Pitchforks and Planning

There are burning questions in this troubled land.

Is Devin Nunes as stupid as he looks? Or is that affectless mask an asset to the kakistocratic gang he works for? Big question, but not on today’s agenda.

Right here in Swamp City, a local chapter of the Christian Fascist Right that is degrading western civilization’s Enlightenment values has hooked up with some political hustlers including, it appears, the Landrieu clan, and is again trying to bring the bawdy fun of the pole dance game to its knees.  The Christian Soldiers and their government accomplices, tinpot and stupid, are trying to wreck what is left of New Orleans’ holdout against authoritarian puritanism and dependent serfdom. But that is for next time.

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Today, in closer focus, right here in Bywater, the end is nigh! Again! And this time, nigh is Tuesday, when the “Sun Yard” small hotel project comes before City Planning.

According to the more hysterical opposition, Liz Solms’s proposal for a low-profile 37 room hotel with the usual accoutrements – restaurant, coffee shop, bar, pool – is the thin edge of a wedge that will open the floodgates (the pitchforkers rarely resist a cliché). History will be irretrievably violated.

Or maybe not.

People have a right to oppose the project. The NPP and City Planning processes allow neighbors and others a voice, and CPC takes the public moods seriously. Some don’t like it, some do. The majority, I suspect, don’t mind much either way.

What I want to challenge is sublimating emotion, impulse and reaction through bad logic and false claims to statements of false authority.

New Orleans nativism

Critics of the Sun Yard project attack Liz Solms, the partner who has been principal spokesman for the company, for having been born in another city. Where does this stuff come from? Even the right wing nationalists and supremacists and the ICE stormtroopers are trying to deport people from Latin America, not from Philadelphia. I would even bet a cheap taco that many of our neighbors who make the words “out of state” drip with cold venom are appalled by the nativist alt-right wing of the Republican cult, and can’t see that they are doing the same thing.

Think I am exaggerating? Here is the opening shot on Nextdoor:

Rezoning along St. Claude and the Pillaging of our
Neighborhood by Out of Town Corporate Interests
who refuse to reveal their identity

https://nextdoor.com/news_feed/?post=60689907

“It is important to know what is going on in our beautiful historic neighborhood that is seemingly rapidly being morphed into a Dallas of the East by developers from out of state.”

So “historic” is in play from the first shot. We will come to that after the identitarian nativism.

If there were any validity to this ugly theme in their opposition, New Orleans based developers or investors would have to leave any project in Atlanta, Chicago or Charleston. They would be limited to investing here, where every project would drag through approvals and court cases for five years. That would be if the Krewe de Fourche cared about any logic, consistency or fairness. Or maybe it is a one-way condemnation: native New Orleans businesses can do what they want, but others can’t come here. Excellent logic.

I am not native New Orleanian either, so the NOLA supremacists attacking Liz Solms would probably tell me that I am geographically doomed. I could never understand.

“Out of state” is a strange attack. Liz and Giuliano’s previous projects include renovation and repurposing in the protected preservation areas of colonial Philadelphia. Who would be more sensitive to urban development, a person who has worked on development within other historical preservation zones or a Louisianan from an agricultural town in the northern part of the state?  

One fairly crazy thread condemned the Sun Yard project for its LLC registration in Delaware, suggesting it was a tax avoidance scheme so New Orleans and Louisiana lost benefit. About half the corporations in the US are registered in either Delaware or Nevada. The reason is generally that those states are user-friendly to corporate registrations. Delaware charges no tax on Delaware corporations’ operations outside of Delaware. So a Delaware corporation operating and earning money in Louisiana has to pay its taxes to Louisiana, but does not have to pay any tax to Delaware.  

The adjustment process began last year. The Truck Farm houses have split zoning – parts of the backyards are zoned differently than the houses on St Claude. This seems like a mistake. Some think it was an intentional buffer zone to protect the backs of houses facing North Rampart. City Planning seems to agree that it was a mistake. For reasons difficult if not impossible to explain, New Orleans has a Future Land Use Map that does not always coincide perfectly with the zoning. When the previous owner of the Truck Farm houses applied for a change in the FLUM preparatory to applying for the zoning change, some of the same people now objecting to the Sun Yard project objected to the FLUM change, on similar grounds, necessarily more general because the hotel plan had not yet been born, but they couldn’t use “out-of-state” as an epithet. “Out of town” was dragged in as a general purpose insult later.

At the time of its NPP on the matter, the previous owner, Sweet Olive LLC, was explicit and clear that the purpose of the changes it wanted was to make the property more salable, because it needed improvement or redevelopment. They were not in a position to do it, and the zoning anomaly was making it hard to sell. So the fine neighbors who are now forming a Pitchfork Krewe knew the properties were for sale from that day, if not before. They showed no interest in buying them. They formed no cooperative. They took no part in finding a buyer. They just waited, and started their out-of-state chant when they found out that the new owner had lived mostly in other cities.

One thread in Nextdoor even accuses the new owners of being Carpetbaggers, and anyone who cooperates in their effort of being Scalawags. Remember those reconstruction terms? What if Liz Solms was not from Philadelphia, a northern city, but from Hattiesburg or Oxford? Is that the same kind of out-of-town? Would it make the project more acceptable to the opponents? Do we really have people – neighbors – who want to frame development of St Claude Avenue in Civil War terms? That’s pretty historic, not in a good way.

