A Blunt Pitchfork

Great fun was had by all at Tuesday’s City Planning Commission session. The feature event was a triumphant comeback of the dancers, strippers and the pole dance clubs, which had been under attack by the shriveled souls of some of our most venal religious hustlers and politicians somehow – I am going to try to find out how – getting compliance from law enforcement to put hundreds of people out of work and thousands out of entertainment. The City Planning Commision declined to bite. Good for them! Respect! But first . . . 

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Yesterday The Lens jumped back on its Right On track  – or according to NOLAscape’s probably less popular but more analytical position – off the rails. Their op-ed on the Sun Yard project tries to keep its heart in the right place, but has trouble with facts and logic.

An early shot from the writers:

The development company, based in Philadelphia . . . “

The impression they are trying to sell is an office in a faceless building in a cold northern suburb trying to drain the souls and savings of warm, connected, creative, lovely, salt-of-Bywater folks. To be generous to my neighbors, let’s just call it bogus.

I had a chat with the alien invaders from Philadelphia after the City Planning Commission session. The faceless corporatist machine turns out to be Liz and Giuliano, husband and wife, who have a couple of property based businesses in Philadelphia and some hotel and organic agriculture work in Jamaica. The project’s architect, Jason, was there too – a very nice guy who lives in . . . Bywater.

I risk endangering some friendships here, because I have known many of the opponents of the “Sun Yard” project for years. I like them. I consider them friends. I don’t, of course, question their right to oppose, but I don’t agree with them letting their passion generate inaccuracies and exaggerations, so keeping to NOLAscape tradition, I have to call it as I see it. I hope I don’t lose any friends.

This “foreign developer” stuff, which was all over Nextdoor and in submissions to CPC is just BS. Let’s be complete-word real: it’s bullshit. Spin. In state law, a corporation registered in another state is called “foreign.” Most US corporations are registered in one of two small states, Delaware or Nevada. So most corporations all over the country are technically “foreign.” Using this to prejudice the opinion of people who don’t understand that is spin – using an insignificant fact to sell a false meaning.

Is it really appropriate to imply that Liz and Giuliano are advance troops of a corporatist death march? Let me answer, because the Right On brigades are either confused or spinning any facts they know. No. It is not. This stuff, now infecting The Lens op-ed page as it did Nextdoor posts and the CPC submissions cheapens their campaign. Even if they win, they should have the decency to be ashamed of this deceptive aspect of their crusade.

The crusaders of Bywater are good people. It is sad that they are caught up in a tribal fervor that is clouding their judgment and poisoning some of their language.

This fight aside, they are the same good people they were last week. Here’s the thing: so are Liz Solms and Giuliano. So are Jason Richards, the architect on the project, and the Zoning Committee of Bywater Neighborhood Association, who would almost certainly have spoken in support of the CPC report, if the hearing had not been deferred. So are Bob Rivers and the CPC staff, who worked seriously to understand the project and write the detailed, thorough 245 page report recommending approval with some conditions and changes. So even, at some level, are the Neighbors First people, though unfortunately their representative at the hearing, Mark Gonzalez, who seems to be easily confused, unnecessarily traduced BNA. He deserves a kicking for that, and NOLAscape is just the place for it.

This process is not well served by aspersions. In the long run it will serve the opponents’ cause poorly to try to cast Liz Solms as a secret partner of Jared Kushner, a covert ally of Marriott or a carpetbagging oligarch.  

The opponents say Bywater needs affordable housing, not hotels or restaurants or short term rentals.

New Orleans faces a massive crisis of affordable housing. According to Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, a local housing justice organization, the city will need an estimated 33,000 additional units of affordable housing over the next 10 years to mitigate this crisis.

Good! I wonder whether 33,000 is not too conservative. Now let’s try to understand how to achieve that, without a distraction tactic associating the Sun Yard project with that issue.

