In which the Neighborhood Knives Come Out
And we begin to wonder
What Job Does City Planning Think it is Doing?
The kind of New Orleans fans who populate many of our neighborhood associations say they revere the city’s architectural difference and legacy. On a good day, I even believe them. They see character and quality that differentiate New Orleans from Anglo America and even from other Caribbean influenced Gulf cities.
Now their conservative preservationist impulses to stop and hesitate are turning the city’s new growth into a set of boring boxes. Not even gleaming, mirrored, tall boxes like New York. Certainly not contrasts, flamboyant ideas and surprising shapes like London, or the impossible swoops and curves of Zaha Hadid. Flat faced, boring boxes with regularly spaced windows that meet the codes and dull the mind. Still fearful of change, despite lamentable results, they stand by the codes that produced them, waving them like verbal banners in City Planning and Council meetings. Contrary to reason, like working class Republicans standing up for the political and economic structure that has been ruining them for 40 years, or the Orwellian cult-speak of the NRA. Like them, the well-meaning and the not-so-well-meaning are turning the city’s new construction into a landscape “weary, stale, flat . . . “ but whether unprofitable remains to be seen.
What a process.
Unfolding in the modest Council Chamber of the Perdido Palace, with its worn upholstery in an unnamed color that seems to be a concentration of the pale greenish tone of the blocky building’s exterior. A paint company might call it Intense Mildew. None of the walnut or mahogany paneling of some of the grand city halls – gray painted walls, a simple functional dais where Council Members or Commissioners sit above the crowd, a lower desk in sumptuous plywood, somewhere between the people and Kafka-sequel potential. Perhaps a touch of the Soviet, offsetting the ornamental styles of the 19th century city.
Newspapers and chat sites have been following the plot: a developer wants to build a hotel/hostel on a vacant lot about 50,000 square feet bordered by Chartres, Mazant and Royal near the eastern or canal side of Bywater. It will have lodging rooms, a restaurant, a bar, two outdoor patios, one with a pool. Parking, driveways, rubbish collecting space – all the usual things that go with a business providing lodgings, food and drink.
Never a space of elegance, the site used to be a seafood processor. It has been vacant but for weeds and cracking concrete pads for 11 years.
I should get on record as neutral in the land use battle. Unlike our two city dailies, NOLAscape doesn’t confuse neutral with objective, and cheerfully goes editorial or polemical when they are the right ways to go.
Bywater has two neighborhood associations. In this fiesta brava, as usual, one is supporting, one opposing. As usual, supporting is the Bywater Neighborhood Association, BNA, and as usual, opposing is Neighbors First for Bywater, NFB. Their conflict is one of our storylines.
I don’t care about the use, the opposing neighbors care about nothing else, and BNA supporting thinks almost any legal use is better than an ugly weed patch.
The hostel/hotel would have some services likely to be patronized by locals – a laundromat, a bar, a pool, a restaurant – but its revenue would depend on a transient population of predominantly young Americans and internationals and hotel activities like eating, drinking, swimming, some music. Ho hum. For the opposing neighbors, noise and splashing and young visitors milling about would end life as we know it. All surrounding houses would become uninhabitable by respectable middle-class residents. They would move away and turn their houses into AirBnB hostels, and the game would be over. A city abandoned.
For BNA, the hotel/hostel would bring people, services, commerce and jobs, which Bywater needs to transition from a depopulated suburb to an active, walkable, mixed use, lively neighborhood of the resuscitated city.
Both are convinced that the other’s point of view violates the Master Plan, if not the Will of God. (That’s why the Master Plan needs starting over.)
Its negative side for me is that from what we can see so far, like every proposal in the area except Latrobe and Elisio Lofts five years ago, it is architecturally boring. Another tedious block of uncreative design on or near the downriver front. The developer, Ted Kelso, seems at great pains to offend no one, challenge nothing (although the result of his willing compliance with almost every suggestion is that a good chunk of the neighborhood has gone pitchforky over it) so his plans stay within every limit of the CZO except floor space, which puts it into the conditional use channel. The end product, as with almost any commercial product of its dishwater dull prescriptions, is a 55 foot high box. The design is still at conceptual stage, but if Kelso can’t, as we will see, work the CPC when he stays in the coloring book, what would happen if he added the MJL-6 (“Riverfront Overlay”) exceptions to the soufflé? Exceeding 55 feet in height stimulates massive secretions of adrenalin in a segment of the downriver folk. It is not a pretty sight. But opting for the MJL-6 exceptions is the only way the city gets to demand architectural distinction.
