The Riverfront: NFB’s Attack on the Future

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, 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.

That’s NFB.


© NOLAscape June 2017

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Riverfront – aux armes, citoyens!

Tuesday, 6/27. That’s this Tuesday coming up.

The Riverside Overlay is on City Planning’s agenda, in the Council Chamber, in the afternoon.

We could add, Colonel Mustard with the lead pipe, because the neighborhood reactionaries and the old and young fogies who prefer – and have so far successfully maintained – eternal wrangle and snarl and hot air to reality, to time, to this century, are planning to be there in force, thumping tubs to keep Bywater in the scraggy doldrums, to keep Marigny in its state of scruffy gentrification, to advocate policies that block diversity and new life. To keep the neighborhoods confused, divided and bitter. They are calling out the troops to gang the mic, to persuade the Commissioners that the loudest equals the popular, or the logical or best.

You who can see light and life in the world, you should go, too. You are important, because sometimes the Commissioners fall for it. You need to say that we too, the people of this century, are just as keen to keep and respect the old cypress houses. We can maintain the Creole legacy, respect and preserve their great style, and also encourage new quality multi-residential building on the empty, ex-industrial land on the river side of Chartres in Bywater, and the appropriate construction on the Marigny blocks. There is no contradiction except in the lizard medulla of the NIMBY tendency.

They will almost certainly, one after the other say “out of scale.” They repeat it like a meditation mantra. Putting to one side the fact that they frequently misuse the word, substituting scale for size, the fallacy is that nobody disagrees with that! It is not an argument, just a deceptive appeal. I don’t recommend buildings out of scale either.

The question is; what is out of scale? What makes sense? I am going to try to complete and publish an analysis of NFB’s rather incoherent position – hard to pinpoint, but let’s tentatively call it a position – before tomorrow morning. Their letter to City Planning opens a window showing their arguments to be cosmetic cover for emotional reluctance: they repeat several times, “surrounding neighborhood”.

There is no surrounding neighborhood! Chartres and North Peters are on the edge. When the riverfront and border streets are developed properly, Bywater and Marigny would be classic bowl-shaped historic districts.

The classic gothic European cities are the opposite: their centers are soaring, massive castles and cathedrals. Their skylines curve down to the edges.

Except for the French Quarter, designed largely as a miniature of a Franco-Spanish model, New Orleans riverside neighborhoods were residential suburbs, so their later, higher development to restore density and services after the decline of riverfront industry and the demographic change to more square feet per person is higher, denser mixed-use construction around the edges. That does not violate the legacy – it emphasizes it. It underscores it. It frames the art of it. Look at the fine art of the 18th century in NOMA – each canvas has a frame. The frame is not the painting. Is it on that account out of scale? If you want New Orleans to be a city of neighborhoods, as the legend tells us, then Via Latrobe and some excellent architecture on Chartres and Press and St Claude are the ways to clarify it.

It ain’t rocket science, but our most vocal, most militant neighbors just don’t get it.

Try to come, and tell the commissioner and the execs – I’m sure Bob Rivers and Lesley Alley will be there – that we care about good design, good buildings and a real future, not just going a patina while looking in the rear view mirror.

© MOLAscape 2017

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The Riverfront prepares for battle – opening shots

I’m on a soapbox here. Think William Jennings Bryan, Elmer Gantry or Marcus Antonius  Brando.

I want to get you to do something. It’s a good thing to do. Right thinking folk will want to do it. It’s not hard. It only takes a few minutes. My mission today is to push you over a very small hump. 

Listen to what we are saying here today and in the Riverfront series, and then tell City Council and City Planning that you agree. It just takes a minute, and it is important. Why? Because our deciders depend on votes.

Technically, the closing day for written comments on the Overlay was June 13th, but don’t let that hold you back. Even if Mr Rivers closes his folder on a certain day, elected officials know that public opinion comes into play on election day. Smart City Council members will hear you.

Council Members and City Planning need to know there are people who recognize time and change, and support both preservation and evolution.

For some reason, some of our finest neighbors find negativity motivating. They shower Council with petitions, harangues and lawsuits. I suspect most of them mean well in some strange deluded way, but their highest hope is often that nothing happens. If they can’t stop time, they try to hold change to bland, forgettable, dull obsolescence built on flabby compromise.

