Best of Squandered Heritage Vintage

Demolition payback

Below you will find an analysis of the situation we are in regarding demolition. It is hard to ignore the “cause and effect” Preservation minded folks uncovered the NOAH story and now the payback from the Mayor is in full effect.

Dear New Orleanians,

In the wake of Gustav, a number of buildings around town suffered severe damage and fell down. Since the middle of last week, city Code Enforcement inspectors have been surveying properties to determine if any are in Imminent Danger of Collapse (IDC).

I capitalize that because it’s an official city term. If a property is truly IDC, it’s likely a heap of rubble or very soon to be one. In that case, under a city law that has been on the books for years, the city can move to knock it down immediately and clear the debris, bypassing all the normal reviews (if it is in an historic neighborhood) and notification procedures.

Starting last Thursday, the city started issuing IDC demolition permits to its IDC contractor, Durr Heavy Construction. They issued 108 IDC permits on 104 properties (one property got two permits, another got three). This happened on Thursday, Monday and Tuesday.

But despite already having the tools in their legal bag to demolish buildings without historic review, and having already used that tool over 100 times, the mayor decided that wasn’t enough.

Today, I have discovered what was happening Friday, when there was no permitting going on. The Mayor was signing a executive order (attached) suspending the operations of the Neighborhood Conservation District Committee (NCDC) due to the “state of emergency” associated with Hurricane Gustav. This committee, which came into being a few months ago, reviews demolitions in historic neighborhoods. It is one of two such committees in the city, the other being the Historic District Landmarks Commission (HDLC). The mayor’s proclamation, for some odd reason, left that committee alone.

Now the city is issuing demolition permits on properties which were pending for review before Gustav came ashore. Whether they were affected by Gustav or not is apparently now irrelevant, because starting late yesterday, the city started issuing demolition permits to all comers, including itself, on any property – with a guarantee of no public scrutiny. There is currently no public input or review of these demolitions, including input by a property’s owners. The Mayor has declared himself king of the wrecking balls, and he’s going to rebuild the city by tearing it down.

The mayor’s proclamation tries to make the case that the NCDC would be an impediment to cleaning up houses affected by Gustav. So today, the mayor’s staff are ripping through the agenda for the September 2nd NCDC meeting, issuing demolition permits on every property on that list. I have serious doubts that Gustav was so selective as to knock down the exact properties that happened to be on an agenda compiled weeks before the storm formed.

Here’s the additional angle: the demolition permits being issued under the mayor’s declaration are getting issued to DRC Emergency Services. That is the city’s demolition company being paid with federal Katrina dollars.

What this appears to be is a naked grab at power, using Gustav’s glancing blow to Orleans Parish as an excuse. The mayor is temporarily (I hope) stamping out a committee made up mostly of citizens, a committee formed to protect citizens’ rights to not have their property arbitrarily destroyed. His aim would appear to be to accelerate demolitions resulting from Katrina, in order to look good in the eyes of Washington.

None of this has anything to do with Gustav.

Where exactly is the emergency? The curfew has been lifted in Orleans Parish. All electricity has been restored in New Orleans. The city’s own website has a press release from Saturday telling all city personnel to report for work on Monday.

So where is the “state of emergency?” And what kind of precedent does it set for a mayor to use such a state to arbitrarily sweep aside legally constituted panels?

To top it all off, there has been no public notification of this. The city’s website includes no mention of the suspension. It also does not have any list of Gustav demolitions.

It’s a brazen power grab, and par for the course by this mayor. But I suppose that’s how you demonstrate “Excellence in Recovery.”

Matt McBride

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About Karen Gadbois

Karen Gadbois co-founded The Lens. She now covers New Orleans government issues and writes about land use. With television reporter Lee Zurik she exposed widespread misuse of city recovery funds and led to guilty pleas in federal court. Her work attracted some of journalism's highest honors, including a Peabody Award, an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award and a gold medal from Investigative Reporters and Editors. She can be reached at (504) 606-6013.

  • debi

    Where is the city council in all this?

  • Hi Karen. Been following your blog for the past few months. Lots of NOLA blogger friends in common.

    Question: would you be willing to be interview on my podcast on this topic? via phone or skype.. sometime today or tomorrow?

  • celcus

    Forget the city council, what about the courts? Based on the past “performance” of the city I would suspect (note: I am not a lawyer and don’t know nothing about lawyerin’) there is some sort of federal lawsuit that could be filed leading to an injunction…just thinking.

  • I don’t know Celcus, I haven’t read the city charter (partly) because the important parts of such documents can always be interpreted three different ways by three different lawyers. However, I’ve always heard that the charter gives the mayor broad powers that are counterbalanced by the council’s control over the budget. Fortunately, the budget hearings should start next month, and a swing voter is also running for Congress next month. I’d urge everybody to emai his own council representative, the two at-large members, and James Carter (if he’s not your district rep) urging them to demand that the mayor’s office communicate valid reasons for the order immediately or face massive budget cuts, especially to the communications department.

    That’s too focused on the bloated PR budget, it would probably be better just to demand that the order be lifted or face budget cuts. Karen and Celcus, both of you were at the Loyola candidates forum last year, do either of you remember her talking about using the council’s control over the budget to demand accountability from the mayor? Her demonstration of the knowledge about the main weapon that the council can use to make the mayor behave himself is what put her on my very short list of acceptable at-large candidates. Carter needs to be reminded of his current campaign, Clarkson needs to be reminded of her past campaign.

  • celcus

    I’m referring to the destruction of individual private property by a government entity without due process or compensation.

    “…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

  • heathmarial

    You mentioned in the article that you were going to attach the Executive Order. I’ve been trying to find it on the city website, with no luck. Do you have a copy?