Riverfront Overlay

Riverfront People! Especially of the Bywater and Marigny persuasions, but we are very democratic and inclusive – all are welcome.

This is the full text of Bywater Neighborhood Associations’ letter of recommendation to Mr Robert Rivers of the City Planning Commission. It is signed off by the BNA Board of Directors, but the analysis and text are by the Zoning Committee, which is sharp, smart, expert and always aware of the issues and the law.

Amendment MJL-6 on parameters of riverfront development was passed into law by City Council with the passage of the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance in 2015, with a number of other late amendments proposed by the administration and council members. The riverfront ordinance was specifically challenged in civil court by the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association. While their attempt to enjoin the implementation unless and until it went through the full process normally required for zoning laws of this type – City Planning staff study, report and recommendation, public debate, City Planning Commission vote and recommendation, public debate before Council and Council vote – did not succeed in the court, the city decided to accede anyway, so the process is under way.

if you have any interest in this – and you should; it affects the whole city as well as the specific neighborhoods in the Overlay –  this is worth reading.

April 28, 2017

Via E-Mail

Robert D. Rivers, Executive Director
City Planning Commission
1300 Perdido Street, 7th Floor
New Orleans, Louisiana 70112

Re:​Riverfront Overlay Study

Dear Mr. Rivers:

The Bywater Neighborhood Association (“BNA”) is aware that the City Planning Commission (“CPC” or “Commission”) is conducting a study to determine how best to incentivize quality developments along the riverfront of the east bank of the Mississippi River and offers the following suggestions to the Commission’s staff:

The Bywater and Marigny study areas should be separate.

In Motion M-16-605 requesting the study, the City Council set out the boundaries of the study area:

The area bounded by Esplanade Avenue, a line extending from the centerline of Esplanade Avenue between North Peters and the center line of the Mississippi River, the Mississippi River, the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, a line extending from the centerline of Chartres Street between Poland Avenue and the center of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, Chartres Street, St. Ferdinand Street, Decatur Street, Elysian Fields Avenue, Chartres Street, the rear property line of lots with any frontage on Elysian Fields Avenue, Decatur Street, Frenchmen Street, and Decatur Street on the east bank of the Mississippi.

Rather than recommending design, height and other criteria for an overlay encompassing the entire area, the BNA suggests that the Bywater riverfront be considered separately from that in the Marigny. The two areas are geographically different: the Bywater study area encompasses land on the river side of Chartres Street that abuts the floodwall and is of sufficient depth to allow development; the Marigny study area reaches into the neighborhood and has no land abutting the floodwall of sufficient depth to allow development. The Marigny study area encompasses city blocks, whereas the Bywater study area does not.

In addition, the political climate in each neighborhood is different. The Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association (“FMIA”) sought to enjoin the City from applying the existing overlay to its neighborhood; the BNA, however, embraced the overlay. To be sure, there was dissent in the Bywater neighborhood, but at the time the riverfront overlay was being considered initially, controversy arose primarily because opponents to the application of the overlay in the Marigny sought defeat of the overlay for the entire area. Thus, the BNA believes that an overlay encompassing the Bywater study area and a separate recommendation for the study area in the Marigny will allow criteria to be tailored specifically for each area.

The Commission should ascertain why the current riverfront overlay is not working as intended.
The BNA supports a Riverfront Overlay for the Bywater riverfront that will achieve quality development through excellent design. This, we believe, can be achieved by allowing buildings taller than the current zoning allows and formulating design standards that foster exceptional design. Taller buildings allow step-downs and porosity between buildings and create a more interesting streetscape.

The study area along the Bywater riverfront is composed of 10 privately-owned parcels; three contiguous parcels have one owner, and two other contiguous pieces have another owner. The current overlay, until its implementation was stopped by the Council, offered height and density “bonuses” over what the current zoning allows if certain conditions were met. But, before the overlay’s implementation was halted, three landowners of contiguous parcels between Louisa and Piety, opted not to seek to build to the maximum height of 80’ allowed under the overlay, instead seeking approval for development plans under the current underlying zoning that allows a maximum height of 55’. The existing overlay was to have been advantageous for both land owners and the Bywater neighborhood as a whole. Why did these three owners not seek its application?

