Squandered Heritage Vintage

Off the Rails

117 N Genois

Dear New Orleanians,

The demolition process – such as it was pre-Gustav – has gone completely off the rails.

For those of you not familiar with the story, here’s the nickel version. Four days after Gustav hit on Labor Day, Mayor Nagin issued an executive order – claiming powers under a state of emergency – suspending the operations of the Neighborhood Conservation District Committee (NCDC). This is the committee tasked with reviewing demolitions from individuals and the city to ensure that the city’s historic fabric will not be negatively impacted. The Committee also often catches errors in the city’s applications for demolitons, such as incorrect addresses or lack of notice to homeowners or the fact that the property is already demolished.

In issuing the order, Mayor Nagin claimed he was attempting to speed demolitions of properties damaged by Gustav. He claimed the extra step of Committee review would slow the recovery from Gustav.

There’s two problems with that though: 1) His Safety & Permits department was already in the process of issuing over 100 “imminent danger of collapse” (IDC) permits on properties severely damaged by Gustav; and 2) Those IDC permits are specifically exempted – by law – from review by the Committee.

Nonetheless, Safety & Permits started handing out additional “executive order” permits. Those other permits that got issued specifically under this executive order were on properties that related to Katrina – or perhaps to nothing at all (some appear to not be candidates for demolition for any reason). They had nothing to do with Gustav. The mayor’s real justification for the executive order appears to simply be impatience, not any actual emergency.

About 50 of these “executive order” permits were issued. Most went to the city, while a few went to private individuals for properties that would have almost certainly had their applications rejected by the Committee. The majority were for properties that were due to be reviewed the day after Gustav struck. others were on properties that had been deferred, withdrawn, or even denied at previous Committee meetings.

In shutting down the Committee, the mayor tossed aside a process that had actually been working quite well for months. And his claims of delays are bogus – about 90% of all applications to the Committee are approved.

A furor arose behind the scenes, with City Council members who had drafted the legislation establishing the Committee incensed that the mayor would subvert a democratic process for no reason. Late in the week, after a number of empty reassurances that loopholes would be closed and such, the mayor threw the council a bone.

If a district councilmember did not wish NCDC-eligible properties given “executive order” demolition permits to be knocked down, they simply had to let the mayor know. As best as I can tell, all of them did so on Friday or over the weekend.

That didn’t work. Today, the city’s demolition contractor knocked down at least four properties which should have been reviewed by the Committee, but which were instead given instant demolition permits. This is in addition to three earlier “executive order” demolitions, bringing the total to at least seven properties brought down despite the express wishes of city councilmembers and the mayor’s word.

The bizarre part of this is the city has continued to issue “imminent danger of collapse,” or “IDC,” permits for Gustav-damaged properties. Again, by law, these do not require review. Over the past two days, an additional 66 permits on 65 properties have gone out. The grand total of IDC permits granted since Gustav is 174 permits on 169 properties (there have been a few duplicate permits).

It is at the point where the entire system has been thrown into chaos. Councilmembers are being given assurances unreviewed properties will not be knocked down in their districts at the exact moment those properties are in fact being knocked down. Either the city has no control over its contractors, or the administation has no compunction lying directly to the council.

Either way, carefully crafted – and functional – democratic processes have been thrown under bulldozers because of a massive lack of leadership and an abundance of duplicity.

This topic will be discussed at tomorrow’s Recovery Committee meeting at 2 PM in City Council chambers at City Hall.

Best regards,

Matt McBride

740 S Genois

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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 for Squandered Heritage. For her work with television reporter Lee Zurik exposing widespread misuse of city recovery funds — which led to guilty pleas in federal court — Gadbois won some of the highest honors in journalism, 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.