I predict visual interest, if the design is completed, will be some applied ticky tacky, like stripes of some alternate building material. Kelso and his architect will opt for a box. If they feel exceptionally frisky, maybe some rounded corners. Minimum cost,maximum revenue. Make my day – prove me wrong.
To paraphrase the great bard of the Mississippi: Bywater’s imminent death from hostel activities, as predicted by the opposing neighbors, is greatly exaggerated. But it continues New Orleans’s degenerative disease of boring buildings that we are cornered into by animated but architecturally dim residents who can’t see more about design than a roof’s height.
For an example of hope challenging reality, see Brian Luckett’s manifesto of architectural prescription for downtown HDLC areas on Neighbors First’s web site. I disagree with almost all of it, but at least Luckett has an objective of architectural excellence. We just are not on the same page about what that is. He shows traditional roof lines, galleries, ornamentation, door and window patterns that he bundles under the label ‘Creole,’. To be fair, he suggests that peaked roofs should be able to rise over the 55 feet (formerly 50 ft.). But that is not how the CZO’s design recipe made up of varying amounts of hesitation and fear came out.
Brian would probably be surprised to know that I think his prescriptions deserve consideration for infill – that is, for new construction to replace destroyed or demolished property in the middle of a block, to fill a space in an existing traditional row. But for new construction in the riverfront revival zones – no. We don’t have to ban the 21st century. We wouldn’t make a law that any new restaurant must serve only Creole cuisine, or every band must play traditional tourist jazz, or that new painting must be certified by the Ogden for Bayou pedigree. To legislate imitation architecture would put every street on the tourist route.
But Luckett’s manifesto or recommendation for a zoning code is form-based. That is positive in principle. Form-based means get the buildings right, because what they are used for will change over time, but they will still be part of the streetscape. If applied everywhere, his prescription is too low density. It would create a Creole themed urban suburb. Even if each building were well done within the patterns, driving through it, it might be a struggle to stay awake.
Only in the optional Riverfront Overlay rules has the city dared to demand architectural excellence, but passing the tests and building the buildings for the Riverfront Overlay costs more and would almost certainly require a longer, riskier, more combative approval process. Variations from the basic box law would almost certainly bring out the fundamentalist armies. As a consequence, only one New Orleans builder has been ready to take up the challenge in the downriver neighborhoods.
Personally, I would prefer Kelso’s project to shift location and for this site to end up in Sean Cummings’ company, not because it is a hostel, but because only Cummings has had the courage to attempt exceptional design. In evidence: the Rice Mill, an industrial re-purposing; Elisio Lofts (never built, but we can hope); and Latrobe, approved and in progress. The CPC docket for the hostel cites Kelso and John Cummings, owner of record of the land. That suggests that Kelso has an option to purchase conditional on project approval, which he does not have so far. Cummings and his Ekistics team are so far the only ones willing to ask their architects to do better, and to be able to manage the struggle against neighbors who gird themselves up in their C.A.V.E. men’s armor of misunderstanding to challenge fine projects. At 501 Elysian, a rabid neighborhood association defeated a good building, and now may be powerless to stop an ugly one in the same space, because it fits within all the maddeningly stupid rules. At his Latrobe project on Press Street, the opponents, represented by Neighbors First for Bywater, opened the process in virulent opposition, playing every one of the PTNP cards, but were ultimately held off, so we will get at least one good space.
The big problem is that New Orleans residents are still land use junkies. If the city could move to a good form-based code, or at least an injection of it, with room for creativity, new construction might come alive again.
A symptom of the addiction is that one of the leaders of opposition to Kelso’s project is Carolyn Leftwich , a member of BNA who has been a member of and advocate for the Smart Growth movement, whose philosophical leader is Andres Duany. Duany and Smart Growth favor form-based codes, but in this case, with the hostel at her back fence, Carolyn went back to the old way: ferocious opposition to the use, no mention of the design.
To continue striving for architectural distinction, whether the site’s use is as a hostel, a seafood factory, a row of multiplexes or for all I care a grand bordello like Lord Pytr Baelish’s, we shouldn’t care too much. Whatever it is next year, one day it will almost certainly be something else. But if the design and structure are ugly and boring, it will still be ugly and boring. That is the legacy of land use zoning – sad cities.