The BNA believes that, during this study, the Commission should seek to ascertain the answer. We urge the Commission staff to sit down with those owners, owners of the other parcels in the study area, experts on design and construction costs, neighborhood representatives, and City Council staff to seek a workable solution for the owners and the neighborhood as a whole. If a solution cannot be found and other owners build to the maximum height of 55’, then the streetscape will be one of blocks of cream cheese or, as K Street in Washington, D.C., has been described, ice cubes popping out of a tray. Hardly the interesting riverfront characterized by excellent design envisioned by the City Council.

The application of a riverfront overlay to a particular property should not be determined through the conditional-use process.

Finally, as we urged in comments submitted during the promulgation of the existing overlay, application of a riverfront overlay to a particular property should be reviewed through a design-review process and not through a conditional-use process. The conditional-use process pits neighbor against neighbor and frequently becomes an emotionally charged and highly destructive battle before the Commission and the City Council. We believe that the current study should be the vehicle for airing the differing viewpoints and, once an overlay for the Bywater riverfront is developed and adopted by the Council, quality design, not personal preference, should the guiding principle.

If you have any questions about the BNA’s position, please contact Mary Ann Hammett, chair of its zoning committee, at maryannhammett@cox.net or (504) 421-8096.

Respectfully submitted,

Board of Directors
Bywater Neighborhood Association
Donna Berg, Chair

cc:​Councilmember Nadine M. Ramsey
​Councilmember Stacy Head
​Councilmember Jason Rogers Williams
​Aylin Maklansky​

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Costello and Me

Look what NOLAscape got in Comments from Chris Costello, former president of Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association, leading urban warrior against the Elisio Lofts apartments project on Elysian Fields:

“What happened to your percolating story about me? What a joke this site is. I win. Loser.”

He had enough characters left to add “SAD!” like the other ethically unsuitable guy in the White House.

Strange blurt. Maybe it was stimulated by the ethics charge against John Deveney revving up again, in which Costello is implicated.

So now Costello has flashed me some personal stink eye. Could that be the start of something new? I hope not. Anyway, it’s cool. Makes it more fun to get back on his case.

His comment referred to “Black and Blue, Pt. 2.”  And he’s right. I let the Elisio story languish too long. Lawsuits can have dormant periods, but the mischief HDLC Commissioner John Deveney and his partner, Costello, “life partner” in their language, dumped on Elysian Fields and downriver New Orleans revival deserved more dumping back on them. And still does.

A formal Ethics Complaint update last January 20th is a good set of starting blocks to get on the track again. For a legal document, it tells a good story.

Before you read it, let’s do a simple role play for perspective.

Your porch handrail has gone bad – rust, paint peeling, it wobbles. You want to invest in a new, custom-made wrought iron handrail and front gate. You have it designed by a creative studio. You are very proud of how good your house will look when it is built and installed.

But you live in a Historic District, where every act of home maintenance can become a political issue. Next door opposes. He’s a narrow-minded crusty old crank, but he has lived there a long time – since 1974, in fact – opposing almost everything new.

The HDLC denies your application. 

After the verdict, you find out that the Commissioner who wrote the order declining your rail is old crusty neighbor’s daughter-in-law. What you do? Shrug it off? Put it down to standard old New Orleans low level corruption?

Then you find out that your cranky neighbor actually wrote the negative verdict himself. Commissioner Daughter-in-Law just signed it! And it looks like the other Commissioners knew what was going on, but they kept quiet. That’s just the way things roll in the Commission. Don’t raise any ripples in the old boys’ network.

How are you feeling about it now? Just get a different gate and let it go? Suppose you still owe the designer $500 for designing the prettiest railing on the block, which you now can’t install. The neighbor-HDLC nexus would be okay with some boring stock stuff from Home Depot, but nothing original or elegant – oh no.

