Beauty and the Beasts: Istanbul v. FMIA


1. Café Istanbul
Tuesday, April 19th, Café Istanbul, the excellent entertainment venue in the Healing Centre on St Claude will be at the ABO Board for a hearing that threatens its alcohol license.

Why? Has Café Istanbul been accused of serving alcohol to minors or sheltering drug trades? Have their been fights or guns?

Not at all. You are more likely to see a City Council member there than a professional criminal (assuming you believe that those are two different things). Café Istanbul has been hounded for several years by one of the virulent neighborhood associations, the worst one I know of, Faubourg Marigny “Improvement” Association. I have learned enough about this operation to tell you that it does not need any polysyllabic adjectives. It is really bad.

When Café Istanbul opened, City Council helped work out one of their “Good Neighbor Agreements,” a questionable solution to civic management in the first place, with FMIA, an organization whose history shows it to be, and to have been, deeply unqualified to undertake the responsibility.

It is sad that a city Commission like the ABO Board and especially its prosecutor, Mr Dan McNamara, would entertain an accusation from an outfit like FMIA and let it stretch out over months as it has. I wonder whether FMIA and McNamara share some prejudices that set up a rapport.

Something has prevented the ABO board from taking the smart decision, which would have been to cut this one loose from the off. I think they know the right thing to do. Why haven’t they? Are they intimidated by McNamara, who is supposed to be their staff? Are they trying not to embarrass FMIA? Are they so used to attacking, harassing and penalizing people with alcoholic beverage licenses that they are insensitive to what they are doing, allowing an organization many consider deeply immoral to save face at another’s expense?

I am going to go outside the normal lines today. NOLAscape has always been based on public statements and information. No exposé, no off-the-record. New Orleans can be very small, and we don’t care what people do in their bedrooms or say in the bars at night, just what they get up to in the public space. But when it comes to the mischief FMIA gets up to, how bad this organization is and has been for the city and the downriver neighborhoods, we have to change the lens on the microscope.

Let’s start with a simple fact: Café Istanbul is co-owned by Chuck Perkins and Suleyman Aydin. Chuck is African American, Suleyman is Turkish. What does that have to do with the price of tea, right? Keep it in mind. We are assembling the pieces of a puzzle that includes FMIA and Deputy City Attorney Dan McNamara here. There are some shadows.

2. In which FMIA President Suarez Blames the World for her Club’s Reputation
A few weeks ago, Jan Ramsey wrote an article in her magazine Offbeat about Frenchmen Street. Frenchmen is in Marigny, so FMIA figures its opinion must be important. Their association was mentioned as opposing the frequently suggested multi-story parking garage for the space at Elysian aand Chartres, which the president of FMIA, Lisa Suarez, denies, so she weighed in under her internet name, GI O New Orleans.

“Blaming an all-volunteer organization for things you don’t like is not helping Frenchmen Street. The terrible reputation of FMIA is a crying shame, but all residents and businesses have the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process, if you actually participate. Working against citizens who have been organized for the last 45 years, for “Toute ensemble”, and making the Marigny a better place to live, work, AND play, removes many opportunities for citizens to be engaged. If you have pre-conceived notions about the organization being “old,” or “bigoted,” or whatever you’ve heard because you ascribe to the tourist philosophy of “I can do anything I want here, because it’s New Orleans,” then you are missing the chance to engage resources that already exist for the neighborhood to work together. No need to fight the organization, join and change what you want. BUT if you don’t think it’s a lot of gut-wrenching, no-profit-in-it, and no instant gratification WORK, and you do think others will do the heavy lifting for you, then keep reaping what you sow.”

Pretty dazzling prose, right? Not always easy, or maybe even possible, to tell what she is on about. My favorite is, “The terrible reputation of FMIA is a crying shame . . . “ Ms Suarez is telling us that neither she nor FMIA members or officers have anything to do with that. It just happened, despite how wonderfully well-meaning they are. And why? Because people in the neighborhood blame her association for what it does when the real fault lies with all the people who didn’t do it.

And FMIA has done it for 45 years. So the “crying shame” has had a comfortable gestation period. Still, all those people who now think of the FMIA top table as unpleasant, dishonest, manipulative and sleazy have just not been able to get it right. They can’t see the stellar public service and good will. “Pre-conceived notions” blind them to the truth. (What does that mean? How do you conceive your notions before you conceive them?)