BNA supports the hostel/hotel proposal, NFB opposes.
Although the two groups rarely agree on anything, public flare-ups are rare, largely because of BNA’s principle of not attacking any other group or meddling into other neighborhoods. NFB people will take the occasional sideswipe at BNA, but real BNA members (as opposed to heretics like me) do not respond, so the spark fizzles quickly.
At the March 8th City Planning Commission session, though, a few lids came off, a few layers of the onions were stripped. While we watched the developer’s team struggle to get their product into focus for the commissioners, and we watched the Commission show itself as a muddled mismanagement team struggling with a flawed process, a third subplot of human drama emerged: open battle between the neighborhood activist armies.
I should have a healthier hobby, but can’t shake an addiction to watching these micro-centers of unelected influence expose glimpses of malignity.
It was not going well for the project. The developer, Ted Kelso, is not a good communicator and seemed to be a passive leader. His team had trouble getting a positive case into focus. His lawyer, Mr Breeland, did his best, and Dave Woolworth, a hyper-qualified acoustics engineer and consultant, did his best to allay fears of noise, the opponents’ most passionate argument, but he had only been on the case a week, and as a responsible scientist, would not make claims that he had not properly verified yet. Kelso eventually stood up for a few words delivered with little conviction, but just three prime advocates? Not enough for a project of this size. You have to put on a bigger show for the Commissioners, after laying some strong background and with a hint of loaded cannon in the background, like the 1812 come to City Hall.
It was good for the developer’s team that the opponents did not push the boat out on the old residents’ standbys of traffic and parking, because they seemed to have nothing prepared on those. It would be easy to defeat, because the traffic there is negligible except rush hour on Chartres, which the hotel would little affect if the car entrance is on Mazant, but you have to have some stuff ready. Determined residential opponents will believe and say anything about parking and traffic.
The opponents have a guy that claims to be a sound expert, an amateur named Michael Bolan. Strangely enough, at least one of the commissioners seemed impressed by Bolan’s stuff, even though he is just a hobbyist with an amateur’s armchair experience and a simplistic, unverifiable presentation, while Woolworth has advanced degrees in physics with a speciality in acoustics, and is a veteran of several decades designing and consulting on sound management for municipalities (including New Orleans) and music venues (including the Jazz and Heritage building). Bolan and Woolworth are not equivalent. The commissioners were seeing what they wanted to see and hearing what they wanted to hear. The developer had not prepared a solid basis of distinction for them.
In the run-up before the hearing, opponents put out the usual, largely dog-whistle issues that residents raise against every public or entertainment business: people, traffic, noise and trash. PTNT. They were light on trash this time, but people and noise were working overtime. What kind of people would stay in a place like this? Young people – OMG. Foreigners (maybe that is why it’s working name is Stateside.) It would not be us staying there, oh no, not good folk like we the residents! It would be traveling strangers, right here in our historical neighborhood.
When it comes to opposing new things, anything built before last Halloween is historical. In fact, that’s basically what New Orleans residential advocates mean by historical: what it is like right now, at this snapshot moment in the gentrification process. Few of them have any real idea of or interest in the actual social evolution of the area over say the last 100 years, or any vision for the next 100.
Scenarios of noise had been written up and dramatized with varying degrees of thespian skill in the two minute speeches that make up public comment. Hundreds of drunks would swill beer all night, talk and laugh and splash in and out of the pool loudly at all hours. Nobody would be able to sleep. Bywater as we know it, Jim, would be over. Bywater would be a branch of Bourbon Street.
I shouldn’t make too much fun of the approach, even though much of it was comically exaggerated, and a few violins might not have been out of place at some points. I was not on either side. I was against a proviso in the staff report to apply unconstitutional limits to music and sound production rather than emission. I could speak about that but there is little legal ground or social support to protest the design as developed so far, a sort of blockhouse. Stay under 55 feet, and none of the committees are going to stop you building in the Stalinist style out of cheap materials. Dear Preservationists and other Hoodies: you are not going to create Florence by the Mississippi with this knuckle-headed strategy.
The neighbors might be right. A hostel might mess up the ecology of that part of Bywater, as it is now. But it is going to change anyway – the coming cruise ship port is across the street, and the naval complex along the canal a few blocks away will be developed into something.