Or would you think: a civic body we are supposed to trust is letting us all down? Because people in public trust cheated, the potential benefit of your new rail was never honestly evaluated. 

Why aren’t  Commissioner Daughter-in-Law and any other Commissioner complicit before or after the unethical fact kicked out on their civic ears for this, if not charged with an offense? 

Now raise the stakes from a handrail to a whole new residential building of about 100 apartments and some commercial spaces designed by some of the city’s top architects, and the streetscape of a neglected boulevard crying out for renewal. Fold a PR firm into the mix that both asserts and denies participation, depending on who’s asking. And if the HDLC Commissioner in question – and I do mean question – is also the owner and CEO of the PR firm? And if he is also the partner of the noisy crank . . . .

What do you think? Should we just say, “Builders and neighborhood associations squabbling – who cares?”

Or should we be caring a lot more, because a project that could benefit a neighborhood and the city and accelerate the renewal of a street of great potential has been sleazed out? Is that okay?

Subsequent events have shown how bad the consequences of this corruption, that might have looked minor at the time, can be. The residential property needed a height waver. That is what Costello’s campaign was about. Blind to other consequences, the anti-Elisio campaign focused on only one element. The collusion at HDLC could be the main factor that prevented the project from getting a proper open hearing, in which the case for the waiver, and in fact the zoning error that made it necessary, might have been explained.

Instead, the site is still an unsightly ruin five years later, slated to become a hotel. The reason seems to be economic: a hotel can be profitable within the framework of current economics and the zoning rules. An apartment building needs different parameters to work. Zoning intransigence works in favor of tourist accommodation, against residential property. Block a fair hearing with expert input, that’s what you get. Enabling a hotel instead of apartments and refusing the waiver might have been the city’s decision, but it should have been arrived at with knowledge and awareness, not blocked by the unethical collusion of a few who slipped their moral anchors in their opposition.

When the Elisio Apartments were up for consideration, Chris Costello, the very Costello who has inspired this article, and says I am a loser (he’s probably right, but it’s irrelevant) did a noisier, more aggressive, very public version of the crusty old crank.

And behold, this very same Costello is an executive in a PR firm called . . . Deveney Communications.

And the John Deveney who is the owner and CEO of Deveney Communications is (you are probably racing ahead of me now) . . . YES: the very same John Deveney who is the HDLC Commissioner for Marigny. And besides being our inspirational Costello’s boss at work, turns out that they are partners at home.

Have a read of the legal letter and see if you agree that the border between a body of public trust and a private campaign had been improperly erased. The borders between Deveney Communications LLC, John Deveney, CEO; Chris Costello, FMIA executive; Chris Costello, Deveney Communicatios executive; FMIA; John Deveney, HDLC Commissioner; and the HDLC were  blurred to invisibility.

Ultimately responsible for opening a back door into the HDLC has to be the Commissioner. He could easily have met his obligation to the city by simply recusing himself. John Deveney is an intelligent man. Three words and he would have been okay. He made a different choice. His reasons may well be personal and emotional. They may emerge in the course of this case, if he chooses to fight it to the finish line. With regard to his commitment to the city, though, the bottom line looks like a poor choice that improperly caused prejudice and damage to an applicant.

It looks like Costello, while nominally acting on behalf of FMIA, actually wrote or at least co-wrote the recommendation put before the Commission signed by the Commissioner as if it were his sole work.

Read the story. It’s good. And timely: Elisio’s case is progressing, and the riverfront overlay is coming back into the forum for public discussion. Many of the elements that powered the Elisio battles will be back in play. The HDLC should be renewed and reliable before any new buildings come up before it.

BIG NOTE: This is not an anti-FMIA campaign. They seem a lot better now. I want to encourage that. I expect contention over riverfront zoning soon, but with some luck and a tailwind, the problems will be worked out by discussion and a search for solutions, not more street circus.

Here is the link to the detailed charges and description of what happened in a surprisingly readable legal presentation.

