The organized opposition to sound development and a healthy future in Bywater is a group called Neighbors First. The name tells us a lot. Bywater Neighborhood Association considers the whole area, Bywater tout ensemble – the greatest benefit for the greatest number, and with careful thought for the future. Neighbors First focuses on the nice couple next door with more regard for the past than the future. Whatever it is, I’m against it! Habitually conservative, citing preservation not only as a reason to value the built legacy, but to block what might be. The poster kids of NIMBY myopia.
I generally try to avoid reading too much of their stuff. Like Republican health care plans, the words look intended to conceal the core message – which usually boils down to NO! Sometimes I wondered about my reading skills – were they really saying what the words say? I was recently cheered to discover that I was not the only one finding it a challenge to make sense of it. Still, if I am going to take positions on this Riverfront stuff, better buckle up and dig into what the opponents are trying to tell Planning and the Council.
What I found is an old fogey manifesto. Some twists and turns of argument covering over the basic message: we just want to sit in this rocking chair. If it all kept getting a bit worse, well, let the next generation deal with it.
You can read the whole letter on https://nola.gov/city-planning/major-studies-and-projects/riverfront-overlay-study/, in the folder “Public comment 4.” The format CPC uses to publish comment is difficult to copy from, so I will quote excerpts to try to analyze.
What I see: no logic, no grounding. Response built on negative emotion. Reason, the future and social benefit don’t come into it. The scruffy, abandoned look, underpopulation and absent services, social division are the elements of their comfort zone. Maybe they don’t even see it. Can’t convince with reason people whose mind is made up by emotion, but maybe I can convince some of us to come to the Council Chamber Tuesday afternoon and tell the Commission that you support improvement.
The future is unfriendly in NFB-world. But let’s look at it anyway
The first sentence is pretty clear. NFB has opposed MJL-6, or in its ordinance name, CZO 18.13.G, from the hour of its birth and they are going to continue to oppose it. No surprise there. Their opposition was always based on a visceral aversion to buildings higher than the roof peak of a two story stick house, if not a one story, so no change. Brian Luckett even wrote some short essays back then telling us that it was an emotional response. The exposition in this letter, you will see, does not describe a better riverfront or a better future for Bywater. It just uses language structured like exposition to look like reasoning to try to bolster their initial response, which at its core is: don’t nobody do nuttin’.
“Wrong conclusions”? I don’t think so, because it does not recommend “ . . . height and density bonuses without conditions or public comment.” Public comment is what we are engaged in right now, and on Tuesday at CPC and eventually at City Council. What CPC staff sanely recommends, and BNA agrees with, is clarity in the guidelines after the process so that we do not need to repeat a lengthy, acrimonious struggle for every building plan in the space. Their letter suggests that that is what NFB wants – more fights. More rounds. More challenges. More muddle and delay.
The current zoning is working? In what world? Not one “bonus” building has been applied for or permitted. Not one. Not one multi-residential building of architectural distinction has been applied for. Not one. A couple of cubes of pure cream cheese in attempted disguise by tricks like stripes on the cladding. The Stateside hotel would be a design exception. It is good, but conservative and “compatible” because placed among traditional houses. It really does have a “surrounding neighborhood”, but it is not residential and not properly in the overlay area.
Access to the riverfront. Yes, but NFB’s statement is deceptive. What CPC means, and I would bet they know it, is that there is no need to try to impose a responsibility for more bridges over the flood wall and tracks on developers trying to build some residential space on a few parcels. The Piety bridge cost over $800,000 quite a few years ago. The Mandeville bridge cost over $2 million. The idea of laying a cost like that over a hundred or two apartments simply made potential developers walk away. What BNA advocates is to return the level pedestrian crossings to service at the city’s expense, or at the expense of whoever closed them in 2007. It would be far less expensive. We have loads of level crossings, both for vehicles and pedestrians. A couple more will be just fine.
City wide affordable housing . . . See what I mean? Diversion. By what stretch of any overheated imagination was the hope for a couple of mid-rise buildings of architectural merit ever to solve the city’s affordable housing problem? Makes no sense.