The only way the land the Sun Yard is to be on could contribute to resolving the affordable housing shortage would be to build high density multi-unit rental apartments on the site. High density means high. High density means big building architecture. High density means fairly radical modification of the FAR rules. The maximum height of the Sun Yard plans is two story – camelback height. For serious contribution to the residential unit issue on the edges of Bywater, the building should be at least five stories high.

But that is not what the opponents want. They want the three houses to remain low density residential – in other words, no change, no positive contribution to the housing and rent problem. Their objection to a large footprint apartment block would almost certainly be more passionate than their opposition to Sun Yard.

They say they want long term rental space, but they don’t want any new apartment buildings near their houses. They want cheaper without change, they want rules for their benefit, and they want an easy target to blame for the problem. They want to blame Liz Solms or Sean Cummings or Pres Kabacoff, as if New Orleans was renaissance Florence or Milan and they were the Medici or Sforza.

They want more long term leasehold rental space, but not here. We are too historic. We are too creative. Keep Bywater just like it is, but cheaper. Stick the new stuff in Gentilly or Lakeview or Algiers.

Wait a minute – Algiers Point was on Tuesday’s CPC agenda, and that didn’t work so well either. A proposed riverside development attracted strong opposition. Some of them said they didn’t like the buildings, but the most vocal opponents said they did not want more people! It was simple and naked: no new people. Their neighborhood could not survive more residents, they said. This is not unusual. We want more affordable housing – but under NIMBY rules! There are always some details for a coating of plausibility – parking, traffic – but the bottom line is Not In My Back Yard.

For affordable housing, the city needs more residential units and regulated, subsidized cost. Either publicly owned rent-controlled space, or subsidy. If you have a better way, please share it with us.

Quick reprise of a NOLAscape theme: the downtown neighborhoods are depopulated. There used to be more people per housing unit, so more people in the neighborhood, fewer cars and more local service businesses. Now the riverside neighborhoods have turned whiter, richer and the demand for square feet per person is several times larger than it was 50 or 60 years ago. That means to repopulate them, make them really walkable, as the Master Plan desires, there must be places to walk to. That means parks, playgrounds, shops – and people. Not less commerce – more of it and more residential space. More people. It is not an either/or story. The answer is both. This is not radical stuff – it is what the New Orleans’ Master Plan for the 21st Century says.

The answer is not in the hands of the individual business entities of Liz or Sean Cummings or Pres Kabacoff. Our problem is that the governments of the cities, the regions, the states and the country are AWOL. You won’t get anywhere useful by blaming people who try to act or do their best within the available spaces, the current system, laws and markets. The answer is that the governments have to take it in hand, as New York once did in the time of rent control, as London and other British cities did with social housing before Margaret Thatcher.

What happened to HANO? Why are The Lens op-ed writers trying to pin part of a housing crisis on the Sun Yard idea, without mentioning the whole city block at Chartres and Mazant that HANO has kept empty for years? Want a prediction for nothing? If HANO eventually presents a design with enough density to make a serious difference, the protests will be long and loud.

The imposition of ten percent “affordable” apartments on private sector builders of market-rate apartment buildings is a wilted fig leaf that doesn’t cover the abdication of government responsibility. All it accomplishes is further retardation of building rental units, which encourages house price inflation, and intensifies the hunt for subsidy as a necessary condition of development.

To change this SNAFU, you need sustained, serious political action, not spot objection to a relatively small business. You need a determined popular movement, because all realistic solutions require a combination of taxation and finance, and if anything is clear in current America, it is that the powerful of the one percent or the point one percent are winning a tax boycott. Well-designed social housing requires determined popular action to counter the current political power structure. Soothing your conscience with protests against one small hotel or a market rate private apartment plan is just self-deception signifying next to nothing.