I am not really sure what she thinks she is saying, and if you read it carefully, neither will you be. But I think I am picking up that she wants to deny that FMIA is “bigoted” without quite saying that is is not bigoted. Hold on to that, because we are going to find FMIA being a whole lot worse than just plain old vanilla bigoted.

3. Elisio Lofts
A few years ago, developer Sean Cummings proposed an apartment building for 501 Elysian Fields. He called it Elisio Lofts. It had an interesting look – built on several planes, with balconies. A good design. An actual effort, unusual in the shoebox era.

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But there was a problem. A zoning anomaly or error had set the maximum height on Elysian Fields, a broad six lane boulevard with a wide neutral ground planted with trees, at 50 feet. It is incongruous to have the same height limit on Elysian as on the narrow internal streets, but there you go. Zoning sometime has a superstitious component.

Elisio was 75 feet high at peak. Just the thought gave FMIA loyalists a nosebleed. They girded their loins for action, with T-Shirts as armor. T-Shirts and lawsuits, FMIA’s weapons of choice.

The President back then in 2012 was a guy with the catchy name of Chris Costello. Mr Costello was an ambitious fellow – seems to have fancied himself the true leader of the neighborhood, the Don Fanucci of the Marigny. Costello worked for a company called Deveney Promotions, a PR and marketing operation: Brand Integration; Crisis and Issues Management; Reputation Management. (How did he miss FMIA?) The President of Deveney Communications is John Deveney. Deveney is not just a PR – he is an HDLC Commissioner.

Costello was not only employed by Deveney; they were partners. Life partners.

Can you see where this is going? Costello, the ambitious President of FMIA, goes into overdrive to generate a battle against Elisio Lofts. Whether he really cares how high it is we may never know, but that he wanted to build a rep running a campaign, of that there is little doubt. He thumped his tub all around the city, soliciting money to attack Elisio Lofts.

There is in progress now an ethics challenge or lawsuit against Messrs. Deveney and Costello brought by Eliso’s developer. The flow of cash and events seems to have been: Costello gets in a bunch of money for Elisio’s fight – I don’t know how much; I have heard about $20,000. He pays the money to Deveney to work them up a campaign. In this instance, Deveney (or Costello; remeber he was also an employee of Deveney) comes up with “Size Matters,” which he prints in bold red letters on bright white. Not too much of a surprise to some, because he had used the T-Shirt attack before. But let’s come to that soon.

At the time, and before, Costello worked from Deveney’s firm’s office which used to be in the area, and spent a lot – maybe all – of his time working on FMIA matters. People wondered: did contributions to Costello for the cause go to Deveney Communications to subsidize Deveney Communication’s paying Costello to fight the cause? I don’t know. But people wondered.

So just keeping it simple for now: Costello solicits contributions to fund a fight against Elisio Lofts because it is higher than 50 feet. He hands the funding money over to Deveney Communications, whose boss is also his partner, and who apparently pays him to work on the Elisio campaign. And Mr Deveney, who is now funding the campaign because he has FMIA’s money, is also a Commissioner on the HDLC, one of the bodies that must approve or disapprove the project.

The conflicts of interest are piling up, don’t you think? Folow the circle: Commissioner Deveney seems to be employed by or being paid by one of the sides.

The source of this material is the legal charge sheet in the ethics case. It tells of Deveney realizing that he has to recuse himself from the HDLC session on this matter, so he does – in a letter to the commission explaining his thoughts and what he would have voted if he had not recused himself!

When pressed on the ethics of this – as is obvious, there weren’t any – he explained that the remarks in the letter were not from Deveney the commissioner, but from Deveney the private citizen and Marigny property owner, objecting to this building, which was – you guessed it – “out of scale.”

It worked. FMIA members energized by Costello and Deveney and the FMIA rank and file thrashed around the place in their flashy T-Shirts. I have spoken to people who were in this drama. I still have no feel for whether Costello and Deveney gave a tinker’s whether Elisio was 40 feet or 80 feet high. Maybe they really bought into the building height Puritanism and architectural duncery that we see in FMIA and some other residents’ clubs today – or maybe it was all for a little bit of money and hoped-for city clout.

The result so far: Sean Cummings, owner of the site and proposer of Elisio Lofts, has given an option deal to another developer named Monaghan, who has proposed a development to HDLC that stays within all the unlovely limitations, so does not give any hostages to any currently active likes of Chris Costello. Monaghan’s plan looks like a pre-war Detroit car parts factory. It does nothing for Elysian Fields, for Marigny, for New Orleans. It is boring. It does not violate the rules. It is just boring. Think of that as part of the legacy of FMIA and bad zoning: boredom.

