The Chamber was full at Tuesday’s City Planning meeting. The main event was a big session on STR. Not Sexually Transmitted anything – Short Term Rentals.
It was overshadowed. I haven’t even seen the STR bit yet, because something really significant happened first. The opening shot of a great revolution was fired. A shot heard ‘round the block!
(I dIdn’t really mean that. Just couldn’t resist. This could be the chance for New Orleans to take the city back.)
My new heroes, gladiators on the side of The Light, are Ms Hillary Barq, lessee and operator of the business, and Ms Darleen Jacobs Levy, owner of the property, no-BS lawyer and all around tough cookie. I’ll link what the Times-Pic has to say about it at the bottom, but let’s follow the story first.
Hillary Barq (yes, yes, of the Root Beer Barqs) wants to open a nice shop on Magazine Street in the Lower Garden District. Not among the fashionable boutiques and restaurants on the Uptown side of Felicity – the very Lower Garden District, near the industrial chic and movie set decay of Barrel Proof, which used to be the Bridge Inn. Magazine Street has been a good wheeze for years, and now its fashionable zone is starting move downriver of Felicity. These two women want to help move its allure closer to Warehouse and the CBD, while having fun and making some money on the way.
One of the bones of contention in the case was that Ms Barq wants a liquor license for off-premises consumption to up to 15% of sales by cost, but it was a secondary issue doing red herring duty. You can always depend on a certain proportion of Americans to feel that puritanical itch to restrict the Devil’s temptations. You would think they had learned their lesson from the years of murder and mayhem that resulted from Prohibition and the Volstead Act, then the New Jim Crow of marijuana prohibition in 1935 to keep some of the Prohibition jackboots in work, which we are only slowly starting to roll back. But the Salem virus is like herpes lodged in the American spinal column. Blow the right dog whistles, it flares up. And we can also trust some people in the public eye, and the eye of others in the political lists, to hide what really bothers them behind one of these boring old reliable red flags.
Hillary Barq lost, 5-4. She is a hero. Ms Jacobs is the Ajax of the coming war. I am sharpening my sword to follow these two great Amazons into battle.
Featured products will be house-made ice cream, jams and jellies. (I am thinking, a gelateria as in Florence. This could be good.) It will serve sandwiches, coffee, teas and cakes. It will sell its ice creams and special condiments for take-away as well. Ms Barq said, someone on the way home from the CBD could stop in and get some treats for dinner or a party, and pick up a bottle of wine. Or a nice bottle of Amaretto or Calvados, I shouldn’t wonder.
You can get a feel for the kind of shop it might be from the presumption that core customers would be Uptowners who work in the financial district. But that’s okay. Affordable housing isn’t everything.
In Commissioners’ statements toward the end, Mr Steeg and Mr Marshall said they had trouble seeing the synergy of jams, ice cream and take-away liquor. I am going to help them out. Least I can do.
Step into Rouses CBD through the Girod Street entrance – just a couple of steps and stop. Look just to your right. You will see the counter for ice cream, pastries and coffee, eat in or take away. Just across from it, a few feet away, you will see the counter for spirits and liqueurs and a few promotional wine displays. Just past them are the tables, where you can drink your coffee and eat your pastries or sandwiches, but you cannot open and drink alcoholic beverages. Thousands of people a day express no shock at that juxtaposition.
Visualization skills vary, but this should help.
To give them their due, some of the Commissioners, particularly Mr Marshall and Mr Duplessis, said clearly that even if the Commissioners don’t get it, it is not up to them to judge an entrepreneur’s business model, only its zoning, legality and impact.
Most of the ABO argument really had nothing to do with Ms Barq’s business. A quirk of Louisiana law assigns alcoholic beverage permits to the premises, not the business. Residents and some commissioners expressed concern that the business might not work or she might sell the store on to somebody less, ahem . . you know. Do I detect a touch of classist xenophobia in there, or is that just my Gentrification Geiger Counter (TM) turned up to eleven?
Neither Ms Barq nor any other business developer should be penalized for this awkward law..
Once again, Mr Royce Duplessis pointed out most clearly, any actions of a subsequent owner should be dealt with at that time, not used to obstruct Ms Barq because of an imagined future with an imaginary person.
So reason can be found in the City Planning Commission. There are some smart folks up there on the dais. Yet she lost, 5-4. What really did it?
The Neighborhood Association!
From now on, this is a recruiting speech.
Aux armes, Citoyens!
Right-thinking people, rise up with me to help Hillary Barq and Darleen Levy-Jacobs to help us to put an end to this reign of petty tyranny.