Opponents pushing this story line apparently do not see that they had left off objecting to the Sun Yard project. They re-directed their ire from the little hotel, from land use and architecture, to people they don’t know because of where they are from. Is that racism? NOLA-ism? It is some kind of unsavory -ism.

Although ugly and embarrassing, a lot of people here seem to just shrug past it. “Well, yes, New Orleanians do that.”  We don’t know what City Planning will decide Tuesday, but we have to hope they will completely ignore this stuff.

History

That poor long-suffering word gets some heavy abuse whenever these cases come up. The most common is mixing up historical artifacts, such as houses, with the process of history. The way it is usually spun is:

  • We live in a “historical” neighborhood, meaning the houses are what we call historical (even though in New Orleans the designated object is often not very old).
  • These houses were results or artifacts of the building processes of an earlier time, a time we perceive as “history,” so now through owning them, we are not only custodians of the houses – we are the heirs of that time.
  • So now, what we think we are and how we like it is “history.” Through the artifact, we claim the right to dictate the future, so that it will always look like now. Changing anything from what we are or what we want would violate history, by violating our wishes as appointed or self-appointed trustees.

I hope you can see the fallacy. History as a process is not a building, and the past is not the future. “Historical preservation” and the processes that end up being  history are not the same thing. Zoning has been used for necessary and beneficial ends, and to slow and redirect movement and change – the stuff of history as process – and also abused to create racial and economic segregation, but in the end it cannot stop evolution without killing the space it was to preserve. Violating history is hard to imagine, because after changes happen, they become, ipso facto, history.

One way the opponents play this theme is they say that Bywater now provides residential owned and rented property for people in creative pursuits and regular jobs – often in service industries. If a hotel takes up some residential units, then it is invading, displacing.

To understand just one of the things wrong with this scenario, take a look at a small slice of actual history. Bywater’s population was much higher and denser in the mid-twentieth century. The population was roughly 65% African American. Now the population is closer to 2,000, less than half what it was, majority white. Maybe that shouldn’t make any difference, but in America where cultural racism is a nasty, persistent fact, it does.

In the opponents’ mythology, the Sun Yard would be displacing them, the current occupants, but the way they got their house, which possibly used to be occupied by a three generation African American family with several children who played outside with other kids, creating a lively street and porch culture, was not displacement. It was some kind of magical benign replacement that turned Bywater from a relatively dense working class to a low-density middle class, historical-preservation, shabby-chic gentrification area without displacing anybody.

May I call “rubbish” at this point? Cities and neighborhoods evolve and change. People move away, people move in. There is gentrification, and decay. (Bywater tends to favor an aesthetically “authentic”  combination of the two.) An aspect of the process is displacement, Displacement was part of the process that got you where you are, and it will be an aspect of the process that gets you out of it, if you move. Those complaining about displacement are part of that process no less even if less perceptibly than Liz Solms and the Sun Yard project.

Profit

From a comment letter to CPC:

“They will be converting residential homes to commercial and altering the physical landscape, soul and history of this neighborhood needlessly, and only for their own profit. We have plenty of hotels downtown, why do we need more hotel rooms in this neighborhood?”

One of the things that comes up in this discussion is: we don’t need a hotel, we need local service businesses. But the reason we don’t have enough local service businesses – if indeed that is the case – is low density. Not enough people to support the businesses. To increase that density, you need a lot of housing, because people are unlikely to return to the larger families and higher populations per house that would have been more common in the 1940s and 50s. But these same people generally object to apartment house construction, even around the edges, that could provide the housing.

Three low-density houses are irrelevant for creating a lively walkable culture – especially three houses nestled between the U-Haul yard, some restaurants and a disused gas station. A hotel, even a little one, with lighting and movement will at least do something for that.

“Only for their own profit.” Well, yes and no. Businesses in our economic set up have to make or at least promise a profit of some sort, but that is no less true of any business that might be in that or indeed any other space. It can’t be “only” for its own profit; it has to provide some kind of product or service that people pay for to survive.

If somebody wanted to build rental apartments there, after the neighbors got done complaining about the height that would be required to make it viable, the owner would have to earn a profit somehow, or eventually lose the property. If somebody opened a right-on vegan restaurant in the space, that contributed all its surplus to sheltering lost cats, it would still have to make some earnings to survive. The alternative to profit is either subsidy, bailout or bankruptcy. Slinging “profit” as an accusation at the Sun Yard project is simply gratuitous, meaningless abuse. We have to ask CPC to ignore this stuff.  

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A lot more could be written and said about this process – and a lot less should be. If proponents and opponents simply stated their position and were honest and clear in their reasons, the process would work better. In and around the Sun Yard project, people attempt to turn their emotions and their own property interests into generalizations about history, about the nature of their neighborhood, about destiny. They invent Manichaean scenarios of invasion and defense. They set up imaginary dramas and pass them off as real and imminent.

It might make Tuesday’s main event at CPC into an entertaining punch-up, but to get a healthy result, let’s hope the Commissioners have fresh alkaline batteries in their BS meter.

The CPC hearing is Tuesday 6 February at 1120 South Broad (City Hall is being renovated). Come along and put in a vote for reason.

©NOLAscape 2018

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One Reply to “Pitchforks and Planning”

  1. Wow, I wish I could write like that and I like what you actually wrote. I’ve been here nearly 30 years and no I’m not from here and I see the benefits from this and I also see some of the trauma that maybe someone would feel. Maybe it’s time for them and even me to find a new Nirvana.

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