Bacchanal came up as the bad example of noise. Bacchanal’s outside music stage is about three and a half blocks from the back of the immediate neighbors’ houses. Some of them said they can hear it. But Bacchanal has no more acoustic protection than my back garden in all its weedy grittiness. Its dining, drinking and music garden has just an ordinary picket fence. It wouldn’t block the sound of a fork dropping. In fact, if you have ever listened to music played in Bacchanal’s upper room on a rainy day, you may have noticed that the owners seem to have no awareness of or interest in acoustics. But the closest Kelso’s team got to rebuttal on the charge was Woolworth’s statement that he did not believe that Bacchanal had sound shielding anything like what he would design for Stateside. The developer’s team knew from many meetings, reports and newspaper reports that sound was going to their opponents’ strongest objection, but they were just so little prepared for the battle that they allowed Michael Bolan to appear to have something like equal weight with Dave Woolworth. Weak preparation by the developer, bad thinking by the commissioner.
Meanwhile, BNA’s decision already has some practical merit, the one that Breeland cited: an active building and business beats an empty lot. The neighborhood needs higher density to support employment, amenities and stores, if Bywater is not going to sink into suburban torpor.
Julie Jones, current president of Neighbors First for Bywater, opponent, took the mic. Out of scale, traffic, people, noise, drunks, music, all night parties, sex and drugs will be the inevitable outcome of the project, destroying the quality of life of everyone nearby, ruining the future of Bywater as a perpetual twilight zone. People, the imaginary crowds of thousands who will throng inside, mill about, and threaten the end of the world, are them. Not us. We are historical. They are young, drunk thugs.
But Ms Jones ramped the drama up when she made a few statements about BNA, in response to questions from Commissioner Alexandra Mora about the neighborhood associations in Bywater. Ms Mora asked how NFB arrived at the decision to oppose. President Jones said that the club discussed it in meetings, that she received emails from neighbors and others and that she spoke to people when she walked her dog. I liked that. The Pooch Poll. In other words, no formal process, just soak up some opinions and then the directors decide.
Asked about the two separate neighborhood associations, instead of the more graceful solution of saying it would be better perhaps for BNA to speak for itself, President Jones told the chamber that she used to belong to BNA and in fact had been president of it, but that she and others found that it was not representing their interests, so a few years ago, they left to form a new group. What President Jones did not include is that she and a number of the founders of Neighbors First had controlled BNA for quite a few years, trading most of the directors’ and officers’ posts among them. They became dissatisfied when the current majority of BNA decided that they, the current officers and directors of NFB, did not represent the members’ interests, and voted them out. When they could no longer control the decisions nor re-elect themselves, they left.
Ms Jones had said that unlike BNA, NFB had no zoning committee. Commissioner Mora pursued the subject. Ms Jones looked uncomfortable. It would have been a good moment to say that the question should go to a BNA officer, if one was in the chamber, but instead she started to stumble a bit. Carolyn Leftwich, a BNA member who was opposing its recommendation in this case, went to the microphone. (Commissioner Mora looked like she was starting to enjoy this. So was I.) Carolyn told the commissioners that BNA’s zoning committee could consider only legal matters. It was their job to say whether the project fit the zoning rules, then the board decided by votes whether to support or not.
So no discussion or outreach to the members, asked the Commissioner? There had been meetings with Kelso present, Carolyn replied. The members seemed to be about 50/50 she said, but the last meeting was “quite intimidating.” Wait a minute – I was there. It was people talking and asking questions of Ted Kelso. What could have been intimidating?
“We were called NIMBYs,” she replied.
But they were NIMBYs, more literally than one usually finds. Their complaint was that the hotel’s courtyard was at their back fences. That is Not In My Back Yard to the word. Thinking back, the one who said it might have been me. I had been appalled – well, as close to it as I can get at a neighborhood association meeting – by the ugly things the opponents were saying about people in the abstract, people who weren’t there. All these young people would be noisy drunks, young men and women splashing in pools all night, playing loud music – Spring Break forever. Were young visitors to become a new Civil Rights category? I told Kelso that if I had the authority, I would apologize on behalf of these people for the ugly prejudices they were forcefully expressing, because in a concentrated effusion of classic NIMBYdom, they were embarrassing us. And I remember a rather ferocious old dragon who had come with Ms Leftwich rounding her wheelchair on me, demanding, “Where do you live?” Well, I was not intimidated, nor was anyone else. It was only a neighborhood meeting. Carolyn wasn’t scared off; she was a leader of the opposition.