A story before we resume this story: a couple of years ago when VCPORA was persecuting somebody – I think it was T-Shirts that time – Kristin Gisleson Palmer, the well-beloved KGP of the previous council (who is going to be on the wrong side of an upcoming NOLAscape) was grilling Meg Lousteau of VCPORA and Jared Munster of Safety and Permits. Meg was more up on violations of T-Shirt lore than Munster. She is also a better public speaker with an arch manner that pleases some of the audience. Kristin Palmer seemed to quite fancy her. At one point she said, with a wink to the crowd, “Maybe we should just deputize Meg and VCPORA to enforce the rules if S&P can’t.” Gasps and titters in the gallery. She span it as a joke, but it had a real-ish, chilling feel to it. There was a message in there. We could feel power transfusing.
That mood has metastasized into a plague of Neighborhood Benefit Agreements or Good Neighbor Agreements. They share a balkanizing platform with the gated-community police forcelets that are turning up, most visibly the French Quarter Task Force.
Some of our friends in city government may not like us trying to stir up this muddle. Sending the job of monitoring and regulation back to City Hall means work for them. Good Neighbor Agreements outsource responsibility to unelected private clubs answerable neither to city nor state nor electorate, with no standard policies, principles or responsibilities. Members are self-selecting. What are these clubs like? They range from responsible, honest groups integrating lots of information to reach net best conclusions for their neighborhoods, to homeowners’ protective crypto-gentrification clubs of questionable morality whose intentions are to enhance their own property values with occasional undertones of racism. There is no standard.
We hear that as Freret Street developed, it became virtually a private legal enclave. Neighbors objected ferociously to everything unless businesses signed up to contracts imposing limits more restrictive than city law. Stacy Head claims to have been instrumental in the development of Freret, and I am sure that is correct. But why was she complicit in this residential tyranny? Why can’t bars and restaurants on Freret Street operate under the same laws as others in the City? Somebody gave in. Freret residents had created their own invisible legislature.
We have written several times of the situation in Bywater. It can serve again as an example here. Several years ago, the Bywater neighborhood Association was recaptured from a homeowners’ protectionist crowd who had held sway on the board for years. It was reset into a proper neighborhood association, with a responsible zoning committee that studies the legality and impact of any project on the whole of Bywater, not just a dozen anxious near neighbors. Impact negative and positive: will a project bring new jobs, new people, new services? Committees formulate recommendations to the directors, the directors consider, vote and write their recommendations to the responsible municipal bodies.
BNA’s old guard didn’t like it. Too sensible, too wide-angle. They broke away and formed Neighbors First for Bywater, a homeowners’ klatch, with less structure. In a recent hearing, asked how NFB arrived at a decision to support or oppose, its President said she liked to ask people’s opinion as she walked her dog. She and an ally accused BNA of being too legalistic. Apparently they wanted less data, more reaction and ideology. (Sounds kind of Republican, doesn’t it?)
Bywater Neighborhood Association will not engage in Good Neighbor Agreements. Few NAs have the resources to manage one properly. To move beyond the initial stage of discussion, you need to engage a lawyer, pay arbitration costs – it’s not a lot of fun.
So who would sign a business up to an agreement in Bywater? If BNA won’t take it on, you would be stuck with NFB and the dog-walk poll approach. Yet I hear that NFB is quite keen on Good Neighbor Agreements. They make homeowners’ associations feel important.
The great Café Istanbul is just shaking itself free of an attack by its counterparty to an NBA, the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association, which it was pressured into signing by Council members. FMIA never handled its side of the contract anywhere near correctly. It never engaged in appropriate dialogue with the business. The activist directors worked themselves up into a snit, writing complaints to themselves in their newsletters, and eventually just shopped the venue to Dan McNamara, where they could hide anonymously behind the kangaroo ABO court, where one of Stalin’s prosecutors might feel at home. I wouldn’t want to accuse the Coliseum Square Association of being like FMIA, which has a very checkered history – but things change. Since it can be difficult to operate the NA’s side of an agreement properly, in this case, they just managed it improperly. The niceties of the agreement did not seem to trouble Prosecutor McNamara.
Okay. We resume . . .
Ms Barq and Ms Jacobs Levy defied the Coliseum Square Neighborhood Association by refusing to sign a Good Neighbor Agreement! By refusing to consider it. By brushing it away with a one line reply.
Halle bloody lujah. That is the opening shot. Rise and throw off your chains, New Orleans.
Julie Simpson, President of the Coliseum Square Association, came to the mic. She opened,“We represent the neighborhood . . . . “ Of course, they don’t at all! These clubs are not elected. They are not accountable. They are not bodies of the city or the state. They claim to represent the interests of their neighborhoods, but they have no consistent principles, policies, restrictions or responsibilities. Some of them have behaved very badly, with episodes of deep immorality that border on criminal.
Ms Simpson and her Vice President looked hurt and saddened that Ms Jacobs Levy would brush them off like that. So convinced of their own good intentions, virtue and sense of duty are they that they seemed to find it difficult to imagine that a business might want to manage itself by reference to the law and municipal government without sheltering under their club’s umbrella by signing some of its legal rights away on their well-meaning dotted line.
