The Riverfront Overlay
Is back in play.
Such fun. Olé.
Or words to that effect . . . .
The Riverfront Wars
Another episode of the Downriver New Orleans Mississippi Riverfront War is under way. The DNOMRW. No terrorists, no drones. Conventional weapons only.
Too late to stop it now.
The English language needs more words for war. We love them, with passion but without affection. We have so many of them in so many forms but lack a rich enough vocabulary to name their parts. Maybe they teach initiates a secret vocabulary in West Point.
WWII – pitched battles between a crackpot nationalist ideology, too stupid to ever recur, against all the rest. Now, that’s what I call a war: unconditional surrender, decent terms, shake hands, world back on track, right? Well, we thought so. But the Deutsche Bank, the Le Pen family, Geert Wilders, Erdogan, Vincent Orban, Trump and his voters . . . maybe not.
WWI – hard to remember what that was for. Terrible terms; maybe WWII was really Part Two of the WW, and this week, as the battle unit approaches Korea, we have to hope the plan didn’t call for a trilogy.
The word “war” suggests a battle. A winner, a loser, a treaty, get on with your life. Maybe the one short word with no real consonants helps politicians, presidents and warlords get us to pay attention to and get involved in their deadly, wasteful imperial board game, because they don’t usually work like that. The Hundred Years War, the Wars of the Roses, the War of Jenkins’s Ear, the Spanish Succession, the Persian Wars – these things go on and on, with lots of yak from the palaces and dead bodies of people who won’t see any outcome or benefit from the games of thrones.
The most recent phase of phases of the Irish Wars for independence started with the Easter Rising in 1916, 101 years ago this week. The phase we call The Troubles bounced along, mostly in Belfast and London, from the late 60s to 1998. In the late 80s, when a bomb went off in an Underground station or people were turned out of a store for a search by the explosives guys, they might spend a few minutes in a pub trying to remember what The Troubles were about. Young people in Belfast had been born into it. They were soldiers in an inherited war that had turned partly into an extortion racket with religious labels. Now England has voted underwhelmingly to leave the EU, but Northern Ireland voted pretty whelmingly to stay in. As the force of religion declines and economic pressure increases, we might see Northern Irish moves to leave the UK, rejoin Ireland and the EU. It may not be over yet.
Movies like Lawrence of Arabia and Gandhi depict conflicts that supposedly ended colonialism, but click on your news web site or turn on a TV, if you still use one of them, or even look at a newspaper, if you remember what they used to be, and you will see (despite the President who doesn’t read history shooting some artillery into Syria, thinking he is doing something original) the battles of colonialism aren’t even near an identifiable end yet.
The Bywater/Marigny Riverfront is getting like that. Low level, no bombs yet, not even the repetitive thuds of a pile driver. Years of tension and aspiration, with nothing happening. Not a hot war, not the Cold War. I think we have a Lukewarm War with Press Street as the coming battle front.
A new phase is on. A new phase in a series of greater and lesser phases in the overall Big Picture of battles fought with microphones and news releases, web sites, news programs and talk shows and of course here, in NOLAscape.
Here’s the deal . . . .
On CZO day in 2015, Council passed a long list of last minute amendments, including the Riverfront Overlay when it was still Amendment MJL-6. An ordinance says amendments can be entered right up to the vote and the end of session. But another one says that zoning ordinances have to go through City Planning and be given the opportunity for public discussion.
Now they call MJL-6 Section 18.13.G. Boring. MJL-6 sounds better. It is about a Riverfront Overlay, a map that outlines property from a few spaces on Esplanade and Elysian near the river, then along North Peters in Marigny and Chartres in Bywater to Poland and the Canal. Formally, the outline extends to the middle of the Mississippi and at the Poland end, into the middle of the Industrial Canal. (Which could be interesting to some lawyer with time to waste, because when it comes to the more important discussions of the cruiser port and building a new lock in the canal, the Port Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers say the city doesn’t own the river and the canal, so shouldn’t be able to make rules for apartments built in the middle of them.)
The bone of contention is building height. MJL-6 says developers can build to 75 or 80 feet in the overlay area, where the standard height limit is 55 feet, if they meet certain conditions. It probably will not surprise you that no one has applied for permits to build a 75 foot multi-residence building out in the shipping lanes, but it may raise your eyebrow a little bit that no one has applied for permits to build a 75 foot building anywhere in the overlay.
MJL-6 was law almost before the sun went down, before dinner and drinks on CZO showdown day. Some of us thought it was okay, some didn’t. Turned out to be a time bomb. In lieu of the acrimonious debate in the media and the Council Chamber that we would have expected to accompany such a proposal, it has gone through some days in court in FMIA’s rusty gunsights, accused of lèse-histoire. Punishment requested: dusty death by Preservation Fatwa.