4. The Old Cold Storage Meltdown
The ethics case about Elisio Lofts is ongoing. It seems to be treading water right now, while the sides duke it out about access to emails. It seems that there is certain correspondence on the matter which the lawyer representing Deveney and Costello does not want the lawyers representing the plaintiff to see. Whose are they? What did they say? What do they have to hide? Is it names? Amounts? General skunk works that doesn’t look good in daylight? Will we ever know?

On the first day of the recent hearing, a key witness, Eva Marie Campos, was in attendance. About the first thing the defense attorney did that day was to stand and vigorously request that Judge Paulette Irons not allow Ms Campos to testify. Do you feel this getting juicy? (Judge Irons denied the motion.)

A few days ago, I had the opportunity and the pleasure of meeting Eva Marie Campos and conducting what for me passes for an interview. It was a great discussion. Ms Campos is open and candid about FMIA, Costello and Deveney, and gave me permission to give her name and to use the material she gave me.

And some of the stuff I learned about FMIA . . . . Remember, I already thought this organization was off the rails. To be safe, sensible people in Marigny should treat it very carefully. Keep your distance, unless you are like them, or up for a fight. The first amendment says you can’t lock them up or shut them up, but you wear gloves, keep a safe distance, don’t trust it with anything and be prepared to call the police.

Eva Marie Campos did the books for Deveney Communications and FMIA between 2009 and 2011. The defendants’ justification for attempting to exclude her is that she was not bookkeeper or treasurer for either organization in 2012, when Elisio hit FMIA’s fan. But Eva Marie knows how Deveney/Costello/FMIA played the game in previous episodes of megalomania, and maybe where some of the bodies might be. So the defendants did loudly protest, and Judge Irons denied the motion to exclude her.

What I would suggest you do now is go back in time by the NOLAscape magic carpet and read this http://www.nolaslate.blogspot.com/2011/04/fmia-strange-days.html?m=1 . You will get a chance to recall some of Costello’s interesting activities when Eva Marie was crunching their numbers.

Eva Marie told me of Costello bringing her invoices for thousands of dollars for items which had been paid for by Deveney Communications, which he, as employee of Deveney, wanted reimbursed by FMIA, of which he was president. Eva tried to explain that this was not the way to do things. It looked bad. It was a tax exempt organization. They could be investigated. FMIA had money in its bank. It should pay its own bills, not have to reimburse Deveney.

Was Deveney Communications the agent for the campaign, which by contract was to supply all materials – such as red on white T-Shirts – to FMIA? But there was no agreement whatsoever, as far as Eva, responsible for the accounts, knew. Just stuff going on that was going to look bad if you had to defend your 501(c)3 status.

Was some money sliding around between what Deveney paid and what it charged FMIA? A percentage for sourcing would not mean anything wrong, but when you are shepherding a tax exemption, write the agreement.

So back then, pretty much like what the ethics complaint says for 2012, Deveney employed Costello, who was also his domestic partner, and provided the office space for Costello and Eva Marie to spend a lot of their time on FMIA work, and as the article and Eva Marie both said, Costello raised money using FMIA’s name and tax exempt status, and then immediately handed the money he collected from donors who would deduct the money they gave from their taxes to his partner and chosen PR guy, Deveney of Deveney Communications. How does it look to you?

The campaign that animated the highly energetic Costello before Elisio was a proposed cold storage plant at Governor Nicholls Wharf. Some French Quarter and Marigny people went ballistic against Cold Storage. Petitions, publicity, T-Shirts – a great yackety yack. Connecting contemporary articles, the site had been selected more by the city and the Port of New Orleans than by the Cold Storage company, which needed a new loading place on the Mississippi, because changes to the canal after Katrina had reduced its existing plant’s ship loading capacity. Cold Storage was about as happy with another site, so what was all the fuss and money about?

Again, from what we can piece together from articles and witness statements, the money was about money – no surprise there – and the fuss was about self-aggrandizement and power. Eva Campos, who shared an office with Costello, said that in between interrogation about what heterosexual sex might be like, he would muse about how neighborhood activism – a common name with some in the neighborhood for Costello’s activism was attempted tyranny that resembled a politicized protection racket – would be his stepping stone to City Hall and power in New Orleans.

