Jack Davis OpEd

St. Charles Avenue needs our protection
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
Jack Davis

With so much of New Orleans life these days devoted to repairing damage, it’s remarkable to encounter someone ready to inflict new harm on one of the strongest parts of the post-Katrina city.

A property owner is proposing an astoundingly drastic zoning change that would allow him to replace a graceful, historic two-story residential building on a beautiful section of St. Charles Avenue with a 26-unit condominium structure — with no height limitation.

That change, to be considered by the City Council Nov. 15, would remove the protection afforded for decades to this elegant and coherent stretch of harmoniously scaled architecture and oaks. Miraculously, this part of St. Charles above Napoleon Avenue has mostly escaped the demolitions that replaced many of the distinguished buildings on the lower avenue with badly designed and overly large apartment buildings. The key reason is that the zoning prohibits new construction of anything bigger than a single-family home.

When I arrived here in 1972, St. Charles had a dim future. I wrote an article for the front page of our little weekly newspaper Figaro that July, with the headline, “St. Charles Avenue is Dying,” documenting a wave of destruction of great 19th-century mansions, mostly between Jackson and Napoleon avenues. One reaction was the City Council’s one-year moratorium on St. Charles demolitions, passed in December 1972.

Partly as a result of all that, this one mile of St. Charles between Jefferson and Broadway has the most restrictive single-family residential zoning in all of the East Bank portion of the city. Called RS-1A in the zoning code, it was created by the City Council in 1987 to achieve even lower density and greater spaciousness than in the previously most restrictive zoning category, RS-1. Short of giving historic-district protection to this treasure, the council evidently believed that this tight zoning was the way to preserve the St. Charles character for posterity.

William Goldring’s requested zoning change would take the property at 5428 St. Charles Ave., from this most restrictive residential zoning category to the city’s most permissive residential category, RM-4, for multi-family residential buildings, with no restriction on height — jumping over nine other categories in between. The City Planning Commission unanimously denied the requested change last month, and Mr. Goldring has pursued his right to appeal to the City Council.

Mr. Goldring has openly shared with the neighborhood a design for a replacement building, with 13 luxury condominiums on four generous floors above one floor of parking. If he or a subsequent owner were to take maximum advantage of the RM-4 zoning, the lot size would allow 26 units and whatever height was needed to accommodate them.

The issue here is not the design. The opposition has instead focused on the integrity of the zoning as the foundation for maintaining the avenue’s character. They fear that granting any change from the restrictions will lead other developers to seek similar treatment, resulting in the deterioration of the avenue.

The Goldring condominium project is actually what the city needs in abundance — comfortable residences for affluent taxpayers who are likely to be major contributors to the local economy — but it needs them in other places. If Uptown is where they want to be, the area offers a number of sites where this size and height and density would not be damaging.

But St. Charles is too precious for that kind of development.

Besides, 5428 St. Charles is already occupied by a building too good to tear down. Built in 1928 (before the zoning was in place) as a three-family residence in a style that combines the Mediterranean , classical and even modernist styles, it is distinguished and elegant, a little shabby from recent neglect, in need of the renovation that would make it even more of a contributor to neighborhood quality. Its architect was Emile Weil, who created a number of landmark homes on the avenue and Audubon Place, and a long list of other high-quality designs, including the Whitney Bank building, the Saenger Theatre, Touro Synagogue and Tulane’s Dixon Hall.

A rendering by architect John Williams of the design for Mr. Goldring shows the large and tall proposal in dramatic contrast to the 1870s raised cottage next door.

If this were an argument about preservation of a notable building in a district listed, as this area is, on the National Register of Historic Places, the Weil building would win.

But it’s an argument that goes far beyond that — to the preservation of the scale and character of one of the city’s great assets. All New Orleanians have a stake in protecting their avenue from this change.

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There will be a neighborhood forum on the rezoning Thursday at 6 p.m. at St. Charles Presbyterian Church, 1545 State St.

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Jack Davis, a resident of New Orleans and Chicago, is a trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and vice president of Chicago Metropolis 2020. His e-mail address is jacdav@aol.com.

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