Ethics Complaint (LBE)

© NOLAscape April 2017

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Density v. FAR (Floor Area Ratio)

Density v. FAR (Floor Area Ratio)

This is technical. If you are not interested in the riverfront Development problem, you might find it boring. If  you are, it might be important, because some people are mixing terms and muddling discussions.  I will try to keep it short.

In “Riverfront Wars,” I discussed why Bywater needs more people.


In other words, population. A convenient way to describe or measure that is density: residents per square mile (or kilometer, or whatever unit works for you).

I mentioned the confusion with FAR – Floor Area Ratio, another kind of density.  Some people have been confusing the two. I encountered that again yesterday, and I think I am observing that it is paradoxically professionals like architects who jump to FAR when you say density, because it is a familiar concept that they use every day.

If it happens to you, you can refer them to this example.

Imagine a plot of land 60 x 120 feet. I want to build a multi-residence on it, 50 x 100 feet. the building will be four stories high, so the inside space or floor area is 20,000 square feet.

The lot size is 60 x 120 = 7,200 square feet, so FAR is 20,000/7,200 = 2.78. That is quite dense for the area. It would need a waiver. Notice the measure is of floor space, not people. FAR is the same even if the building is empty.

That should nail down the difference: one measure is of floor space and land, the other of people, bodies, individuals.

Let’s pursue the idea a little further. We build three apartments per floor, so 12 total, and when we rent them, population is say 18. Let’s be generous: 20. 20 new residents.

Now we come to the other density: people density. The new apartment building is in a Wonderland Bywater measuring exactly one square mile. The population was 2,000, so the density was 2,000 per square mile.

With our new property, it is now 2,020. The density has increased 1%.  One dense building has only a tiny effect on the neighborhood density.

If the goal is to increase the population 50% to 3,000, you would need 50 buildings like that. If like the real Bywater, the goal is 100%, you need 100 new buildings like that. Whether or not that is realistic depends on the building land available, and that is where FAR at least brushes up against density.

50 buildings of population 20 each, or 25 buildings of population 40, or four buildings of 500, or any combination. Whether their individual FARs are 2.78,1, 4 or 6 is immaterial.

That is why the intersection of FAR and residential density is casual, generally unimportant and for practical purposes, irrelevant. Residential density and Floor Area Ratio are different measures.

© NOLAscape April 2017

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The Riverfront Wars

Hurrah, Hurray,

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:



Lower Garden



French Quarter















Bywater (2010)



(from Wikipedia)

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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While the next piece on the New Orleans “Security” Plan is ripening on the windowsill in the sun, here is the first episode in a new department: Political Philosophy. PoliPhi. Political Science is PoliSci, but it is not really scientific, is it? PoliPhi is the way to go. Whether Platonic or Aristotelian, Epicurean or Stoic, Keynesian or Marxist, Cartesian, Russell or Wittgenstein – we don’t know yet.

During a trip through Afghanistan we lost our corkscrew                                                      and were compelled to live on food and water.”


Almost every day we read a headline that means: will democracy in America survive Trump? The writers usually presume that democracy survived the other 44.

Imagine Trump’s voice oscillating between petulance and triumph: “I won!”

NOTE: This is not another Trump piece. Not that I am against either serious or satirical Trump work, but this is PoliPhi, Political Philosophy, a discipline of academic purity. However, since we need authoritarian cartoons for illustration, we have to use figures that will be familiar to readers. Resemblance to persons living or dead is even worse than coincidental.

“He won!” echo the Supporters and the Surrogates. Or even “We won!” Try replaying it in the reedy, pugnacious whine of Sean Spicer.

It may be getting tired, but that did not stop Sen. Orrin Hatch from repeating it this week in a matter-of-fact tone, as if it went without saying that their minority President could do whatever. Hatch’s point incorporated a large shovelful of Party-think: Hatch pretended indignation about Dems’ opposition to Gorsuch because Republicans had won, but denied that Obama had the right to appoint Merrick Garland a year ago. In Repub-speak, Democratic Presidents have three or seven year terms, not four or eight. Universities with PoliSci (as opposed to PoliPhi) departments must have a course on Keeping a Straight Face.