So was all the T-Shirt power unleashed on Cold Storage really to crowbar them out of Governor Nicholls or was it Costello flexing muscles? Add in the local bully work on Mardi Gras Zone, the pizza restaurant whose oven Costello decided, in his role as self-appointed fire marshal, was a major hazard to the City, and Lost Love Lounge.

I wondered why Costello would get on Lost Love’s case. Everybody knows Lost Love . What was going on?

Costello, you see, had decided he was middleman between the neighborhood and City Hall. Don Fanucci. He was doing the small businesses a favor, helping them out. He went to Geoff Douville, one of the owners of Lost Love, a classic New Orleanian, musician, film maker and bar owner. Costello explained that he, as president and potentate of FMIA, would help Mr Douville and his partners sort out their permits. Geoff Douville said something like, “That’s okay. We know where city hall is.” FMIA’s subsequent attacks on Lost Love Lounge seem to be payback for not kissing the little Godfather’s ring. It makes me wonder about the other threats and assaults against small business in the Costello period, just a few years ago.

Let’s remember that this strange behavior is operating out of an office provided by Deveney Communications, whose owner and CEO was not only supporting FMIA and by tacit consent these shenanigans, but was also an HDLC Commissioner!

But do the suspicious optics mean there was really any corruption afoot? Eva Campos was at FMIA board meetings where Chris Costello, President, told the board – some may call it threatened – that since he was sharing a . . . let’s say a home with the Commissioner, who is connected at City Hall, if they wanted their preference passed, they had better vote his way. “That blatant?” I asked. “Just like that?” Eva confirmed it. No subtlety even attempted.

To sum up, the Costello years were a comic opera of clumsy corruption, local bullying and attempted self-aggrandizement. Deveney is still an HDLC Commissioner, but the current ethics suit should put paid to that pretty soon. And if we are really lucky, the option on 501 Elysian will revert to Ekistics and Elisio Lofts may even be built instead of Monaghan’s little bit of Detroit.

So what about now?

5. What About Now?
Something I always found repellent about Faubourg Marigny “Improvement” Association was the whiff of racism that seemed to hang in the air. I know a lot of people in the gentrification areas and the gentrification protection clubs are okay with that as long as you use the right words, but I’m not. Old fashioned 60s style racism makes me sick. Current coded systemic racism is harder to see and smell, but in some ways worse. Its results in voter suppression and mass incarceration are as ugly as anything gets in the sicker parts of America’s ailing society. The idea that a body in downriver New Orleans, where I live, claiming to represent public interest, would still have that old poison bubbling in their witch’s brew is pretty revolting.

When FMIA’s attack on Istanbul was getting rolling, I smelled the brimstone. Café Istanbul is not a segregated venue. It has events whose attendance is mostly White, events whose attendance is mostly Black, and events that are all mixed up. The venue itself has no visible racism. Zero.

Yet the pictures taken and put on the Internet by an FMIA director, Matt Del Vecchio, to show what the club said Istanbul was doing wrong showed only Black customers. How did that work? Some showed pictures of people in the parking lot. Some showed events, which were explicitly excepted in the agreement. FMIA said there was noise. But didn’t White customers come in cars? Didn’t they have to leave after the show? Every complaint was White people complaining about Black people. Sorry, guys, that don’t pass the NOLAscape sniff test, without further investigation. One of my hypotheses would be, White neighbors do not find White voices intimidating, but they become anxious when they hear Black voices in their neighborhood at night. I am sure every neighbor would deny it, but without careful checking with scientific rigor, the case against Istanbul should be dropped like a hot rock.

I read that good neighbor agreement that I mentioned back at the beginning. In fact, Del Vecchio sent me a copy when I questioned his photos. It says that in event of complaint or issue, FMIA is to meet with the owners to discuss the matter, and then meet regularly, meaning weekly or bi-weekly, to arrive at a resolution and to arrange arbitration if they can’t. When Café Istanbul was finally called to come before the ABO board, I spoke to Chuck Perkins and Suleyman, several times. FMIA had been writing accusations against Istanbul in most of its newsletters for about 18 months. So I asked – naïve of me, I know – how many times had Ms Suarez met with them? Yep, none. How many times had she requested a meeting? Let’s cut the suspense. Neither president Suarez nor any other officer speaking for FMIA had ever even called Café Istanbul to bring up the subject of a meeting. Not once. They did once make some rude ethnic or racial remarks, following which either Perkins or Aydin said, apologize, and one day we will talk.