At this point, Ms Mary Ann Hammett, head of the BNA Zoning Committee, a lawyer with authority in zoning, who had probably been trying to avoid speaking – she had had an injury and walking and standing were uncomfortable – couldn’t take the misinformation any more. Ms Hammett has a clear, inclusive, slightly raspy Southern speaking voice, measured and sonorous. Should have been a Senator. She told the Commission that her committee does not consider only the legal position. They advise the Board on the legal position, because zoning is quite complicated. They also consider other benefits and disadvantages for the neighborhood: employment, cash flow, density, amenities and facilities, alternatives. A principle of BNA is that Bywater needs more people to support more local businesses so that it can become more lively, active and walkable. Like the Master Plan tells us to do.
Winding up, Ms Hammett intoned the one statement of principle that should have been the headline of the day: “We always consider the interests of the whole neighborhood, never only those of a few near neighbors.”
This is a Smart Growth principle and the opposite of the observed behavior of NFB. In the Latrobe conflict, NFB had tried to insert a whole proviso that one side of the building had to be specially soundproofed and triple glazed because one strange woman on Montegut Street said she had been “afraid for her life” when she heard a band practicing in the empty warehouse. Never mind that it would obviously no longer be an empty warehouse with a corrugated iron wall when it was rebuilt – one neurasthenic’s unfounded anxiety was enough to convince them to make an absurd demand.
There’s the difference. NFB wants to defend the interests of every resident who thinks he or she has one, no matter how quirky or personal, against anything new; while BNA wants to encourage more housing, more people, more shops and coffee houses and restaurants, more liveliness, more social and public life in the sunny streets, more life on the riverside.
I know which one I prefer. If you think I am being unfair to NFB, well – to be fair and honest, I like being unfair to Neighbors First, but in this case, I think the distinction is quite clear, and for the future, I hope one or two at least of the Commissioners and Council members will take note of it. Let’s have more neighborhood associations who don’t think architecture ended when McKinley was assassinated.
Outcome: CPC staff had recommended approval, with a couple of provisos, one of which was inappropriate, but the Commission voted unanimously to deny.
The basis of the vote was entirely land use. Scale. (Even though the hostel would occupy the same area as the seafood plant it was replacing.) The City Planning Commission’s interest in the design of the building and its effect on Chartres Street, the riverfront, Bywater and New Orleans was as far as one could see, nil. Nada, zero. Does no one in this process, developers, opponents, proponents and commissioners, notice that the starting point of the fuss about new construction in New Orleans is its legacy of distinctive architecture? They never mentioned it. They take a ruler to see if it fits the CZO box rules. They evaluate the vociferousness of support vs. opposition. Maybe they think about “scale,” through frequently misusing the word.
And if it is in Bywater, there is a special tilt of the Commission that should be dealt with, applied by Commissioner Kyle Wedberg, current Chair of the Commission. Mr Wedberg’s day job is principal of NOCCA, a great school, and he is a resident of Bywater. I am sure he is a man of great intelligence, but when it comes to Bywater, his vision fails. The optics go south. Conflict of interest drips off the dais like thick blood. He was the one opponent of Latrobe, the lone holdout. His reason was palpably that it was diagonally across the street from NOCCA, which already had testy neighbors complaining about its traffic. That is not this particular school’s fault. Like any school, it has two big drop off and pick up times each day, causing delays of a few minutes. The right solution for local residents is to wait like sensible people, or use another route at those times. But some don’t. They complain.
Had the Latrobe proposal failed, there would have been a formal call for a re-run with the Chairman recused.
Wedberg’s take on the hotel/hostel looked equally or more colored by the fact that his house is a few blocks away. My personal opinion: he may be a great principal, but he doesn’t have the hang of city planning, and should not be Chairman of the CPC. Failing that, he should of his own accord recuse himself from any projects in Marigny or Bywater. His judgments in his home area are neither impartial nor objective.
On the site itself, whether it’s destiny is to become a hostel or apartments or townhouses or a detention center for enemy combatants transferred from Guantanamo, we should prefer a building or buildings by a developer that will commit to architecture that counts, design that is good to look at. MJL-6 provided the opportunity. We need developers with the courage and skill.
© NOLAscape March 2016