In one of the injunction hearings, City Attorney Christy Harowski took down the plaintiff’s legal case with a few whizzy slashes that would have done honor to a Samurai. Judge Reese of the Civil Court couldn’t decide in favor of the plaintiff’s rather fuzzy arguments by law, but he did not like the idea of the last-minute amendment dump circumventing the public input process.
Two hearings, no injunction, but to keep the peace, or rather extend the truce, the city agreed to put the ordinance through CPC and public punch-up. So here we are, setting up the battlefield, drawing up sides, cleaning the grease and rust off our weapons.
First Godzilla meeting
(The bottom line in the green band tells you who designed the announcement. Hint: it wasn’t City Planning.)
Bob Rivers, Executive Director of City Planning, led a meeting on March 23d to bring the residents, the activists and the anxious up to speed, so we could start cooking up strategies and choosing weapons.
Pretty good attendance. More than 100, I would say. Bob Rivers always knows everything and if controversy looms, advocates nothing, There were useful things to learn, if I had been able to pay better attention, but a heavy dose of zoning without stimulants of extra-legal strength can do bad things to your focus. Anyway, he laid it out for us.
The first audience commenter, Eugene Cizek, grandfather and founder of FMIA, took the floor and gave the hall a querulous history of FMIA’s defense against the menace of height since 1974, or maybe it was ’72. Some in the audience looked at each other and quietly mouthed “1974?” Your intrepid reporter, though tired and uninspired, just managed to hold on to the will to live. It really wasn’t Professor Cizek’s fault. As the lover leaving sadly says, “It was me.”
As a professor emeritus with a big CV in hardcore preservation, Cizek doubles as St. George of the Knights Defenders of Holy Relics with a full dragon-fighting toolkit, including crosses, candelabra and garlic, for Godzilla defense. His troops man invisible battlemented walls of Marigny Castle while the heroes ride out to repel scaly fire-breathing beasts, along with the last century or so of architecture and threats of a more diverse skyline. Funny they use a T-Rex to denote the enemy. Many of us have a different idea of who the dinosaurs are.
But never fear. Giorgio de Chirico shows us Godzilla going down. FMIA must represent the horse and the good Prof the sainted spearman. I’m not sure which way the painter was facing, because I can’t see Algiers in the background. Maybe it was a dull day. You must decide for your yourselves what the Fair Maiden to be rescued represents. For me, she spices up the picture and would make dragon killing worth the aggravation, but I am a person of unrefined taste. Rather like de Chirico.
Drawing up sides
- FMIA, Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association, plaintiff in suit to enjoin MJL-6 from being implemented, will continue to lobby, campaign and fight against special height allowances. Height seems to be an absolute. In zoning’s hot zones like Christopher Inn and Elisio Lofts, FMIA rarely if ever mentions architecture. It is not always clear, but triangulating from things they endorse and things they oppose, their criteria for new construction may be that it should either imitate the late Creole palette of residential Marigny, or be short and bland enough not to risk any clash with it.
- Non-affiliated Marigny residents and One Marigny: usually silent.
- Neighbors First – Bywater’s conservative group, generally a sidekick of FMIA, will again either side with or mirror (depending on whether the overlay holds together) the Marigny group’s position.
- Bywater Neighborhood Association. BNA favors increased residential density. The Zoning Committee is very sharp on zoning law. The Committee and the Board do not mind building height. They like good design, but not as much as I do, probably because it is not generally written into the law. In MJL-6, design excellence is in the rules, so maybe they will shift a bit more my way.
- The City: MJL stands for Mitchell J. Landrieu. That should give us a hint of where the administration will come down.
- City Planning Commission staff. Rivers and deputy Lesley Alley are appointed by the mayor. Lesley Alley has been speaking in favor of Landrieu’s “security” plan. “I find it hard to believe” is a lousy justification for journalism, even though politicians use it – but what are the probabilities that the planners had no input into MJL-6 before it was announced and have no investment in it? They are unlikely to advocate in the discussion, but they will issue a recommendation.
- City Planning Commission. Appointments mixed mayoral and council. They decide against staff recommendations sometimes. My guess at opposition in this case: low. But – may depend on who the Commissioners talk to.
- City Council. The two members that reliably vote with “preservationists” are Stacy head and Susan Guidry. Jason Williams is . . . .variable. Member for District C Nadine Ramsey should be leader on this bill. She supported and voted for it in the CZO session. I think we will get four votes, or five.
- The developers. The builders have tended to keep a low profile in these punch-ups, but they are important, should be in it, should be talking to council and CPC before microphone time. FMIA warriors think developers have horns and smell of smoldering brimstone, but buildings don’t build themselves. In our economic system, we need the builders, and we have to set conditions so they do good work. That means benefit or reward for good, disincentive and penalty for bad work. This article will discuss them some more before the end.
Time out for a technical subject.