Help our council members hold their hands over their ears. Tell them you support NOLAscape’s Riverfront series.

The sooner we get that done, the quicker we can resume our proper purpose: to mock the pretensions of the blinkered, the limited, the venal, the stupid, the crazy and the cruel who have highjacked the country, claim authority over us, abuse nationalism as a tool of empire, work for oligarch donors with little if any interest in or commitment to the society we live in. To throw their ugly butts out when they repackage their narrow, mean interests and tribal beliefs as public policy. Imagine their shining faces when they are doing that:

Do you see anything wrong in a system that allows some of the voters of Kentucky – Kentucky! – to put this political criminal in position to accumulate power, control votes and rob and abuse the whole country?

But first let’s do some Riverfront.

Here below is Bywater Neighborhood Association’s most recent advisory letter to Bob Rivers, Executive Director of City Planning, about getting the rules of the Riverfront Overlay right. It is very good, very much worth reading, as is CPC’s staff report that it refers to. It is a public document, but BNA has also confirmed they are perfectly willing to share it.

Behind this letter is BNA’s Zoning Committee, a very different group than neighborhood associations you can see at Council or Planning, suggesting that they represent “the neighborhood” or even that they are “the neighborhood.” The Zoning Committee does not pretend to be Nice Moms Against Bad Stuff, Downtown Defenders against Licker and Wickedness or Citizens in Defense of Property Prices.

The Zoning Committee exercises reason based on principle. Members are capable in law, architecture and clear thinking. Under Chairman Mary Ann Hammett, BNA eschews NIMBY myopia. Reference points are always the longer term economic, aesthetic, commercial and residential effects of a plan or project for the whole neighborhood. They will not allow vociferous very-near-neighbors to shout down the greater good, or allow emotional aversion to trump reason.

Neighbors First, a split-off reactionary group, pretends to reasoned, but don’t be fooled. Pompous language is not sound argument. We will get on their letter next piece, pages of verbiage meant to slide in a disguised message meaning: Go away! And take the future with you! We don’t want it here!

I would be more confident about the future of the Riverfront if all of the City’s institutions operated at BNA’s high level of serious attention.  You will see reference to the HDLC in the letter; I would feel reassured if I was confident that the HDLC operated with BNA’s Zoning Committee’s rigor.

Now, after that introduction, I am going to point out an omission in BNA’s letter, that I hope they support. The original Overlay rule, Amendment MJL-6, implied that design excellence was one of the requirements to be permitted the height bonus. That was a commendable idea, but the “bonus” idea didn’t work right, and one of the flaws in it was simply the inverse, a loophole some builders quickly spotted: if a developer kept his head and his roofline down, the design standards were lower and the building could be constructed cheaper and put into operation almost without oversight.

If we are fortunate and Council stays awake, the bonus idea will probably be withdrawn for all the reasons clearly presented in BNA’s letter.

What needs to happen now is to extend the requirement for architecture of merit and character downward to all Riverfront buildings, whatever their height. There will be certain explicit points needing some definition, like landscaping, but the main thing is for the legal framework to tell City Planning and the HDLC that they are responsible for seeing that buildings are excellently designed and good.

In fact, design excellence should be the top line, the overriding caption under which all other points are details. One day, 75 years after it is built, old wrangles about height and width and setbacks will be long forgotten, and the old wranglers who have turned Riverfront integration into a feud for decades will be long gone. That building will still be there. If it was a great building, it will still be a great building, and if it was a bad design, it will still be ugly.


Paradoxically, some of the people most vocal on New Orleans’ architectural uniqueness and special quality show no interest in the quality of contemporary design. Preserving legacy construction is commendable, but not enough. The future of the city or of Bywater cannot be just preservation and imitation. Where would fine art be if it were just a cult around the Italian Renaissance and the great Flemish painters, and painting now allowed just to preserve and copy? The only approved arts would be large format photography and museum management.


The interest the activists against altitude ends when the law sets a low limit on the roof peak. Although some of the motivation is just militant suburbanism with a touch of gentrification, many of them are probably well-intentioned but lazy. They have an emotional reaction against buildings over 35 feet in their double-shotgun street. By reflex, they think Chartres or North Peters, or the broad avenues Elysian Fields and Press Street are the same. Activists push slogans pretending to be ideas, like “Size Matters”.