Energy efficiency. Correct, but if it is not in the general building codes yet, why not put it in for these buildings? What would be the upside of leaving it out?
Other funding options. So what? Isn’t that choice for the developer?
Of course, the study does not “admit” that 75 foot buildings are out of scale. This is just a false claim. It does not even rise to the level of an alternative fact. The riverside in Bywater does not have a surrounding neighborhood. I don’t want to mess with Marigny here, but even its empty blocks in the overlay are flanked by North Peters and the flood wall on the river side, and factories to the east and west. They face houses on only one side. There is no “surrounding neighborhood”.
. . . compatible with existing development. And? What’s your point? The mission here is to make the buildings 75 feet tall (or 80 feet, or 75 to the floor level of the top floor) and not only compatible, but a long-term asset, beneficial to the neighborhood and the city. Nobody is recommending incompatible design.
The discussion at hand and what the study is to serve as background for is: what is compatible? How much contrast fits with or enhances compatibility? What about buildings in the style of Zaha Hadid or Thomas Heatherwick? To me, they would really show off the Creole design language. They would clarify the old language. Okay, New Orleanians are not going to share my taste, though, jaded by hanging around Norman war castles and Gothic cathedrals and buildings designed by the studios of Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Christopher Wren, where I found out that contrast and evolution are not incompatible.
NFB’s view of compatibility is very narrow, very limited. Boring, even. We are trying to do better than HM-MU, which the administration thought unsatisfactory to achieve the goal. And we are with them.
Compatibility in the New Orleans range of tolerance is somewhere on the spectrum between imitation over utilitarian construction and original work. Let’s find out where that is.
Setbacks to lessen the impact. I agree with NFB! (But not in a good way.) The setbacks are a less than ideal attempt to mollify conservatives’ complaints and persistent acrophobia. The “impact” exists because they say it does. It is disturbingly circular to now argue that an attempt to appease their emotional sensitivities means they were right all the time. No! Wrong premises, good conclusion. Jones and Luckett are right. Setbacks should be optional.
Public input. Okay. That’s what we are doing, isn’t it? That is what Council set up. That’s what NFB’s letter is. After the input, let’s see CPC, Council and maybe some architects and planners design great guidelines and a fine vision, with good, creative public input. Let those guidelines and some ongoing professional guidance help the HDLC. What we do not need is another bare knuckle fight for every plan proposed for the space. We do not need a series of Habana Cafés, with Jones and Luckett as tub-thumpers and delayers in chief. If somebody had a great idea for improvement, okay. But another root and branch bloodletting for every plan – no.
This section is really protective coloration for: NFB wants no overlay and no change. They want the whole thing put down. If we can’t have a nice, comfortable nothing on the river side of Chartres, let’s have a couple of double shotguns that won’t make any difference. We won’t even see them. Seriously boring.
This is the kind of casuistry that gives people headaches when they try to engage with NFB’s explanations. Start from the bottom: step-backs were not considered necessary in 2015. Architects have a palette of techniques to achieve compatibility and contrast that adds interest. Step-backs are just one of them, and in my opinion, should not be imposed. They are just as cream-cheesy as hard height limits. They are in the story now because NFB and FMIA went ballistic in 2015, and now that they are two more years older, CPC is concerned that they might have brain hemorrhages right there in the Council chamber unless they throw in an unnecessary constraint. If there is a reason that step-backs and not other design aspects are in the study, it would be because step-backs can affect the rentable volume. I agree with NFB, but 180º around: just remove the step-back requirement. Some buildings and the aspect might benefit from them; it is a matter for the architect and a [professionally guided HDLC.
“Out of Scale.” There goes that poor abused phrase again. Out of scale with what? With the Rice Mill Lofts? With NOCCA? With Turn Services? With Latrobe? With the St Claude bridge or the former Naval Support Facility at Poland Avenue? Or are Ms. Jones and Mr Luckett’s houses the yardsticks of the downriver future? I’m sorry guys – this is no argument at all.