Density has two meanings in this context, which sometimes get muddled together, fudging communication.
- FAR. Floor Area Ratio. How much indoor residential floor space is permitted with respect to the size of the lot a property is built on. A big item in zoning law, so essential vocabulary for City Planning and developers and zoning hawks with gentrification instincts protecting their patch from invasion by the wrong class of “They’re not like us, you know.” FAR is residential space density within one property. It affects but does not define the number of people.
- Neighborhood or residential density. How many people per square mile? This one will be a big item in the coming Riverfront Overlay scrums. We’ll just call it density.
If you have poked about a little bit in the famous Master Plan, you have seen the emphasis on walkability. It’s a good idea, too, though still honored a bit in the breach. New Orleans is set up for it with legacy elements that would be hard to reproduce if they were not here: short blocks, narrow streets and square corners.
Master Plan’s walkability includes other features, like popular public transportation and squares and shops within a few minutes gentle stroll of every front door because in order to get people out and about, there have to be places to walk to. Some nice riverside apartment buildings, cleverly spaced and designed, high enough to have some shape, with lots of new people, a few cafés and bars overlooking the Mississippi – and one or two out in Crescent Park, while we are at it – and Bywater will have a cheerful street life, all European. Or like upriver about a mile.
You need another thing to keep all those cafés and wine bars buzzing, as well as the laundromats, pharmacies, restaurants, taco trucks, poodle groomers, art galleries and other stuff that make a modern city: people. Customers. There’s the rub:
See what I mean? Even by the smallest definition of Bywater (there are several) it is about four times the size of Marigny, but doesn’t have enough people in the space to really activate the Master Plan.
Opportunities for new residential space are limited to nonexistent in the Historic Core, the domain of cypress clad trad houses in the New Orleans palette of Caribbean Colonial. New work in the cores is normally infill or repair, not development. It is the place for imitation. The preservationist’s instinct for a tight lid on diversity and originality is appropriate.
So where are we going to put the new Bywaterites we need? A quote I have recently seen from leading urbanist Ed Glaeser reminds us that the key is to make the best use of the space that is allowed to change and to “champion excellent design.” In Bywater, the spaces allowed and available to change are Press Street, the riverfront and the canal side. In these spaces excellent design, as recognized in MJL-6, should not be constrained either to tedious reiteration of the usual suspects, or to the 55 foot cubes more likely to line up if the coming cosmic battle goes the conservatives’ way.
With all due respect to the tiring, not-really-applicable “tout ensemble” buzz word, new excellent design should be just that: new, excellent and suited to its purposes – housing to reasonable density, some parking, some social space – worked out realistically to be economically feasible. Contrast and diversity: good. Just do ‘em right.
Race for the exits . . .
. . . or at least the combatants back to their corners. More prediction:
The overlay being a single space from the foot of Esplanade to the canal have given Marigny and its passionate opposition to altitude a position of some power over Bywater. I should follow through with interviews to make sure, but lazily judging by the expressions on their faces, FMIA and NFB leaders quite enjoyed that.
If they are smart, they are now having second and third thoughts. At first glance, with FMIA and Neighbors First on one side and BNA on the other, it can look like the conservatives have the edge.
But are the conservative groups really a match for the powerful BNA Zoning Committee, with its track record of being always right, allied with the mayor’s team who wrote the ordinance in the first place? Where is the CPC staff likely to position itself? After the CPC gauntlet comes City Council, who passed the ordinance on CZO day. If the developers come out into the open, they will be advocating conditions that allow them to build apartments that will work. The conditions have to require responsibility and excellence, but still enable viable projects. BNA is more likely to support the plan that works for them. Without the builders, it’s all just talk. The results will be like now: ordinances and court cases. No buildings. If it goes down like this, BNA has them outnumbered.
As it stands, a single designated territory from the Industrial Canal to Elysian, most of the land in Bywater, and the debating teams forming up, FMIA could be positioning its foot as a very big target to shoot itself in.
The safe play for the anti-heightsters, I suggest, would be for them to request the neighborhoods be separated at Press Street.
For Bywater as well, the safe play might be a no-fault divorce. If it is all one patch, FMIA could find grounds to complain that Bywater residents are trying to exert influence unduly, and if they lose, to hit the courts again. A political minuet of the two neighborhoods wriggling free of each other, neither wanting to blink first, might be fun to watch. Bob Rivers will probably be referee, enjoying the whole show.
Zoning conservatives generally invoke tout ensemble, history and tradition. Think of the village of Anatevka. “Traditiona!” says Tevye. “And you may ask, “how did this tradition get started?” And I will tell you. I don’t know.”
Real history and FMIA’s tradition may not see eye to eye this time. The riverfront used to have zoning height limits of 75, 60 or even 100 feet.
“But that was for industrial buildings!” says NOLA-Tevye.