Droll, but crazy and beside the point. Might as well vote against The Last Supper because it is too big. La Gioconda, okay; Last Supper: pitchforks out. If the Riverfront height debate was transferred to painting, soon somebody would ask CPC to legislate that 24 x 36 was the maximum permitted size, and a debate would start on whether that included the frame, or just the canvas and you could get a bonus for a gilt frame through a conditional use street fight.

That is not how a painting achieves value, and height limits are not how buildings achieve value.


Let’s urge CPC and Council to raise their design standards, give better guidelines and instruct higher standards to the HDLCs. Let’s ask BNA to consider adding it to their advice to Bob Rivers. The Committee is a smart group. CPC and the Council Members do well to pay attention to them. Let’s get them to fill in this blank spot.

BNA’s letter also discusses conditional use having been designed for land use not roof height or other design elements. Very good point, and I want to add something to it. Land use zoning has a point. You don’t want to build a sulphur processing plant next to an elementary school. But outside of those extremes, the use a building or unit is put to usually changes over time, as demographics and technology shift. A shop may become a restaurant, then a bar, then an office and then a residence. No matter how hard some try to hold onto land use law against time and tides, it won’t stand still. Buildings last longer than their occupants stay.

As above, if you allow a poorly designed, ugly building to be built just because it is under 55 feet and nobody can find a ruling to stop it – it will still be an ugly building in 50 or 100 years, when its use has changed half a dozen times.


This is BNA’s second advisory letter. The first is one the project’s CPC site. This one should be, but doesn’t seem to be up yet.

BNA study comments 2




© NOLAscape June 2017

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Riverfront Update


With a deal in progress for the city to take control of the Mississippi-side land between the upriver end of Crescent Park at Mandeville and the French Quarter riverside, it looks like the city is doing its part to bring the Mississippi into contemporary urban life.

Now let’s see if CPC and Council can get the laws right so the riverscape’s repurposing, from heavy industrial and warehousing to “residential mixed use,” treading water for the past too many years, can proceed.

This is to warm the hearts of the Pitchfork Preservationists – win them over to my side.

If you want to see better design, and better guidelines to help ensure that we get it, tell them! Opponents of progress are usually more vocal than supporters. To offset resistance, add your voice in support. Email to and

City Planning’s report illustrates clearly where we are: no man’s land. Better, no man’s time. Groundhog day. Bulk food processing and other smokestack industry dominating the city’s riverfront is over. Decades of plans for regeneration and better integration into the residential and commercial city have been buried under wrangling that ends in indecision and boredom. NOCCA and the Rice Mill Lofts are flanked by time warps. On the Bywater side or Press Street, one result is underpopulation resulting in a dearth of services. The walkability standard of the Master Plan and modern smart growth urbanism are dead letters if there is no place to walk to.

CPC and Council may have to hang tough against the pitchfork wing of the body politic, that  prefers the current landscape of abandoned emptiness over appropriate development, and slapdash, exploitative design over visual and structural quality, as long as the roofline is under 55 feet. Like an old, ugly slipper that the dog chewed, they are used to it.

Thought experiment: imagine serious buildings instead. Grown-up work, based on grown-up vision. Imagine an HDLC guided by serious professionals and a clear legal framework mandating excellence, working within pro class ethical and management standards, insisting on great design and quality over short-range, short-term politics. We should be able to trust HDLC to meet that standard – but can we?

First, you need the law to give them a clear reference structure. The report is a great step forward, but the outlines for good zoning law are not fully developed yet.  If the objective is to avoid design boredom and blocky uniformity, the “setback” idea (report, p68ff.) on its own is not going to do it. The next  NOLAscape article in the Riverfront series (coming soon) will include Bywater Neighborhood Association’s ideas for improving the staff report’s suggestions so far. Composing guidelines that will work, and drafting them into legal language, will not be easy. The language has to preclude two traps: compromise that ends in visual boredom, and compromise that persuades developers to walk away again.

