either victims of post-hypnotic suggestion by the Riverfront Alliance, an association of right-wing residents’ clubs who preached that nothing must be higher than 50 feet and architecture should be perpetual imitation; or perhaps the same mind-eating fog that zapped the Alliance had zombied their minds. The leaders of NFB and FMIA, Marigny’s own Sturmabteilung were really the active ingredients. VCPORA/FQC signed on, part of their experimentation with coalitions, but in practice didn’t like to be seen in public with the rough trade from downriver. Press Street is where Faubourg Marigny meets Neighbors First. They can get really frisky when they interface at their neutral ground.
You can see the formula “grossly out of scale” repeated in letters to the CPC on its web site. For the most part, CPC passed over it in polite silence. After some pondering, I have been getting a misty glimpse of why people from low-structure environments think a 75 foot high building in small streets might seem looming and scary. Maybe it is not even thinking, just a Hansel and Gretel sort of feeling they get around taller buildings. But that’s not what the Latrobe design does.
The Montegut side is low, to make it easy for the historical house people. No higher then the current buildings. The 75 foot heights are on Press, where they are in scale – in fact, a bit shorter than optimal for the space.
I suspect the objectors might not have their visual imagination tuned for this. In fact, it is Press Street itself which is out of scale. The residential streets like Montegut are about 20 ft across, with seven foot sidewalks from the house front. The stoops are encroachments into the public space of the sidewalk, so maybe four feet to the curb.
Press Street is wider than the residential streets and has a wider sidewalk. The new buildings on the Marigny side have bigger setbacks. From the old building face on the Bywater side to the new, across the tracks and scrubgrass median, the street and the sidewalks, the distance is about 140 feet. Buildings need to be higher for visual and psychological comfort on wide streets. That is why it feels right that buildings are higher on Canal, Poydras and North and South Rampart, but unpleasant for walking out on South Claiborne where the strip malls with parking in front are. With a broad expanse of space and low flanking buildings, people feel uncomfortably exposed, like walking on an airport runway. That is one of the reasons that some wide boulevards plant a lot of street and median trees. In fact, the new NOCCA buildings along the Marigny side of Press Street are too low. And the median wasteland is crying out for some good, train-resistant trees.
Jeff Speck reports a wonderful evolutionary theory on why this should be: prospect and refuge. Well back a few hundreds of thousands of years of prehistorical (not Bywater “historical”) time, when our half a chromosome difference from chimpanzees might have been even less evident than now, the safest environment for many animals depended on prospect – being able to see, hear or smell over considerable distance, to detect potential prey or threats – and refuge – means of hiding or escape to protect yourself from enemies. For a species in the ecological niche of the hominids, the forest edge was the place of prospect and refuge. You could watch the savannah for prey and predators with the trees and shadows around you. This is said to explain why we like columns, porches and galleries. The light shadow and columns of a nice porch reproduce our evolutionary safety zone. It’s our quality of life, right there, under the canopy, behind the columns that recapitulate the tree trunks. Settle in and watch the street go by.
The 20 foot wide streets reproduce prospect and refuge with 25 foot high buildings. A broad savannah-like environment such as Press Street needs higher verticals to make it psychologically safer, so it could join the walkable city. Rather than form a barrier between Marigny and Bywater, as some of the objectors suggested Latrobe’s high side might do, the higher structure would make the space easier to cross without being in the metal envelope of your car.
They also generally refuse to acknowledge that the 78 ft heights of the Rice Mill and NOCCA just across Chartres blend easily into Latrobe. Its classical modern design should be a nice link between the industrial chic of the Rice Mill and the cubist planes the towers of NOCCA have become.
Anyway, although height and “scale” were big objections for the Bywater Tea Party, the CPC pros were for the most part too polite to comment.
But parking. Ah, parking. THAT’S different! Now we have to step out of the safety of the trees and the columnns onto the field of battle.
Parking bubbled up repeatedly in the first NPP. Nearby residents claimed they had traffic and parking problems already. Did they actually think so? Everybody that walks that area at pretty much any time of day will see that in city terms, there are neither. Take your phone, and you can document the spaces available. You can see traffic so sparse in the residential streets that people walk their dogs down the middle of them.