Another government abdication is the bad short term rental law that is a bugbear in this drama. Remember CM Stacy Head attacking that a few months ago? Well, every once in a while, Stacy Head is right, and that was one of the times. At Tuesday’s CPC session, one guy lost a perfectly good application because of it. He owns the house where the Defender used to operate from, and a comedy club and  other businesses in its history. It had been rezoned residential by the CZO after he bought it, not by his application. He wanted the ground floor to be an office. Most of the commissioners admitted that his application should have been approved,  but were afraid to allow it, because if they let it be rezoned commercial, one day in the future, under another owner, the house could be turned into AirBnB units. So through no fault or intention of his own, a bad law had shut down a small project that should have been allowed. If you want the STR rules improved, don’t take it out on individuals who have no intention to join AirBnB, just caught in a faulty law. Lobby City Hall to pass a better law. That will cost money, too, and serious, sustained effort. AirBnB has tough lawyers.

If you really want affordable housing, there has to be more development not less, and that includes more commerce not less. Development is generally not allowed in the protected historic cores, so you have to build around the edges. In Bywater, that is along St Claude, the canal, the riverside and Press Street. But I recognized people in the protest against Sun Yard Tuesday who were also opponents of Via Latrobe, who vilify the Rice Mill, who value a free parking space on front of their house more than they really value a repopulated, lively, walkable urban neighborhood.

At least Neighbors First is open about their entirely illogical program. They advocate low density, shabby-chic gentrification (which they don’t want called gentrification; oh no, everybody else are gentrifiers, not us). They want local service shops with good stuff at low prices, without more people to be customers. They want a suburb in the city, on somebody else’s dime. They want low density, low traffic, suburban conditions at low cost, and they want it within walking distance of the French Quarter. They want it cheap – until they decide to sell a house. Then they would like some better property values, at least for a few months.

It’s probably not even hypocrisy, which is generally intentional or deliberate self-deception. It is just muddle, emotion-to-words without mediation of logic, not thinking through how things work. It’s how we get politicians that can promise any old crap to get elected without bothering to give a thought to what they usually know – that it doesn’t work and can’t happen without systemic change, which their donors will not allow.

The resultant cynicism is how we sneer at Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren for proposing an achievable thing like national health care, which works pretty well everywhere but here. We have trouble distinguishing sense from nonsense. Trump, our national embarrassment, even attacked the British NHS this week because of a protest against Conservative Party austerity. To quote the clown, believe me, not one of those protesters would trade the National Health Service for the cruel American mess, much less the Republican proposals. Is the NHS imperfect? Of course. But check the outcome ratings for how far above us they are.

But I digress. In fact, I always digress. It’s a trademark. Looping back to The Lens:

The planned hotel development — in the very heart of a residential neighborhood — would have a footprint one-sixth the size of the Superdome’s.

Unless the plan is to move one sixth of the Superdome to the space on St Claude or build a replica of it, the statement is so deceptive that a responsible editor would have flagged it. The properties the writers outlined are already there, have been there for decades, and while they will get a face lift if the Sun Yard project is realized, there is no proposal for material change in appearance. So what beside misdirection does the Superdome have to do with it?

They’ll need a zoning variance to do it. Half the lots are classified commercial, but half are residential —

This does apply to the case, but is seriously deceptive. The main problem is not that half the properties are zoned residential. It is split zoninga part of each of the core properties is zoned residential. The fronts of the properties are commercial mixed use, parts of the backyards are residential. Not that there are ever were any residential buildings there – they are just grass and some trees, no different from the rest of the backyard of the same address, but at some point in the past, a map line was drawn across them. The Planning staff thinks it was a mistake. Whatever the outcome, I think they will correct that anomaly.

The Sun Yard developers have made no commitment to employ workers at living wages with benefits, nor have they promised to allow future employees to form a union.

Is that a signal of terrible policy or what? What has happened to the labor movement? It was gutted by Reagan and subsequent neoliberal administrations. To bring it back to life, though, workers’ rights and conditions should not be left to the gift of some owners. There are interesting cases of this in big business: Costco’s employment conditions are good; Walmart’s are not. One of the outcomes: institutional shareholders pressure Costco to lower wages and worsen conditions to Walmart level to enhance profitability. To its credit, Costco’s directors have resisted, but that does nothing for the  2.1 million employees of Walmart. If workers want their unions back, they have to rebuild them, not hand all workplace decision piecemeal to small businesses. It will be a long, hard struggle. If you want to be serious about living wage and working conditions, don’t let it depend on Liz Solms. 