As the story unfolded, Ms Simpson met Hillary Barq at the shop’s location. Ms Barq explained the business. Ms Simpson invited her to attend a meeting of the association. She did. Ms Simpson told her about Good Neighbor Agreements. She said that Ms Barq had agreed to sign it. She then sent copies of her text to Ms Barq and Ms Jacobs-Levy. They did not respond. After a while, Ms Simpson sent them a reminder. She received a brusque reply from lawyer and landlord Jacobs-Levy: “We’re not signing.”
Wow, people! History in the making. Let’s see some fists in the air, guys! Hard-boiled landlords like Jacobs Levy may look like the enemy sometimes, but now she is the good guy.
One guy named Banks McClintock came to the mic to both support and oppose with a.tortured argument. He was opening a business with liquor sales on the same block. He had gone to LaToya Cantrell and Stacy Head. They told him that he had to see the neighborhood association. That is how it is done, they said. His point was that if he and other businesses had signed the NA’s stuff, why shouldn’t Ms Barq?
Why, indeed, Sir? Because Ms Barq and Ms Jacobs Levy have more courage than you and the others. His presentation was a declaration of advanced Stockholm Syndrome: Why won’t these two women be contented hostages like the rest of us? Show us your chains if you want to join this club!
I note with Commissioner Eugene Green that the squeamishness about alcoholic beverage sales went away when McLintock agreed to sign on to Coliseum’s loyalty oath.
If CMs Head and LaToya (and “they” say, add Susan Guidry to the list) are sending people to meet and talk to the NAs, that’s fair enough. It is even in the rules of conditional use that the applicant must set up an NPP – Neighborhood Participation Program – inviting all interested parties within a certain radius (depending on size of the project) and must include recognized NAs even if outside the radius. It does not say the business developer must attend a meeting and present there, but why not? They care and it takes an hour.
But if the Council Members instruct property and business developers to subject themselves to any control by these self-appointed clubs, it is commercially inappropriate and part of the unofficial outsourcing of municipal responsibility. It has an analogue in the little neighborhood police forces, picking up what the city doesn’t get done. It is part of an overall withdrawal from responsibility.
What is the appropriate role of one of these associations? In one of its rare moments of lucidity, challenged when it was throwing down some gauntlets about a property on the wrong side of Bienville, VCPORA in the decisive tones of Meg Lousteau said: VCPORA is not a neighborhood association. It is an advocacy group.
That’s it! Thank you, Meg. That’s what they all are. Even one that I belong to. Even if we call them neighborhood or homeowners’ associations.
Their appropriate role is to study and understand the zoning, the law, the impacts, to evaluate the costs and benefits of projects and make rational recommendations to City Planning, City Council, HDLC, VCC – the proper deciding, accountable, legal bodies. The ones you can unelect.
They can be rational, data-driven, logical, inclusive and wide-angle, like BNA. They can be close-focus, emotional, reactive like NFB or FMIA. What they must not be is entrusted to share municipal authority. No! The Good Neighbor Agreement is the step too far.
As advocacy groups, it should be normal and expected for them to discuss projects with CPC staff and with Council Members. It should be fine for them to support or oppose projects before Council or the HDLC or VCC, IF they properly identify themselves. (VCPORA and French Quarter Citizens should be disqualified, because they will not say how many members they have or be clear about their decision processes, but most of the others are satisfactorily transparent.)
But supporting their assuming authority over businesses under civil contracts is wrong. They are neither elected nor subject to certain standards. They do not have to submit performance or compliance reports. They are not subject to regular ethics reviews before Council. Some of them would be long out of business if they were.
A spokesman for Ms Barq, summing up in rebuttal, said,” We will operate the business under rules and regulations of the city, but not under the rules and regulations of the neighbors!”
In Commissioners’ comments at the end, some of them showed a very weak spot in their perception of the case. They cited opposition of the neighbors. The only two neighbors who opposed were the President and Vice President of the Coliseum Square Association. As Commissioner Eugene Green pointed out, they do not seem to oppose McClintock’s store, so the remaining basis of opposition is the Good Neighbor Agreement that they want signed because it gives them contractual authority over Ms Barq’s and Ms Jacobs Levy’s businesses. To me, that neutralizes their testimony for conflict.
The business owners of New Orleans can end this petty tyranny. Just get behind Hillary Barq and Darleen Jacobs Levy and say No!
The neighborhood clubs will whine. The stores and bars and restaurants will have to be strong, and they will have to face down the Council Members who have been pushing these things. But the Good Neighbor contracts are bad in principle, an addiction they have to get over. Bring back the rule of law. The Council Members will eventually understand and thank you for it in the end.
The Times-Picayune’s article on the Barq project:
©NOLAscape June 2016