If you read to the boring bottom of the agreement, it says that notwithstanding all other procedures specified, if FMIA collects five reports or evidence against Istanbul in three months, it can take any remedial steps necessary. Do I see a light bulb going on? Is it possible that Del Vecchio’s supposedly inculpatory photographs (mostly bogus, but that’s another story) have been rushed into the space, because the very White gentry of FMIA had not followed the requirements of their contract and did not intend to, but wanted to pass the festering ball to McNamara, the bar slayer? What do you think? I don’t think we will get a reply from either McNamara’s office or FMIA.

Okay. The inappropriate process starts. I have seen some of the hearings. The commissioners know this case is bogus. Even if there could be valid reasons for modifying Café Istanbul’s working agreement, they must know that the process of bringing the charge was deeply flawed. There was a long way to go before the ABO board was the appropriate adjudicator, and FMIA skipped it. The Commissioners should have had the courage to kick this before it got off the ground.

I found out that after the beginning of this sorry business, not before, Ms Suarez’s brother went to see the owners of Café Istanbul. He said – this is hard to believe, but it has been attested by witnesses – that Ms Suarez had not come herself or met previously because Chuck Perkins is African American, fairly large, strong and had been a marine.

Don’t laugh! I have this on hard evidence. I almost fell off the chair. Further evidence says that in slight disbelief, Perkins telephoned Suarez. After the call he said, “You have to give her some credit – she said it was right.” She actually thinks that insanely convoluted racism on that level of ignorance is okay. The President.

So I asked Eva Campos about racism in FMIA. She said something like, “Are you kidding? It’s a racist organization. Laced with it.” She told me about FMIA board members wanting to oppose the Colton Middle School that was to open on St Claude. One of the board members – I’m going to leave out the name for now; this is so creepy, I am chickening out until I check with a lawyer – said we should get kids from outside Marigny barred from it, because we don’t want a lot of Black kids coming into the neighborhood. More civilized members said, there are only about eight kids in Marigny, and in any case, neighborhoods don’t own or control the schools.

The board member grumbled, approximately, Well, we gotta do something. I don’t want those n*****s parking in front of my house.

Was that unusual? I asked. A one off? Was she a bit . . . drunk or something?

She was usually a bit drunk, Eva told me, but racism was pretty normal at the top table. She frequently said things like that. Other board members tried to get her to tone it down, use the codes, but they didn’t really disagree. The ones that can’t stand it resign. Director resignations are common at FMIA, when new members see what they have fallen into.

That board member is still on the board and has been involved in the Café Istanbul persecution.

Deputy City Attorney McNamara has not been impartial in this matter. Ms President Suarez told me herself that McNamara advised her in the affair. The City Attorney has one client: the city. It is not there to advise the public or complainants. In one communication he referred to Ms Suarez as “my client.”

The ABO commissioners have allowed a thoroughly discredited organization, publicly and convincingly accused of ethical violations, complicit in violation of trust of a city official, and both coded and overt racism to drag them into a bad game. The Commission is of course not racist – some of its leading members are African American. But they have allowed FMIA and Deputy McNamara to lead them into a tar baby scenario. The only reliable solution was never to touch it.

6. Any other business?

Oh, yes. But the Café Istanbul case is before the ABO Board tomorrow. Let’s get this out there. If you can, come to support Café Istanbul, one of the city’s most valuable venues, against this attack by an untrustworthy accuser. If you can’t, email the Board: cwroberts@nola.gov; lwjohnson@nola.gov; stemple@nola.gov. Let’s make the public support crystal clear.

(c) NOLAscape April 2016

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The Lowest Common Denominator

The New Orleans über-“Preservationists” should now be grateful to have their own writer-in-residence, Roberta Brandes Gratz, who started her article in the Lens yesterday morning with an encomium for Jane Jacobs, whom we all respect and revere, and a paean to walkable neighborhoods, localism, preservation of older buildings either useful or of architectural merit and public transit. She adds “communities,” though not clear how renovating older buildings would create them, diversity and appropriate density as desiderata now mainstream which were revolutionary when Jane Jacobs introduced them.

The problem is that after her seductive sermon on the great Jane, helping you feel that you are under the wings of a beneficent urban angel, Ms Gratz tucks a number of questionable non-sequiturs under the angel’s wing with you. The implication is that Jane Jacobs herself would approve of the annoying obstructive actions of some of our vocal groups of self-appointed Tribunes of the Neighborhoods who are undermining the aesthetic future of the city.

