It looks like the “new” New Orleans might be fading fast, even before the Crescent City can celebrate the 10th anniversary of its much-heralded recovery from the Katrina disaster. Sadly, the old ways of doing things are staging a comeback and seem to be winning more and more fights involving inappropriate land use.
What are the old ways, now resurgent? Pure and simple:
- a City Council that community members believe is about to accept an illegitimate review process rather than honor input they have provided in private meetings.
- a willingness to let developer shenanigans win the day over honest, deep-rooted resident opposition
- a process that chases away developers willing to do the right thing for a neighborhood and, therefore, the larger city.
The most egregious example of the old ways is the continuing review of the proposed Holy Cross condo development, planned on the campus of the school that gave the neighborhood its name. Postponed twice already, it’s on the Council’s docket for Thursday.
The so-called 11th-hour compromise, reducing proposed building heights from 75 to 60 feet, was given to the community 72 hours before the last Council meeting. While that may make the proposed buildings five feet shorter than the former school’s administration building and bell tower, the revamped proposal still comes in 20 feet above the current legal limit of 40 feet.
That’s way too high for the neighborhood and higher than is likely to be acceptable to the communities of Bywater and Marigny, the inevitable next targets of upscale waterfront development. These are historic districts that, in OK’ing a draft version of the city’s long-simmering and complicated Master Plan, certainly did not expect that height limits would soar by 50 percent, Holy Cross community leaders have said.
Indeed, what got discussed during the Master Plan process were issues affecting land use and density, not height. The community assumed height would stay the same because of a neighborhood’s historic designation.
Instead, the development proposal would undermine forever this village-like neighborhood of low-rise historic homes, dwarfing them beneath an intrusive complex of more than 100 high-end condos — and that’s just for starters.
It’s a project guaranteed to do nothing for Holy Cross but flood the streets with traffic and raise property values beyond the ability of many local residents to afford their rents or taxes.
With the help of thousands of volunteers and dozens of foundations, this remarkable working class community struggled to rebuild itself after Katrina, one restored house at a time.
Don’t call it a compromise when a developer drops from overwhelmingly too big to still too big and out of scale — just less so. Don’t call neighborhood resistance NIMBY-ism (short for “not in my backyard”) when the community has complied faithfully with a public process, only to see it subverted by the developer.
The community process yielded a plan respectful of the neighborhood’s scale and fabric. Three developers stand ready to advance this alternative vision in “partnership” with Holy Cross residents, community leader Sarah DeBacher says, and all three of them have agreed to work within current zoning limits.
Does a scaled-back proposal mean — by definition — one with less political clout than the oversized proposal before the City Council? Are hot-wired political connections once again a requisite for doing business in New Orleans? Holy Cross dared to dream that the cynicism and corruption of the old, failed city had been washed away in the retreating Katrina flood waters. What a shame if the community is proved wrong.
How can the Council in good conscience approve a developer who falsely generates community support with, among other things, a faked petition containing the 272 false names and addresses found so far? (Another 144 signatures are still unverified.)
How can the Council disregard the real neighborhood that has followed the democratic process of community engagement that once seemed the very essence of the “new” New Orleans?
How can the Council claim to be following a legitimate public process when the community has never had the opportunity to publicly present its sensible and creative alternative, one that favors lower density, lower heights, a publicly accessible park and educational and artistic uses of the former school’s historic administration building?
No doubt about it, the “old” New Orleans is rearing its ugly head. Only the players have changed. For the new Council members, this is a real trial by fire to start off a new term, a pass-fail test of their ethical probity.
The neighborhood did its job. Galvanized by their fight against the condo complex, residents pored over the city’s draft Master Plan and made some unhappy discoveries.
One was that the Master Plan, if approved, would allow the former Holy Cross campus to be declared eligible for mixed-use, medium-density development in which building heights could indeed rise to 60 feet. That was a sharp departure from the spirit and texture of the surrounding blocks of cottages and single- and double-shotguns.
Worse yet, the draft Master Plan — offering no fewer than 18 zoning options for mixed-use sites — made a mockery of the public’s well-articulated desire that the plan have “the force of law.” Investing the plan with binding legal power was New Orleans’ bid to end the sleazy tradition in which zoning rules were regularly overridden by council members as a political favor to big-shot developers. Eighteen options wouldn’t end the sleaze; basically that range of choices would do nothing more — nor less — than define the arena in which sleazy politics could be practiced.
To make their case, residents gave city planners 74 pages of documentation showing why 60 feet was not only illegal under current law but also inappropriate — if the draft Master Plan ever becomes law. And the Planning Commission’s response? It failed to revisit the inappropriate mixed-use designation and uphold the height restrictions already embodied in the current code. Why?
Is the same fate in store for other low-rise neighborhoods or is the Lower Nine a special case, singled out for abuse because of its lower incomes and higher presence of minority residents?
The Historic Districts Landmark Commission and the City Planning Commission rejected excessively restrictive staff recommendations for the condo development in Holy Cross, but then shirked their responsibilities and fell silent, leaving the decision to the City Council. Genuine community input has been totally ignored. Why both agencies, staffed with sensitive and knowledgeable professionals, have gone out of their way to be so permissive is, alas, a puzzle.
The prospect of pricey river views will come at the expense of a racially and economically diverse working class community that has struggled to keep itself alive. Their community-driven success, a success matched in neighborhoods around the city, is the very hallmark of the “new” New Orleans, the city that — for a while, at least — received well-deserved national plaudits. What a sad day for this incomparable city to be squandering that distinction in less than a decade.
Roberta Brandes Gratz is the author of several books on urban regeneration. Her new book, “’We’re Still Here ‘Ya Bastards:’ The Recovery of New Orleans” will be published next year.