Creeping concrete: Is anyone paying attention at City Hall?

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A two-story, two-family house rises from a sea of concrete on Nashville Avenue. photo: Gadbois

A two-story, two-family house rises from a sea of concrete on Nashville Avenue. photo: Gadbois

This isn’t a “before and after” story… not yet. It’s more of a “before and during” story.

Uptown, on Nashville Avenue, there once stood a humble bungalow, quaint and pretty and respectful of the lot where it stood and the houses adjacent to it. As happens quite regularly to quaint and pretty houses in New Orleans, the other day it was demolished, making way for a larger structure.

The bungalow that once graced the lot was knocked down in December, and the palms went with it.

The bungalow vanished last December and the vacant lot sold in January for $105,000.

According to plans in the city permits database, the little bungalow is giving way to a two-story, two-family behemoth of 4,000 square feet.

It gets worse.

Driving by the other day I noticed that the front of the property had been paved from lot line to lot line with a two-car circular driveway.

I dashed off e-mails to a number of local folks who pay attention to this sort of thing, and what followed was a volley of responses ranging from indignation to disgust to  revulsion.

One of the recipients dubbed the concrete front yard a “100% paving fiasco” and cited other examples of similarly brutalist assaults on an urban landscape in which the absorption of runoff is critical to the city’s very sustainability.

The names of the disgusted have been redacted but what follows is a sampling of the frustration many feel with city departments that are meant to uphold common sense and avoid these kinds of outcomes.

“Is this legit?” one respondent asked after seeing the photo below. “No such permit on file with Safety and Permits, that I can tell.”

As e-mailers debated whether the building plans were legal, one commenter dismissed the whole discussion as sadly naïve. The very notion that “contacting anyone from the City will lead to guidance” is, he declared, “a fiction.”

Another neighborhood activist described city bureaucrats this way: “Their total lack of duty makes me so angry I have to look away or go postal.”

For what it’s worth, the debate led to a crackerbarrel consensus that paving the front yard area was indeed a breach of city rules.  “Spoke with someone at Zoning just now, and they have an inspector set to go to 3114 Nashville ASAP,” an e-mailer wrote. The law states, “first 20 feet of property can only be paved 40%”.

All neighborhoods in New Orleans have issues with street flooding during heavy rains. And as anyone who has driven through this area, just off Claiborne Avenue, well knows, subsidence, buckling streets, rising manhole covers and crumbling potholes bring to mind the Black Hills of North Dakota.

OK. So much for the front yard and the lapse of code enforcement that it entails.

The backyard is paved, wall-to-wall, but apparently city rules allow for this.

What about the backyard?

Here the law may be on the side of the developers. In conversations with local zoning buffs I was told that paving your backyard from corner to corner is legal.

But is it right?

After Katrina, local architect David Waggonner began what he dubbed “The Dutch Dialogues,” a series of workshops to discuss the realities of living with water in the sodden floodplain of the continent’s most tempestuous river, the Mississippi.

“South Louisiana, like the Netherlands, must adapt to the threats inherent to living in a subsiding delta. This is not an either/or proposition, it is an ordering principle,” Waggonner contends.

Paving once permeable acreage is a folly for which the whole city is made to answer during hurricane season. But on a micro-scale, what about the folks next door? They’re going to get a tsunami every time it rains. Whatever happened to common courtesy?

With a new Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance on the drawing boards, maybe it’s time to address the issue of passive drainage.

And with that, here’s the final email:

“I’ve come to believe (after years of overly optimistic denial) that City Hall really will outlast us all,” my correspondent wrote, “and its inner workings will continue kinking into some inscrutable coils that no mere mortal can hope to unscrew.”

Amen.

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