Let’s be clear: I am not advocating unbridled civic boosterism of the kind that would say let’s drill in Jackson Square if there might be a few meters of gas under it. That’s land use – the zoning fundamentalist’s obsession, now so dominant in every development discussion that the reason urban preservationism got rolling in the first place is getting lost in the noise.

I’m talking about architecture. Building design. Nobody mentions it. Ms Gratz uses the word once, referring to an old building, as if design and streetscape were limited to the word they so frequently overuse and abuse – “historical.”

Architecture, according to our Carrie Nation gangs of hatchet preservation fundamentalism, is the reason people started to visit New Orleans in the first place. That can be overcooked. It leaves out Storyville, saloons, jazz, voodoo and all the other things early tourism promoters pushed to attract visitors. But it’s real. Blocks of various interpretations of Spanish Caribbean houses and some buildings were a major component of the unique ambience, preserved better than many other Southern cities because New Orleans had the smarts to surrender without a shot to the Union forces in 1862 and join the United States. Unusual, irreplaceable design was a principal reason for Elizebeth Werlein and the other early and mid 20th century defenders of the French Quarter and other “historical” property starting their movements. So what happened to it?

Criticizing current practice, Ms Gratz points to land use, the CZO, the Master Plan and “our leaders” – I think she means City Council and the City Planning Commission. After that one reference to the past, she never mentions architecture again. That is not a glaring omission – nobody does.

New Orleans Preservationists in the first half of the 20th Century – decades before Jane Jacobs’ first publication – opposed business boosters’ plans to bulldoze the crumbling old termite ridden stick houses of the French Quarter on the value of its architecture and the historic significance of its properties. The French Quarter had deteriorated after the Civil War. The Creoles who had built it left, getting away from Anglo binary racism and the influx of Americans whom they found uncongenial. Much of the old city became poor immigrant and minority neighborhoods with exciting activity in street gambling and prostitution, especially on the lakeside streets Burgundy and Dauphine, which the opponents of Habana Café like to claim were always quiet, respectable, upper middle class residential areas.

The first wave of preservation was a commendable and largely successful effort. Neighborhood associations sprouted up and localism became a fad, then a movement, now sometimes an urban hazard. Public comment on every ordinance and motion became something like a human right, and the minutiae of zoning became a residentialists’ hobby. Unfortunately, what the associations and all interests pushed relentlessly was land use or Euclidean zoning – separate everything from everything else.

Land use segregation started sensibly. You don’t need an industrial abattoir next to an elementary school. But over several decades, zoning was elaborated so it not only segregated industrial from residential, but with various degrees of coding, Black from White, poor from rich, middle or professional class from working class. What once might have been called architecture was encoded to be non-judgmental in simple, objective measurements that let everybody off the hook of sound judgment. Height, Floor Area Ratio, property line, encroachment, maximum square footage were legislated. The word “scale” was corrupted as a general adjective to mean anything neighbors didn’t like. But that buildings should achieve standards of architectural excellence – too much of a hot potato. And it is. You can’t legislate one style. Design evolves. You can say “excellence” – but how do you know when you have achieved it? Like many things, design is a challenge. That is why Gary, Indiana does not look like Florence.

Euclidean zoning is gradually slipping out of favor, as people see the social and aesthetic violence that can be committed in its name. Land use priority was already not the standard when Baron Haussmann rebuilt Paris in the 1850s – where we all go to see how great it looks – but virtually no one in New Orleans shows a sign of letting go of their codes, as if they were a little blue security blanket. The Master Plan and the CZO go as far as suggesting they favor mixed use, but given the predispositions of the writers, their guidelines from the city and citizen input, ranging from the well-meaning and civil to the mean-spirited combativeness we became accustomed to from VCPORA and French Quarter Citizens under tutelage of Stuart Smith, the rulebooks continuously sink back into land use vocabulary. If you attend a CPC hearing today, you will hear it in play to the exclusion of all other concerns. Disputes hinge on the letter of the law – height, FAR, off-street parking requirements, pavement cuts. All no doubt necessary, but nary a word related to the original motivation for preservation: architectural quality and significance, unless it is a restoration of an old building, in which all design quality is said to inhere in the old property not the restoration.

So Ms Gratz is not alone in her implication by omission that building design stopped 150 years ago. You can watch the Architectural Review Committee of the HDLC and the City Planning Commission go through a whole project, listening to opponents and proponents, reading staff reports, considering variances, approving or disapproving a new building – without ever mentioning design or design quality.