In one place Brian Luckett says the Rice Mill was an exception to other, lower buildings on the riverfront. Should I be rude at this point and remind them that the current Rice Mill building, built in 1892, is relatively modern? Early buildings, of which there were many, now gone, were built when elevators were uncommon and air conditioning had not been invented. Land was cheaper than height. It was more practical for most industries to build out than up. The point of the zoning history is what was permitted. What 18th and 19th century industrialists actually did is loosely related but not the same.
In one place, Luckett and Jones try to make an argument about relatively low industrial buildings on the Sanborn maps. Buildings now long gone. In another, they emphasize that the yardstick must be what is there now. Well, what is there now of the industrial legacy is the Rice Mill, NOCCA and Turn, the Navy building and those two tall ships that haven’t moved for so long, they might as well be buildings. Most of the short ones were not good and have disappeared.
No, the current limit should not remain in that place. The overlay is not “adjacent to” residential districts. The overlay is different. That’s the point of it. It’s clearly not true anyway, as a glance at the maps in CPC’s study shows.
And what, pray, does this statement have to do with the price of plums? The river side of Chartres back then in the rediscovered soot-covered wharf that NFB is trying to re-purpose as a guide to the the future was a messy stretch of warehouses and factories, with mule wagons, noisy trucks, steam trains, tramp steamers and wooden ships, hard labor and even slavery. I am sure it would have been fascinating to visit, but nothing you are going to build on any of the overlay space is going to resemble what was there before. Unless perhaps NFB would like to enhance the neighborhood by investing in a molasses mill or a farrier’s shop. If so, let them apply and face the variance procedure they fancy so much. We would soon see how much their neighbors like the 19th century rules.
I think we have done the first three points.
“The most prominent and successful example of waterfront development” is, in Jones/Luckett’s opinion, a San Francisco wharf. It was in violent contention by San Francisco anti-height development skeptics for years. They did not want the buildings higher than the base zoning of 84 feet. Wait – read that back to me, please. 84 feet. Yes, that is what I thought you said. And no set-backs.
Here is a nice quote from a San Francisco paper about exactly the kind of process of endless repetitive wrangle that NFB wants to see:
That 98% claim again. Computed by Trump calculus. File it with the inauguration attendance.
Where are the stats, the sampling, the questions? This cannot possibly be a valid statement. Bywater’s population is about 2,000. 98% is 1,960, so they claim that only 40 residents disagree with life in the rear view lane. I have been in rooms with more than 40 people present who think NFB is a delusional cult trying to reduce us to irrelevance. Maybe 98% of the people that they asked and agreed to answer their questionnaire and signed their petitions were on their side. Pretty much 100% of the people that don’t agree with them are not represented.
About passing the buck itself, help me out here:
Design standards for HDLC approval of the bonuses are well beyond the scope of revisions to the Riverfront Overlay text – which is the mandate of this study.
That looks like a sentence. It starts with a capital letter and ends with a period. But does it mean something?
Are the NFB officers cryptically suggesting that they want to re-argue the “bonus” concept from the ground up for every application, so that the story re-starts not only behind HDLC’s authority, but behind the ordinance itself? I can’t tell for sure, but that is what I think it says. I think they want to re-litigate the ordinance for every building application. I can hear the builders sidling toward the exits already.
At the very least, it means that the Luckett and Jones team want to be able to run a veto campaign against every building proposal from Elysian Fields to the Industrial Canal.
Their statement ignores the fact that CPC staff and Bywater Neighborhood association (and I) all agree that the “bonus” idea should be deleted. That would move this strange sentence from incomprehensible to irrelevant. With proper, careful guidelines in place, every single effort does not have to be a dogfight of amateurs. We can do that once, get some good laws passed, some good guidance in place and then let them do their magic. And exclude the dullest cubes that are now slipping under some badly positioned radar.
Sticking with the variance process is not moving forward at all. It is staying in the same inappropriate, expensive, reactionary place.