Even then, CPC and Council will have to keep a cold, beady eye on the HDLC and be ready to override if necessary, to avoid the kind of compromise that ends up with cubic cream cheese rules. The HDLC is a group of unpaid volunteers. Amateurs can be representative of the community, but may also be susceptible to neighborhood peer pressure over longer term, broader benefit and clarity on design excellence.

This is not a criticism of individual Commissioners. There are some good people there with good intentions, but the outcome of a collective can be a disappointment. In the famous words of Agent K, “A person is smart. People are dumb.”

Hold out for great non-cubic buildings, with varying heights and setbacks. Setbacks designed to a simple rule will quickly move from compromise to visual cliché.

And don’t forget some rooftop cafés so we can sit back with a Sazerac or espresso and watch the ships slide by from 80 feet up.

(PS: I’m kidding about the Sazerac. There is rye whisky in that stuff! Leave it to the visitors. Get a bourbon, or a beer from the new Royal Brewery.)

© NOLAscape June 2017

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Riverfront – Some History

I wanted to get the software revamp complete before any new arcticles, but it isn’t done yet, and some interesting stuff is piling up. Sean Cummings brought this to my attention. Visionary ideas of ten years ago, and what do we have so far? Crescent Park, underused. No sports, no games, no music no events. Why? One of the sad reasons is hundreds of residents who can do a fine performance at the Council mic about the magnificence of the city, but when push comes to it, care more about their free parking convenience than the next century, and only accept events on condition they can’t hear them. And the people that might come . . . you never know . . . they could be . . . you know . . . better not risk it  . . .

Now the Riverfront Overlay for new buildings, hopefully residential, is coming up for a rematch, and once again the noisiest part of the battle is likely to be the chorus of people who think the meaning of architecture and design is fully expressed in the height of buildings. Seriously. I am tempted to quote the egregious Trump: “Sad.” I wonder if they think architecture is a historical form, like Egyptian royal burials, all pyramids and mummification, only to be touched by archaeologists.

We can come back to the present in a few hours, but to refresh your mental USB, take a look at this from the same time as the letter below.

Bywater especially, and even Marigny, (and then the rest of the Mississippi riverfront) need your support to lift the cold, dead hand. New Orleans isn’t a dead pharaoh. The genteelly decaying cemeteries are supposed to be in the city, not the other way ’round.


© NOLAscape June 2017

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Riverfront 3

The Bywater Neighborhood Association’s Zoning Committee met Tuesday (May 30). The meetings are public, but hardly anybody comes. Even some of the committee members forget to come. They scraped up a quorum, but this level of coolness is not good. BNA’s zoning committee, steered by Chairman Mary Ann Hammett, is a very smart, well-organized and well-informed citizen group addressing neighborhood development and the decades-old muddle about how to integrate the biggest river in North America into its oldest and most famous Caribbean port city.

New Orleans pretends to care about itself, yet most of the Mississippi river-scape just looks neglected.

More river integration will make a difference. Woldenberg Park made a difference. Crescent Park made a difference. The container and cruiser ports made a difference.

You should be interested in this. You should – should! – spend at least a little bit of time boning up on the subject and sending informed opinion to City Planning. Even if you don’t live in Bywater or Marigny, the river is as public a resource as a resource can be.

Smart cities around the world and even some in the creaky, reluctant USA have been working out ways to integrate the rivers that were the original reason for their location into contemporary life. New Orleans has the occasional stab at it, and nothing much happens.

In 2015, Council passed an amendment into the CZO outlining a plan to allow (not mandate – just allow) taller, better, denser buildings along Chartres in Bywater and North Peters in Marigny, and a few other areas. Conservatives claiming preservationist chops quickly objected with a kind of absolutist or religious passion. One of their contentions was that the law was a free gift to dastardly developers, who eat our children if we turn our backs for a minute. They launched a lawsuit against the city. They didn’t win in court, but Council decided that their claim that an ordinance like this should have gone through the City Planning process and been open to public discussion had merit, so instructed CPC staff to do a report.

The ordinance (Section 18.13.G of the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance) was actually anything but a gift to the developers. Its conditions were too onerous, too expensive; Pres Kabacoff said so on the day, and has been proved right, because no developer has applied for any permit under the “bonus” provision of the law.