Where will the new people park? they ask, in tones of alarm. The building is providing 282 spaces, I think, in a parking building, and another 20 or so at ground, mostly in the new interior street. The questioner would settle down, still suspicious. A few minutes later, it would bubble up again. “What about the parking?”
By the second meeting, change “bubble” to “erupt.” Detecting a threat to something free that they are attached to, to which they know their claim is shaky, the natives were getting very restless,. Cummings told the neighbors he would engage a parking consultant to study the problem and opportunities. They settled down a little, still restless and grumbly.
When the consultant, Matthew Rufo, had had some time to examine the terrain and prepare a report, the developer called a parking meeting, to be held at Press Street Station. I went along to watch and mooch some free cheese and crackers. Rufo went through the average number of vehicles per person in the area. Neighbors objected that the apartment dwellers would have more cars than the house owners. Rufo patiently and politely explained that the opposite was most probable: new apartment people were likely to include a higher proportion of millennials, who have a statistically significant lower attachment to private cars.
Rufo suggested that if parking security was important to them, they should set up a resident permit system. He said it cost about $40 a year, and offered to help them through the process. (It actually costs about $80 a year; I think he made a mistake.) After a beat, the response was surprising. They said it was too expensive! Not one person of the parking-fearful openly expressed interest in investing 77 cents a week to secure the thing they were stressing out about. What was going on? Was parking anxiety an addiction? A kind of neighborhood adrenaline, that kept them alert at their forest’s edge, watching for intrusion from the savannah?
The thing was, they explained, no matter how much parking Latrobe’s multi-story provided, how did they know the apartment dwellers would actually park in it? What would prevent them from eschewing the shady interior of the parking structure, and planting their intrusive tanks on Montegut’s safety zone from the ominous savannah at the edge of the dark forest? Suppose somebody’s access to his apartment was closer to Montegut than the parking building on Press? He might stop his car right there, threatening to crowd the right of house residents to exclusive, uninterrupted, free possession of street space that they don’t own in front of their door. It was becoming clearer that if they did own or rent it, they would not need this anxiety, and they could acquire that possession legally with a resident permit system, but they seemed reluctant to lose it. The determining factor could not be just the 77 cents (or $1.53) a week. No, I think my primate cousins had battles to fight, a war to win. Ancestral juices stirred by species memory from the forest’s edge were bubbling up from that reptilian brain. They were protecting territory. I was seeing it with my own eyes: Parking – the passion that trumps sex and feathers. The naked face of territoriality. This is what we are, I thought. And took another bite of cheese.
Never fear, neighbors, NFB will form you into a phalanx and lead you into battle against those fantoms of the future. They came up with “bundling” and they made it a “proviso.”
NFB’s general tone at its interface with the world is so pompous and condescending, I risk losing myself in spiralling mockery of their entitled silliness if I quote it. I’ll try to chill. It’s easy to find on CPC’s web site.
“Bundling” parking means including the cost of a parking space in the apartment rent. That entails several things, not all supporting the reason NFB proposes it. The renter’s payment for space in the multi-story would be less clear and immediate, so if the space on Montegut is more convenient, he might as well use it. Little change there. Another is the injustice. The pure naked savage theft of it, which does not seem to trouble ol’ Neighbors First at all, but it does me. Let’s use an example: a young woman moves from Gentilly to Latrobe, paying the more expensive riverside rent because she can stop owning a car, paying insurance, monthly lease or the note and parking at work every month. Freedom: she can get to work in the French Quarter or CBD in a few minutes by bike, or a few more minutes walking, or grab an Uber when the weather is rough. But then the building she wants to live in is going to charge her rent for the car she doesn’t have. Why? It does not need to, and the developer did not plan to, but the board of NFB, masters of narrow, fearful thinking, have come up with this to assuage the anxieties of members and people they want to recruit; and the staff of City Planning, which should know better, has gone along with it. (Some say under administration pressure, which might be why Eric Granderson came to glower at the commissioners at the last hearing. Some say. But far be it from me . . . .)