“Let’s be serious,” say the believers in evolution. “The Bywater riverfront is not going back to industrial use any time soon, and 100 feet is 100 feet, whatever is under the roof.” BNA is only likely to recommend 75 or 80 feet, so the Marigny low-riders can console themselves with a 20 foot negative win. They can take consolation from some of the fine tall properties that add to the downtown river skyline, Turn Services, NOCCA and the Rice Mill, all repurposed industrial properties, two of them reaching about 78 feet, and take the credit, if they like: “See. We saved the Mississippi from 100 feet. Godzilla went back to the swamp. The hundred foot dragon is dead. The Damsel Rescued put her clothes back on and got a job at Rick’s.”
Sean Cummings, the area’s pre-eminent developer of larger scale projects, did some digging in the history. He discovered the earlier 75 and 100 foot limits, and that riverfront development has been in discussion for decades – roughly 40 years. Millions have been spent on consultants, thousands of hours in argument, public input, political maneuvering – and what do we have to show for it?
Nothing. Nada. ничего. Not one building. Riverfront land not even feeding a few sheep or growing some greens. The spirit of Jean Lafitte must be laughing at us while the old pirate sips a nice rouge on the patio of Au Petit Pont by the Seine, or a Slivovitz by the Vitava in Prague, or dinner Allegheny-side in Pittsburgh, a Thames-side pint or dinner on the floating Feng Shang Princess at sunset on Regents Canal (note: leave the Princess to Lafitte’s ghost. It looks cute but for London Chinese, it ain’t all that.) Yeah, you can do some stuff like this in the French Quarter, almost, but Old Man River’s democratic – rolls by Bywater and Crescent Park just the same as Jax and Woldenberg. We need our own.
What’s missing? Buildings to put them in. The reason this phase of the eternal riverfront wrangle seems to be that CPC, the consultants, the administration and the neighborhood associations speak to each other, all thinking they are very important. Copious notes and memos – but nobody talks to the developers! How crazy is that? The administration put together an amendment like a shiny toy. FMIA objected to it, but why did they even bother? Do you see a queue of developers clamoring to sign up for the “bonus”? It ain’t happening, because the lovely-sounding conditions (I really like them, but I’m not a builder) don’t work.
Pres Kabacoff took the mic on CZO day and told us that the builders had lost, because the numbers don’t work. People scoffed. Wealthy capitalists trying to suck the blood out of poor Marigny’s corpse. Even I didn’t think much of it. I thought, Okay, Kabacoff doesn’t want to get in it, but Cummings will.
If the city and the neighborhoods can put down their superstitions and rustle up the intelligence to listen, Cummings and Ekistics can show them clearly what needs fixing. We have to restore the height as a zoning right, and watch out for the rules that turn trying to get public benefits out of private finance into a tax that kills potential return on investment and scuppers the project. Our economic system requires a developer to go on the hook for maybe $10 million for these sorts of apartments. The return is limited. It’s not like making movies or products. A company can lose its ante on a couple of films but ticket sales are virtually unlimited. It can make so much on the next movie that the losses are covered and the numbers turn black. But with rental apartments, the income is the market rent for the market apartments times the number of apartments, unless the deal for the affordable is bad, in which case it is less. That might be why developers are tending to invest in hotels or even STRs.
Social consequences: fewer new starts in housing means higher rents means gentrification means segregation means boring.
Am I right about that? I don’t know. I don’t build apartment buildings. But Mayor MJL, City Planning, Council and the neighborhood associations know where to find out. To achieve understanding, they are going to have to take some deep breaths, go quiet on the standard emotional responses, and get stuck into the spreadsheets.
Bob Rivers and staff should be setting up long meetings with Kabacoff and Cummings, with some observers from the NA Zoning Committees and a fast accountant who does not have a permanent job or contract with any of the parties to follow the whole discussion and validate or invalidate the numbers. Doing the political work to pass an ordinance which will result in nothing because the demands preclude investment is a waste of time and money worse than even some of the government by spin that has been annoying us about “security” and the immovable moving monuments.
Okay. I hear my mother calling. Have to go in. Let’s get the Bywater riverside kitted out to be something more than a tugboat road. We need density. To get close to Marigny level, we would need over 6,000 new people. To get to Lower Garden level, we need about 3,500. That would be about six more projects the size of Via Latrobe.
A look at the density chart should make it clear: Marigny conservatives should not be permitted to shut Bywater down.
Tomorrow night, Monday April 17th, at 6:30, in the closing hours before this year’s Tax Day when some of us will be prone to panic, both BNA and FMIA will be separately running input sessions on the overlay, BNA at Holy Angels, FMIA at St Paul’s Lutheran, preventing me from going to both. If you care about this, or you can see the fun of it, you should attend one of them. FMIA is going to have slides. I will try to persuade BNA to show Godzilla and de Chirico.
© NOLAscape April 2017
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