After she raises Jane Jacobs to sainthood, Ms Gratz segues without a break to Horrible Examples. We are supposed to accept that the spirit of Jane Jacobs is with her on this – an unsupported conclusion.

Ms Gratz attacks density in Holy Cross and by implication, Bywater and Marigny, but does not bring back the concept of appropriate for discussion. She condemns the apartment complex that was planned for the point of the industrial Canal and the river in Holy Cross with “look at the code-busting” . . . But what if the problem is the code, not the busting? Holy Cross is very low density. Result: no stores. No traffic, so technically walkable, but no place to walk to. The result of that: gentrification. The White middle class attracted by urban living but with lingering suburban instincts buys houses, improves them, raises prices and forces out much of the traditional community. The apartment complex would accommodate stores and services that would turn Holy Cross more into a community than a picturesque low-density suburb for White gentrifiers, who spearhead the battle against the development, supported by the usual conservative neighborhood associations, and now by Ms Gratz using the authority she wants to claim by being a writer on urbanism, helping to ensure that Holy Cross increasingly becomes a White middle class suburb, rather than a real urban community. (For quick confirmation, check the house prices,)

She objects to the Royal Cosmopolitan Hotel restoration on the 100 block of Royal Street on the same basis. What code is it busting? The 70 foot height limit. Let’s give the code a quick IQ test: the original building, a structure of historical interest and some architectural merit and interest built in 1892 is already 85 feet high! The current proposal for the tower is in fact 168 feet not, as Ms Gratz states, 190. The Crowne Plaza next door, with a much bigger footprint, is 195 feet high. The Wyndham across Royal Street, no more than 30 feet wide at that point, is 205 feet high and the skyline from Royal is dominated by the 658 foot Place St. Charles two blocks away. The tower that will finance the Royal Cosmo’s restoration will be in the middle of the block, hardly visible against the background, and a big thing is, reopening the hotel would not only make the property live again with a carefully restored fin de siecle look, it would make that block walkable again. It’s not now. It is a dingy mess hosting shoestring businesses, retail drug trades and hookers.

So once again, code Puritanism trumps goals worth achieving, and now the Puritans have a skilled writer helping with their PR. But they are still wrong.

Ms Gratz goes medieval on the “Stateside” hostel/hotel proposed for Chartres Street in Bywater, calling the project a “crash pad” and the developer “well-connected.” She makes a few errors. I don’t know how well the developer, Ted Kelso, is connected, but his preparation for a CPC hearing on a conditional use 50,000 square foot application was very spotty. His proposal was unanimously denied. That does not mean it is over; there are options, but it is not going swimmingly so far. Ms Gratz called the description “upscale boutique hostel” a corruption of English. I don’t like it either, but it is a comparative within the world of hostels, not within the circle of four star hotels. The Meridien will not be in comparison range.

My issue with the process is not so much whether the hostel should be there, but that the opposition of neighbors, the CPC’s staff report and the final decision by CPC, and now Ms Gratz’s review are all entirely based on land use. Not one person in the process in any meeting I attended or transcript I read had anything to say about design. Not the opponents, the proponents, the CPC staff or the Commissioners had anything to say about quality of design. In one sense, it may not be their fault. They are following the code books. The CZO, designed largely to protect the legacy of design, has virtually nothing to say about design, only land use and technical details relating construction to space. Listen to any of the discussions, arguments and conflicts that surround a new project progressing through the various committees and commissions and you will notice that as smart cities move away from land-use obsession, more toward “form-based” codes, New Orleans which brags about its old design is cleaving ever more desperately to function as the fulcrum of decision.

Some people reading this might not understand what I am talking about. To many of us, zoning is land use. That is all they have ever heard. But think of the Euclidean blind spots: cities change. Neighborhoods change. If anything is certain in a city, it is that people will move around and neighborhoods will have cycles. If Kelso’s hostel does not work or the economy and travel preferences change, the building might become a supermarket, a sports club or a real hotel. At each stage, there will be a zoning variance to hassle out.

In racist, classist America (sorry for some people’s illusions, but that’s the truth of it) Black neighborhoods will become White, sometimes following the ironic social/ethnic progression Richard Campanella outlined a couple of years ago, and White neighborhoods will become Black or Latino, or an ethnic barrier will soften and previously segregated classes will blend, or a housing shortage will stimulate higher density, or an exodus will result in lower density, or economics will redistribute some income upward even more, or perhaps rule changes will start to spread the wealth again. Twenty or thirty years later, the original business may be long gone, but if the building was sound, it will still be there, and if it was ugly when it was built, it will still be ugly.