We pay for some things communally through taxes: schools, police, fire service, infrastructure. Healthcare will be included in that one day, when America grows up. But off-street parking should never be one of these common services.
Let’s do the economics of Latrobe parking. The building plans and close costing are probably not done yet. I have no inside information, but national averages are available. The average construction cost of multi-stories a few years ago was about $25,000 a space. Much higher in New York and San Franciso, lower in New Mexico and Wyoming, and of course dependent on geology and all sorts of proximate factors. But $25,000 is okay for now. Let’s say the few new outside spaces are less, almost a byproduct of the construction, so let’s call it $24,000, a very modest number. The latest figure on the multi-story is 282 spaces, so $6,768,000, divide by 301 for all the spaces combined, or $22,485 each.
But construction cost is not the most significant first reference number. The annual cost of the money is. Let’s say 4%, or $270,720 per year, to be allocated over 260 apartments, or $1,041 a year each. This could be tweaked by tuning for square feet or bedrooms, but not by cars. Bundling precludes charging by what the good is for: a car in the space. In addition to the service cost for construction, there is maintenance, admin overheads, lighting, security, insurance, miscellaneous and unforeseen, so the cost per apartment is probably at least $1,400, so to come out safe, Latrobe would have to charge at least $1,500, or $125 a month. Remember that these numbers are probably low. Actual costs would probably make it at least $150. (Commissioner Marshall said that his off-street parking in CBD ws $250 a month.) And NFB in the vocal persons of Brian Luckett and Ms Julie Jones and Secretary Eschermann who signed it insist in a “proviso” that this amount be charged to the young woman in the example even though she has no car.
And that, brothers and sisters, as Cornel West would say, is theft. Don’t beat around the bush. That’s the right word for it. They blithely insist that the city force her to be victim of a legalized larceny of $1,500 a year, and they do this with a straight face and a smug feeling of virtue in the bionic unit that passes for a heart, because it assuages the reptilian parking anxiety of their constituents while saving them $80 a year. .
The Via Latrobe CPC event on October 27th was dramatic for a zoning hearing. NFB’s two other provisos, ridiculous ideas, really, that no door of a commercial unit could open onto Montegut, and that walls facing Montegut had to be specially soundproofed, as if Montegut dwellers are hypersensitive endangered ethereal creatures who need more protection from the sounds of daily life than residents of other streets were dismissed by ignoring them. It all came down to the bundling fight.
Sidebar, your honor: Brian Luckett of NFB wrote this stuff. This same Brian had also proposed an amendment to the CZO to make facing all doors inward in new complexes illegal, because it isolates them from the neighborhood instead of linking them to it. And he was right, which I consider rare. Brian usually leads with detail and comes to wrong conclusions, but he got this one right. But then he betrays his own principle for expediency, rolling over for the fatuous demands of a few people – maybe even one, a woman who said she called the police in fear for her life because she heard a band practicing on the other side of a wall.
One of the interesting moments was when Julie Jones, president of NFB (Doctor Jones is her preferred form of address. Sigh.) came to the public lectern and said a friend or acquaintance had told her that arranging residential parking permits was tricky, could take a long time, and was not certain to be granted. So NFB and the near neighbors had rejected guidance by Matt Rufo, who does parking for a living, but came to Council with anecdotal hearsay evidence from a random friend. Well done.
If the prez of NFB can do hearsay, maybe I can, just a little. Somebody told me – and it may be wrong and then I would have to do a retraction – that Miss Julie rents out a unit in Bywater, in the HDLC wooden house area, and as far as I can tell by listening to the parking angels – she expects her tenants to be able to park free on the street, the same street as the house owners. But not the lessees of Latrobe, oh no. Nothing free for them.
Most right-wing Hoodism stands for: nothing. Nothing. Must. Happen. Whatever it is, I’m against it. If it is already happening, like music or take-away food, or street life or the New Orleans night – stop it. We are historical. What we like is historical. What they like, live music, new buildings, hotels, stores, bars, restaurants – not historical. Block them, stop them, obstruct, slow down, shrink.