What NFB wants to do here is maintain zoning rules that exclude the buildings that the Mayor, the administration, Council, progressives and progressive groups (e.g., BNA) and sensible people know are appropriate for the space. They want rules that enable buildings that cannot generate the desired benefits. By ensuring that the rules are unsuitable, every building has to go into the arena for a knock-down-drag-out against NFB for a bunch of variances, an expensive, exhausting process. A formula for discord and waste. To actually advocate that every potential construction on Chartres or North Peters must either be a useless low-rise cube or waste a fortune battling for a variance from rules that should not apply to the space could be a definition of social and administrative disorganization. The public input and debater debate are now. This is it. After the debate, better rules. The ordinance will generate more debate. Then that’s it. Re-litigating the rules every time a developer applies for a building according to those rules – terrible idea. The small clutch of anti-almost-everything pro-fogeyists who pull NFB’s strings want veto power over the neighborhood’s future.
Don’t let them do it to us.
The Council gave NFB and FMIA the public input process they wanted. Now they seem to want it over and over again. I wonder whether Nadine Ramsey may be regretting her concession already. NFB’s letter and this critique, and the City Planning meeting Tuesday afternoon, and the meetings Bob Rivers held to speak and listen to the activists, and the meetings to come when this gets to ordinance stage – all of those are public input. Claiming that it is an affront to the community because the few spokesmen of NFB will not get a pass to obstruct every single sub-project of the development plan unless it is short and boring enough to meet their strictures is not an affront to anybody. It is a rare ray of light.
Red herring alert!
If this stuff has any relevance to the subject, I can’t find it. It is tech patter for diversion.
For one thing, Affordable needs another look now. The virtual end of absentee AirBnB added to an ebb tide of people has at least temporarily changed rents in Marigny and Bywater pretty dramatically in the past few months.
Please do not confuse this use of “density” with neighborhood density. They sound alike, but there is no real connection. The first sentence says, essentially, you can only make apartments smaller if you rent them cheap to the means-tested affordable category. NFB may have consistently taken this position, but it is not an important one. It is symbolic at best. There are plenty of reasons to vary the FAR and apartment size rules, which function largely as gentrification enforcers anyway.
Second, NFB swings “affordable” like a metal baseball bat at a home invader, to try to complicate life for private developers. Really addressing the necessity of an “affordable” sector is a much more complex problem, one that will not be solved within the space of a couple of buildings.
Suppose at the end of this saga there are three 80 foot private buildings on Chartres, with say 90 apartments in each. So nine each, 27 affordable apartments. What dent has that made in New Orleans’ income v. housing problem? Serious affordable housing is going to be well designed and well managed public housing. I’m all for it. Maybe build the HANO property across from The Joint. If they want some affordable, let the city buy one of the parcels, design a building that can meet the new rules requiring excellent design and pass the HDLC guided by a serious planner, and there you go – build away. Give us some new neighbors. More people, more density. If they can get 100 apartments in the building, that is more than three times as many as you will get from a ten percent affordable requirement on the market rent buildings.
If the rest of this section is about something in the real world, it is not the vision of riverfront development.
This seems to be largely a re-run, but “time to put an end to this unseemly fight between neighborhoods and the city.” Really? Isn’t that what the city is trying to do, and BNA is recommending, by getting through the input process once for the small development zone, and not re-running the wrangle every time somebody wants to build an apartment? The way to stop the wrangling is for NFB to stop wrangling. Let Planning, Council and serious people, not just the NO! cult, maybe not even the NO! cult, make some sound decisions, then let the builders work out good buildings in professional peace, without the threat over them that Julie Jones or A. N. Other might be able to shut them down just because the don’t like apartments or new people.
“Organically and in response . . . “ Ayudame, por favor. Buildings with our codes and land cost don’t build themselves organically or even with Monsanto potions. You can’t grow them like kale. I suggest that this sneaks in what they really want: a few stick houses. No-density, no-fuss, no-use copy wooden houses in the usual utilitarian imitation of the Creole designs. Serviceable in the right places, terrible for this space. Comfort food for the self-satisfied, They will do nothing for the neighborhood or the city.
© NOLAscape June 2017