The Associated Amalgamated Allied Establishment wants us to accept not just that elections matter, but that they are all that matter. Ever so Third-World of them – or would be if the Second World hadn’t fallen over in 1991, leaving a gap in the numbering system.

As has been said several million times, elections are the blood sport of representative democracy. Campaigns release endorphins, pull in the donations, sell newspapers and boost ratings. From escalator rides to the occasional jail cell, candidates, the duopoly and journalists merge into a symbiotic squishy octopussy multiorganism.

It’s not the only way. In the more direct democracy of 5th century BC Athens – the one we fancy that we trace ours back to – they chose most officials and magistrates by lot from a pool, for a one year term. The popular assembly of about 5,000 citizens voted on issues, major cases and war decisions. 2,500 years ago Athenian constitutionalists were aware that voting for people was a corruptible process. Rome liked voting for people. In the late Republic, corruption and trials for corruption became a major preoccupation and route into and out of power. The Empire was the first outcome. The Dark Ages and feudalism were in the batter’s box.

Locally, we have a mixture: self-selected groups wrangle over issues that interest or affect them in parallel to the popularity contests for office. Neighborhoodism doesn’t make us Athenian, though. Candidates pick up on popular trends, use them to get elected, then revert to the art of the possible and the profitable.

At the national level, American once-upon-a-time (maybe) democracy has been converted to sports entertainment, while actual meta-governance has been passed to the financial sector, some corporations and a few hyper-rich lunatics like the Mercers.

Thinking people in younger, still consciously evolving democracies, sometimes saddled with elected tyrants, understand that functioning democracy is more complex than just elections.

Turkish intellectuals, for instance, who have to try to survive excessive nationalism and the Erdogan elected tyranny progressing toward a dictatorship, understand the difference.

They call the election override “majoritarianism.” They know that majoritarian tyranny is not democracy.

They know that functional democracy includes institutions that authoritarians want us to think are peripheral, inessential or even anti-democratic and damaging. They try to undermine or manipulate them. Ours include –

  • Free press.
  • Right of assembly and freedom of expression.
  • Rational, critical thinking. Elected theocracy or quasi-religious nationalism are not democracy.
    • Magical thinking can be used to degrade democracy. Trump wouldn’t recognize a god if he met him in the Mar-a-Lago locker room, but he exploits supernaturalism to promote authoritarian government – what George Lakoff calls the Strict Father model.
  • Separation of church and state: religion should butt out of government, and government butt out of religion.
  • By taking government and religion out of each others’ underwear drawers, the Enlightenment Constitution writers allowed the proliferation of churches that empowered hustling preachers like Falwell, Robertson, the Grahams and a cast of thousands. They should be careful what they wish for. Establishing a Church of America would be the end of their business.
  • Independent judiciary. Discussion of the limits of judges’ power is appropriate, but politicization of the judiciary is clearly majoritarian, not democratic.

That pesky free-press first-amendment thing. Stephen K. Bannon and his poison dwarf whatsisname, Miller, are not mentioned or protected by the Constitution. The ladies and gentlemen of the Beltway reporting trade, who are daily kind enough to put up with the ignorance and mendacity of Sean Spicer – they are. Spicer is not, but the reporters he is embarrassingly rude to are.

The First Amendment blocks the Authoritarian Tendency from shutting down news and editorial operations that they don’t like, at least so far. 45 says he is going to work on “opening up” libel laws. I don’t know what “open up” means, but it must be something to do with using civil courts to accomplish what he cannot yet use the army or police to accomplish.

Meanwhile, he elevates absurd comics that support him and conspiracies, like Breitbart and the National Enquirer, while filling papers closer to the real thing with tail-chasing material: Obama bugged his phone, five million Mexicans voted for Hillary, immunity for Flynn, Bannon is on the Security Council, Bannon is off the Security Council. Susan Rice committed a crime – some crime, any crime – and it is going to be “the biggest story . . . It is one of the big stories of our time.” Even though, according to the FBI and everybody with any sense, it didn’t even happen. Doesn’t matter. Reality is just another religion, may gas remain its eternal light.