If the Master Plan and the CZO were less dependent on now old-fashioned approaches and out of date ideas, if they were simplified and updated and at least in part infused with what most planners call “form based codes,” planners would be able to see farther horizons than they are willing to deal with now.

I am aware of only two city decision processes that allow the application of any artistic standard in building design, the Vieux Carré Commission and the still untried Riverside Overlay or Amendment MJL-6. The VCC’s Architectural Review Committee can and does actually look at the facades and proportions of a building, and can tell the architect, Why not go back to your drawing board and come see us next month?

In a dramatic face-off of the French Quarter residential gangs against the VCC last year, the Committee worked exactly this kind of careful qualifying process on Habana Café, but when the professionals and appointees were satisfied, the residents weren’t. Still stuck obsessively in the land use paradigm, they did not want that kind of restaurant. They wanted a restaurant that looked more like what they think Old South and genteel Nawlins restaurants should look like – brick courtyards, iron gates, ivy and bougainvillea. They kept up an ugly clamor, and when they lost, they sued the City to get a judge to activate the awful old phrase that should be drummed out of the law, “quaint character.”

Are the French Quarter zealots tourists in their own neighborhood?

The other path to development with a focus on quality is the Riverfront Overlay Amendment MJL-6,
which refreshingly says “Incorporating superior design elements in a development . . . Qualifies a development for . . .” certain considerations such as additional height.

I imagined exciting new construction along the East Bank, comparable to London’s as the Thames was brought back to life, but probably in a different design idiom that the city’s architects would figure out.

But it isn’t happening. Builders are chickening out, keeping new construction within the old code limits, designing shoe boxes. Instead of better design, we are getting worse.

Far from appreciating the contribution that MJL-6 could make to the riverside cityscape, Faubourg Marigny “Improvement” Association, one of the more determinedly smooth-brained and objectionable of the Luddite clubs (currently also engaged in persecuting Café Istanbul, one of the city’s downriver treasures) has brought a lawsuit against the city for passing the amendment without allowing public comment before the Planning Commission! The law on the point is ambiguous, but their case is essentially futile. If they do succeed in forcing the amendment to go through the CPC process, unless the city has gone absolutely bonkers it will still pass. If CPC chickens on it, Council will override. I doubt that FMIA and its perennially  flakey officers care. They are fundamentalists whose appreciation of building design stops at ensuring the roof is not higher than 55 feet and the knee jerk reflex to maintain present density and dominance of “people like us.” Like many religious fundamentalists, they don’t really expect their plan to succeed. It’s an identity statement. They think they are doing God’s work, and win or lose, cost others what it may, they can preen their feathers of misdirected self-righteousness.

The Lens piece was short, so big omissions inevitable, but Ms Jacobs’s favorite context should be taken into consideration. Jane Jacobs’ poster boy was her own neighborhood, the lower East Side of New York, fabulously diverse and very densely populated, with every kind of shop from pushcarts to second-hand clothing to Katz’s Delicatessen. As she blurs Jacobs to flatter and support our self-appointed Preservationist gangs, Ms Gratz provides covering firepower for people condemning New Orleans to architecture that fits the prescription of the CZO for avoiding conditional use challenge: shoeboxes. Commercial ticky tacky.

New Orleans has huge problems – nothing much being done about crime and violence, and most people unable to see beyond police as a corrective. Corruption. Stagnation. Tourism, the cash cow – or is it the golden goose? – and the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s increasing power within the city, as the administration seems to be a deer in the headlights. To get a streetlight fixed or a cop on the beat, New Orleans has increasingly to turn to the CVB, meaning the French Quarter especially and other riverside areas are increasingly operated as ersatz colonial Disneylands. It is not a pretty picture.

Modern New Orleans state of new architecture is an embarrassment. There seem to be two solutions to building: pale imitation of the old Creole and Spanish Caribbean for infill, or shoeboxes. If I was a young architect, I would get out of here. The City and almost all the developer/builders lack the courage for 21st century design. I would be off to New York, London or Asia, away from the the the endless resistance of hyper-conservative Preservationists and articulate Praetorians like Ms Gratz to anything but the lowest common denominator.

© NOLAscape April 2016

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