The new report by City Planning is a pretty good read. It tells the real history of riverside land use, construction and zoning over many years, with interesting photos of the days of warehouses, rice mills and molasses factories, scuppering some of the claims conservatives had been making. If not making up.

One of the requirements of the ordinance’s “bonus” was architectural distinction. Certain points were explicit, but the implication is that prominent buildings should have merit in design.

The resulting message, though, hopefully unintended, is: stay under 55 feet and you can build any old crap. When I say this, some object that the HDLC is there to protect us from that. But anybody who watches the outcomes and evaluates the commissioners knows we cannot trust the HDLC. Since nobody applied for a “bonus” building because the rules don’t work, we don’t know how they would have acted on an application.  We don’t know whether the “preservationist” hue and cry would have erupted, and whether the commissioners would have buckled to the pressure from the neighborhood associations that sponsor some of them.

We know that an outcry and a vicious campaign in 2012 driven by acrophobic neighborhood associations got HDLC to turn down a building of architectural interest on Elysian Fields, just outside the overlay (with an ethical cloud still hanging over the process),  and then they later accepted two different designs of utter brick boredom for the same site. Why? The ugly brick efforts fit the rules. The Commissioners could not find a rule against them. Permitting them is the easy way to avoid conflict, have an easy life and get home for a drink.

Is that a way to run a city?

New Orleans people profess pride in the city’s architectural individuality and distinction. But when it comes to new construction they object, resist, wrangle and fuss over subsidiary points until the compromises result in designs with all the distinction sandpapered away. What is left is a building that nobody likes, but nobody can find legal backing to deny. An effort, usually misguided, to protect the traditional devolves into an exercise in figuratively circling the wagons around the old wooden houses and refusing to look at the future clearly.

Perhaps they think the old cypress shotguns will look better if contemporary construction looks bad. Or maybe they quietly feel it should be so boring that people don’t register or remember it.

I call it bad thinking.

What we should be pushing for:

  • Rules of design quality should apply to all construction on the riverfront, if not all construction anywhere. A law that says if you build over 55 feet, you must invest in expensive, high quality landscaping and architectural design is also a law that says if you build under 55 feet, you do not have to. You can build a junk design to minimum quality.
  • That, co-citizens mine, is not smart. And if you think the HDLC will save the street, take a look at this. It is not legacy. Not a leftover. I don’t think it is even finished yet. It is on the 3400 block of  Chartres Street.

Somebody passed this work of art for construction on the lake side of Chartres, facing the Mississippi.  What is this? A model for dormitories of a white collar prison farm?

Riverfront land is limited. Make sure all buildings are great buildings.

The conservative opponents of the ordinance rate height as an absolute. They call 75 or 80 feet “high rise,” to scare the fish. The definition of high rise here is the floor level of the top floor higher than 75 feet, so closer to about 87 feet, not including parapet. A whole different set of construction requirements come into it. It is prohibitively expensive unless the site justifies going what up into the hundreds, nobody is likely to apply for real high rise in the overlay.

In the instinctively conservative mindset, 55 feet = or the lowest maximum they can call for – becomes an absolute. Design, architecture, quality, planning, landscaping – all aspects of valuable building are subordinated to a shibboleth of height.

That is just wrong. What Bywater needs is more residential places for people to live, in buildings of good quality and excellent design. Residential apartments, well designed and well-spaced so that both the buildings and the riverscape look great when the work is done and still do in 50 years.

The same requirement of design excellence should apply to every riverfront building.

Architectural merit so that the building adds to the aesthetic character of the city should be at the top of the tree of criteria. Details like height and setbacks may have minima and maxima, but should be flexible, variable and definitely secondary considerations.

One of the things conservatives want to avoid is a line of near-identical buildings forming a wall of tall blocky buildings. But by rigidly prescribing height and step-backs, that is exactly what they will get. Instead of identical Duany-an cream cheese blocks, they will get a wall of Lego-like buildings.

Variety and visual interest across a series of buildings are harder to achieve than writing up a rigid rule.

So what? If the riverfront is worth the report, a few decades of arguments and strife, a lawsuit – do it. Move on from whatever consultants helped get us here. Invest some money in Andrés Duany’s firm, if that is the best way.

© NOLAscape June 2017


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