The Russian story isn’t really about much. Russia spies around a bit in the politics of the world’s main election interferer, which does the same thing in theirs – what else is new? And although the Trumpians were doing it awkwardly and with a list of ulterior motives, lowering the temperature of Russian confrontation and pulling back NATO’s encroachment might have been one of the few good things to come out of 2016.

The Russia thing is the Democrats’ Benghazi. They should learn from Trump’s retaliation how they could have fought the Benghazi story: with high frequency gaslighting. The Trump of the early Bannon period pissed off the press. The journalists are doing the stuff the Dems couldn’t get up the motivation for in the Obama time and are too spineless and disorganized to now: outing Nunes and Sessions, hacking away at Edward Prince, Mercer, Trump’s criminal background and conflicts of interest. Smarter people than Bannon with his paranoid visions of history may one day get Trump to see that making enemies of the intel agencies and the press was not smart.

While our eyes follow the flashing lights, this administration like others before it finds confirmation that Congress is a pain. In domestic policy, they do what they can get away with, which as we can see by reading the smaller headlines and the second page, consists of anything to disempower the vast majority of people and even animals, anything that promotes or supports the plutocracy and state violence both inside the country and abroad in the military empire.

They will increasingly look outward through the lens of Empire. Much of the effort is to isolate and attack Iran, whether for real of for show still unknown. It is not clear whether Saudi and its allies are exploiting the US, or the other way ‘round. Bombing Yemen to unseat the Iran-supported Houthi government and re-impose the Saleh presidential monarchy, supported by the Saud family business, is ongoing. We can also see that the rhetoric against IS was swamp gas, but as soon as a chemical gas attack could be pinned on Assad, a semi-Shiite ally of Iran and Russia, this government is in there like shit off a shovel. For some more just-in PoliPhi on the chemical outrage trigger: https://www.juancole.com/2017/04/washingtons-hypocrisy-chemical.html

A reasonable interpretation of the military budget increase; Trump’s exhorting NATO countries to beef up their militaries and get more aggressive on the Ukraine border while simultaneously making nice to Putin; Flynn’s, Prince’s and the others’ meetings with Russian government and oil men, is that at least one objective is to trade money and sanctions for Russia softening its protection of Iran, to allow the US to either invade or raise the volume of the saber rattling. Interesting that a major obsession of the exiled and at least partly crazy General Flynn is extreme Iranophobia.

I don’t get the reason yet. The nuclear pretext has been dealt with, but they are still at it. Maybe the imperial displeasure with Iran is not far off where it started in 1953, and comparable to the attacks on Chavez in Venezuela: Iran has not meekly joined in the American and bank-led international systems, which require accepting Seven Sisters control of the oil, IMF and BIS supervision of money, the Saudi-American hegemony of the Sunni-majority oil kingdoms, dictatorships and oligarchies. It’s shadowy, but most Presidents seem to enjoy playing war and killing people, using your money and some of your children’s and grandchildren’s to buy big boys’ military toys. We will soon be told by excited patriots like Bill O’Reilly that we have to take sides in this developing story, and that if we take the wrong one, we are anti-American communists.

But I drift: while we attack and others defend the President’s apparent insanity (not a disease he suffers from; we do) taxation will be revised to accelerate neo-feudalism and financialization. The illusionist government will distract our attention from the elected family kleptocracy for just long enough for it to become a minor issue against the backdrop of imperial mayhem and domestic privatization of public assets, which will be called restoring infrastructure. Soon ex-president Trump will finally be rich enough to get a seat at the foot of the oligarchy table. And almost no one will notice that the money supply is a function of debt, so in order to have the liquidity to do the deals and feed the flames of the derivatives game, the world cannot avoid being in debt to the banks who issue the money. As Chris Hedges says, there is no way to vote against Goldman Sachs.

The question is: who pays?

Support your local institutions.

And stick with New Orleans, a sanctuary city against the Washington’s grotesques. We have our own.

© NOLAscape April 2017

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