As proud New Orleanians who want to see our city grow and its people thrive, we are not opposed to all development. For us the question is who benefits from it? What should it look like? How should it be pursued? Ultimately, it’s up to the people to make our voices heard and to defend our communities against unethical, undemocratic development. After all, according to a recent poll by The Advocate, affordable housing is the No. 2 issue for New Orleans voters, behind crime.

Affordable housing should be considered a more important issue than crime. Politicians trade on fear of violent crime, but housing and inadequate wages do more damage, eating away the guts and heart of a society. The way to improve those essential elements of the social contract is not the distraction of attacking relatively modest business and development proposals.

“Unethical”? What? If you don’t like the Sun Yard, okay. Be an opponent. But the project is no less ethical than any other ordinary business, and in fact has been more honest in its own defense than the opposition.

“Undemocratic.” Now it is getting crazy. “Democratic” is popular participation. The American business setup is not democratic. Private enterprise is the backbone of the economic setup. Standard corporations are internally authoritarian, more so since the virtual demise of the unions. Democracy in business means democratic governance within the business, as in workers’ self directed or cooperative businesses. It does not mean that people without commitment who do not participate in the business should decide. What a community gets to decide democratically is the laws that govern business, and in this case, the laws set up through the normal representative processes heavily supplemented by direct popular participation explicitly allow the Sun Yard project in that space. To recap: objecting to specific businesses who basically comply with the rules is spot objecting – the contra of spot zoning.

New Orleans’ Master Plan and CZO were painstakingly democratic. Not without flaws, not without a few end runs around popular benefit. Some of the consultants were talking consultant-ese and writing stuff to please the administration, but all in all, there was a lot of popular input over a period of years.

That set of processes, debates, votes and millions of editorial words named the St Claude corridor commercial and mixed use. Within a democratically determined set of rules, the Sun Yard project is a permitted use.

One of the opponents’ frequently made points is that any specific zoning change, or at least any change that they don’t like, is spot zoning. And spot zoning, they say, is terrible.

By the same logic, objecting to this one item because they don’t like it, and have been effectively whipped up into a passion by the nearest neighbors, is spot objecting. Reactive, personal spot objecting. The Truck Farm was for sale for a long time. The opponents always knew, or could have known, what the St Claude zoning permitted. They did nothing, said nothing, took no initiative, except to make it harder for Sweet Olive LLC to sell the property, until some people made a commitment. Then, reactively, they launch a well-organized protest campaign. Given their organizing skills, should the opponents be given any virtue points for reactively protesting against transactions undertaken within  the rules set up under the most democratic process I have ever seen operating in New Orleans? Doesn’t it look like they were capable of anticipation? That if they really believe in democracy at work, they could have at least tried to form a cooperative to buy the properties and determine the outcome? They didn’t. They waited for someone else to put their money down, then objected. 

I’m sure the writers of the op-ed are perfectly fine, well-meaning people. But their editorial is misleading,

(c) NOLAscape 2018

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6 Replies to “A Blunt Pitchfork”

  1. Speaking of misleading, this column does not address the concerns of most of the detractors. The Sun Yard development REMOVED eight units of affordable housing, and it did so in a space that has repeatedly been brought up in planning discussions as the epitome of what needed to be protected as development came to St. Claude. That split zoning was left intact for precisely that reason.

    Anyone who wanted to speak in favor of the development had that opportunity before the CPC allowed the opposition to speak. The only person who stood up was their attorney.

    There are a lot of reasons this is a bad idea, and the CPC addressed some of them in their report. I look forward to seeing what the developer comes back with after having time to review it. But they don’t seem very bright when it comes to that. One if the things the CPC asked was that they consult a Licensed Louisiana Landscape Architect and replace missing trees, but AFTER the report came out, they started removing old growth trees from the property. If they are trying to convince the CPC, they are not off to a good start.