What I am hearing is, the Residential Right wants a special kind of semi-socialism. Their half is to dictate terms and make final decisions but not take any responsibility. The developer has to get the money, acquire the land, work out the plan, make the proposals, pay the architects, the lawyers, the engineers – but he should then stand back while amateurs backseat-drive key decisions, with no investment, little effort or even acquiring the knowledge to make sound evaluations.
I don’t get it. I am anything but a libertarian capitalist. Better planning or even better instinctive evolution of communities, effective social democracy, or democratic socialism (they seem about the same thing to me), democracy-at-work (what Libertarianism generally meant before Austrian school economists and American politicians used it to mean unregulated piracy) – I’m down with that. A lot of us wonder, how come casino banks want state money when they mess up, which the state gets partly by taxing you – but the state that gives it to them is afraid to at least part nationalize them? Or even effectively regulate them? Isn’t it comparable, but the other way ’round? If you want to control development, get your wallet and your commitment out, or have the cojones to say we want more state-sponsored development, and do the work to know what you are talking about.
Several objectors to Latrobe said that they moved to Bywater because it was quiet and a bit pokey, with slack warehouses and nothing going on. They are now very disappointed that the city might be moving in. I’m thinking, did they really buy a property a twenty minute stroll from the commercial French Quarter, and expect it to stay a dormitory suburb forever? They want the increased property value, but not the supply and demand activity that creates the appreciation. And they think they can make that foggy delusion real by complaining?
There is more to why Bywater and some other riverside neighborhoods would benefit from more mixed use development and more enablement of old commerical properties – and why they are going to get it whether they like it or not – but for today, let’s remember: parking.
In a dramatic finish to the bundling battles of the Second or Latrobe Battle of New Orleans, the CPC staff had agreed with NFB’s self-serving plan to impose bundled parking on Latrobe. In an instance of public comment really working, Commissioner Steeg woke up to the issue as the comments went on. He asked a speaker, “Is this about the loading spaces, Section Five?”
“No, this is about parking, mostly residential. Section 10.”
Steeg began to get it. He proposed an amendment to block the bundling – not very well formed, but he had only been working on it a few minutes with other things going on. Commissioner Marshall picked it up, articulating the inequity even more precisely. Then Kyle Wedberg, articulate Chairman of the Commission, made the case, clearly and at some length, why he agreed with the CPC staff and Bob Rivers. Now, Rivers and Wedberg is about as powerful an alliance as you can get in the NOLA zoning world, especially with Eric Granderson, a deputy mayor, watching hawkeyed from the side. But they lost! The commissioners saw the injustice and voted against the staff and the Chairman. Ah, there is hope for New Orleans yet. Let’s send some thanks to the planning commissioners who had the courage to think independently and go against the recommendations of the formidable Bob Rivers and Kyle Wedberg, both very impressive guys, but wrong this time.
It’s not over. They started working out, what are the spaces for? Can shoppers in the daytime use the spaces? A significant percentage of employed Bywaterites work from home or work locally, but still, if 100 cars leave Latrobe in the morning, should 100 spaces stand empty until nightfall, possibly forcing construction of more unnecessary asphalt car storage? Should some spaces be for residents only, some free or limited duration during the day for customers? Should employees of the commercial properties be able to use the complex’s parking during day time?
The United States as a whole is said to have about eight surface spaces, and more if you count the multi-stories, for every car in the country. Aerial photos of some cities are depresssing. Buildings are islands in a sea of yellow lined asphalt. It’s ugly, wasteful and a crypto-subsidy to the fossil fuel industry, that needs limiting not expanding. Maybe Latrobe can be a lab model in greater parking efficiency, a counter to the excessive demands for off-street commonly imposed on residential developments jn the codes, which could have been written by a Shell lobbyist.
And now it starts in the French Quarter, as Mayor Mitch begins to plunder motorists to pump up the general fund. There are some good intentions and some truly bad ideas in his plan. Let’s have fun with it — soon. Not right now. All this passion expended on parking . . . it’s time to lie back, light a cigarette . . . .