Land Use

Creeping concrete: Is anyone paying attention at City Hall?

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.”


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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.

  • debi

    Nice work..making me crazy but nice work.

  • Is City Planning paying attention? Is the City Attorney ready to uphold the law and force what was done to be undone?

  • Blathering

    I know of at least 2 homes in the Napoleon area who were cited by City Hall for hardscaping their front yards. One was still in compliance w/ the 40% rule but was prohibited from calling it a driveway and instead said it was a brick patio and all was fine.
    The other paved 100% of his front yard and was told it was an illegal driveway. He doesn’t park there; wasn’t made to tear up the hardscape AND cars were ticketed during carnival for parking too close to a driveway.

  • William Feagin

    As a one-time resident of New Orleans (1981-1993), I remember this neighbourhood, as I lived uptown. Just apart from whatever the zoning laws of the city say, between the before photo of the lot with its bungalow (a nice little house, to be sure) and the palm trees around it, and the after photo with the almost obscene amount of concrete, this new house is altering the character of the neighbourhood, and not, I feel, in a good way. New Orleans has always had its own distinct appearance; the after photo could have been taken almost anywhere – I live now in the Greater Boston, MA, area and was reminded somewhat of parts of at least two Boston suburbs.

    But the sustainability argument certainly holds a good deal of water (yes, pun intended if unfortunate). Remembering that New Orleans, from its very earliest settlements, is and has always been a city built upon a drained swamp, the sustainability question has been likewise relevant – and the wake of Hurricane Katrina, perhaps more urgent than ever. Can the city afford to let such careless redevelopment go forward? And does City Hall even understand all the implications of the sort of Butterfly Effect such development has for the city’s future? It seems to me that they do not, and that allowing such development over the protests of neighbours suggests they may be fiddling while Rome burns.

  • Jenel

    Safety and Permits and code enforcement. We’ve said it over and over in every public meeting venue imaginable. Mitch doesn’t listen. Support for these services is needed and not prioritized high enough.

  • Enforcement on ALL fronts is lacking across New Orleans. No wonder citizens are pissed (and cynical and apathetic and confused), while builders are ecstatic (and audacious and unbounded and immune)!
    As for the property shown (3114 Nashville), it’s the owner’s THIRD megaplex built out-of-scale with the surrounding neighborhood’s character. When it rains, this monolith will become a swimming pool, dumping every drop of water onto the street or adjoining properties (he has promised them a concrete “lip” to contain the deluge).
    So, what does the City do about pave-a-thons like this? (a) Tell you “we only have 4 inspectors”; (b) Don’t require “paving” permits (in many cases, unrelated permits from 2006 remain “active” with no threat of follow-up inspections); (c) Yawn as you tell them (Safety & Permits or Zoning) “they just poured THREE CEMENT TRUCKS worth of concrete at 4170 Vincennes Place” … paved the entire front yard and created an illegal semi-circular driveway.
    Well, folks, that was over TWO YEARS AGO. No wonder THAT homeowners thinks he can get away with countless other nightmares in the same neighborhood?!?
    What’s the point of having laws that never come close to being enforced?? Wonder why nobody goes to BlightStat or QoLState or attends City Council meetings anymore? Wonder no further!

  • Alsion Reed

    Jenel you hit the nail on the head. When the city workers that are still hanging on realize that without more newbies coming in to pay into the reitrement systems they stand to loose their pensions. The City has become a horror story of inept contractors. If Mitch doesnt wake up soon the next Mayor will have an even deeper hole to pull us out of. Landrieu has chosen himself and friends over the citizens, home many inspectors could we have hired if the new deputy mayor and Serpas’ commanders had not been hire? Even the web site is a sad example of what is happening. The citizens really got off their feet after the storm and stood together to change the city for the better but the Mayors office and some of the Council continued to drag us back…we are tired of hitting brick walls, and need some freah blood around here. There are many people in this city that have great ideas but we have to be heard AND heeded!

  • Poplar

    Good lord… this third world city can’t even repair pot holes, street lights, and stop the nightly urban thug combat. You think they give a fig about “creeping concrete?” I have an idea… The brain trust at City Hall should initiate “concrete cameras” to augment the speed traps all over town. They can charge fines by the metric ton instead of miles per hour. This should appeal to the short sighted confiscatory nature of our atavistic city govt.

  • SomeL

    Look at the Mansion on Bellaire Drive right against the 17th Street Canal and Veterans, across from the Heritage Plaza building.

    That Mansion should have NEVER be allowed there or any permits granted when everyone and the public knew the Army Corp of Engineers needed more land to reinforce both sides of the 17th Street Canal.

    But guess what? It’s WHO YOU KNOW in New Orleans that counts. There was plenty of vacant and large lots in the same area BUT NO, it had to right against the 17th Street Canal!!!

  • SomeL

    Let me add one more thing regarding the permits by the city of New Orleans.

    The consensus says there should be multiple lines of defense to knock down storm surge as well as protect from flooding.

    Can someone tell me HOW MANY LINES of DEFENSE are at the 17th Street Canal?

    With the new flood gates, that counts as ONE. The 17th Street canal walls DO NOT count according to the Army Corp of Engineers as they can’t even hold half its own levee height in water.

    So basically New Orleans is only as STRONG as it’s weakest point. With only ONE LINE of DEFENSE at the 17th Street Canal, (the same place that flood most of New Orleans), it’s seems the BILLIONS PLUS dollars doesn’t make NOLA all that much safer and fails the “multiple line of defense” strategy.

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
    Thank you City of New Orleans Safety and Permits Division for allowing all those houses to be built right against the 17th Street Canal Levees as that will be make New Orleans so much safer since the levees will be far more difficult to inspect and widen.