    • Heidi, You might be a little surprised to hear that I agree with a lot of what you are saying. I tried to go very light on the CPC session because as tempted as I am by digression, I was trying to address what I consider the weaknesses of The Lens editorial.

      The Sun Yard owners have been clumsy at dealing with the neighborhood people. Justin Schmidt missing every opportunity was probably the worst example. It was very poorly orchestrated. I would not have allowed it, but it wasn’t my gig. Still, that is presentation not substance.

      It was painful to watch Schmidt droning on about details which had been addressed in the staff report, boring the staff and commissioners while ignoring about 50 people in a ferocious mood holding signs behind him. He just didn’t get it.

      Too much shadowy space and detail for this space, but I think it was unlikely that the residential status of the Truck Farm houses was going to survive in any case. The neighbors, probably inadvertently, abetted that by making it harder to get the adjustments necessary to make the properties easier to sell. The process started fraught and got worse. The right question is what’s next, not what was.

      My take: Liz Solms plunked down her money. She should be able to create her business, her vision, if it fits the main lines of the MP. It does. Every substantial project has details to adjust. That is why adjustment is built into the system.

      But yes – if you want to succeed in this process, address the neighborhood with respect, no matter how much you disagree with their objections, and address every point and concern head on and fast. Sometimes it takes developers some time and hard lessons to learn how that works in this context.

      • Solms is welcome to build within the parameters of the zoning code. Even if she were to get her requested rezoning of the properties, which is not a done deal, she would still need a conditional use to accomplish her goals. That’s a discretionary thing, and it is required by law that the neighbors have input.

        There has never been any question that keeping the residential zoning was anything but intentional. This lack of commercial viability is what allowed these homes to remain some of the few legal live/work spaces for artisans in the city.

        You know well enough that I do not jump in to every zoning dispute that happens downriver. I am extremely selective about the battles I pick, but this one is worth fighting.

  2. The CPC staff report say that they do not believe the split zoning line was drawn in error.That means they have no direct evidence of its intention. They conclude that it was probably not accidental from its correspondence to the property line of one of the adjacent houses.

    They state several times, though, that the re-zone would “correct” the split-zone condition. I read that as a diplomatic way of saying that the staff and Bob Rivers think the line was not drawn as casual mistake, but that it was a mistake to do it.

    • That line has been there for a very long time. If you look at the adjacent block, those central parcels are actually separate lots. There was ample opportunity to change this when we the new zoning maps were drawn up. That did not happen. The property owner also requested a zoning change at ne point that was denied.

      I really wish the CPC would get the message, loud and clear, that we spent YEARS working on the CZO and maps. We did it in hopes of not having to come to meetings every time a property changed hands. It’s all in the CZO.

  3. The staff report suggests the line went on the map in 1970.

    We are drifting beyond the scope of this article, but okay. There are lots of changes that could have been made in 2015 and weren’t, for reasons I thought of then but didn’t have enough battlefield experience to say out loud. The Master Plan is a good idea except where too specific, too granular, too prescriptive, and – sorry for the work, good will and attention – I thought most of the CZO drilling down deeper into the non-existent future was a mad idea. I took the knock-down-drag-outs of the last day as raucous evidence..

    Cities evolve. Evolution is not linear. It is four dimensional, Future actors are different, taking unforeseen vectors within moving frames of reference.

    I was encouraged to come out as a skeptic after hearing and reading Andrés Duany. He said the only part of the CZO that was going to work was paragraph 5, I think it was – the one that said Council can make such adjustments and changes as it deems necessary.

    The CPC won’t get the message you want them to hear because that is not how time unfolds. Those long meetings a few years ago are not the events they have to respond to. Not the living problems that land on their desks every morning.

    We get a notion of history, we think we see the trajectory, or even think we know better than it. We think we can determine the multi-dimensional fractal branching paths future people, another generation responding to different technical, economic and psycho-social environments, will take. We think we can design their space, their city. But there are too many moving parts,

    So . . . sorry – Duany was more convincing than the hundreds of pages of CZO. A noble effort. It won’t work.

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