How to make New Orleans uglier and less safe: continue to ignore yard paving

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Karen Gadbois

Cars crowd both the sidewalk and the public right of way in the 600 block of State Street, reducing rain absorption and forcing pedestrians out into traffic.

Cars crowd both the sidewalk and the public right of way in the 600 block of State Street, reducing rain absorption and forcing pedestrians out into traffic.

New Orleans’ unique sense of style has lured visitors and future residents for centuries. More recently, a new trend has emerged that threatens to do just the opposite. This trend is yard paving. A wave of “pave-o-mania” has spread throughout Orleans Parish in recent years, and threatens to convert the Crescent City into a veritable concrete jungle.

The residents and landlords paving their front and side yards are usually looking to create more parking spaces and/or cut down on yard maintenance — understandable goals. Off-street parking is a coveted amenity and a real estate selling point. And even small yards can mean hours of weekend labor combating the rank vegetation that flourishes in our sub-tropical, year-round growing season.

But paving over vital urban green space for the sake of convenience or prospective gain is misguided and, as documented regularly in this website’s Squandered Heritage section, frequently illegal.

Yard-paving results in short-term gains that are quickly dwarfed by long-term losses — in terms of reduced “curb appeal,” public safety, and increased street flooding. In the near term individuals may seem to gain at the expense of the community, but ultimately everyone loses.

Green space offers respite for stressed city dwellers; it has been linked directly to better mental health and lower crime rates. But landowners are primarily concerned with the relationship between aesthetics and their property values.

Research from London (a city that has lost an estimated third of its green space to yard-paving for parking) shows that when one or two front yards get paved, the value of the properties thus “improved” increases 7.5 percent.  But as the paving spreads — and it usually does, as the Smiths try to keep up with the Joneses — prices decline for ALL homes in the area.

We’re seeing this domino effect in New Orleans as well.  For examples of metastatic paving, check out the 6000 and 6100 blocks of Tchoupitoulas, or the 2100 and 2300 blocks of Calhoun.

Yard paving also has detrimental effects on neighborhood safety and the quality of life. When converting a yard to a paved parking space, the owner must engineer a  “curb cut” so cars can get in and out without blowing their tires.  The usual next step is to pave over the public right-of-way, effectively eliminating the sidewalk.  Pedestrians are forced out into the street to get around the hoods or trunks of parked vehicles. Adding insult to injury, the curb cut eliminates a spot that was formerly available for street parking.

As if aesthetics and quality-of-life issues weren’t enough, in a flood-prone city like New Orleans there’s an even more urgent problem with yard paving. Storm-water runoff that would have been absorbed into the soil is instead diverted into the street and storm-sewer system, with results all too familiar around here: street flooding; backed up storm sewers; increased pollutants entering our natural waterways; accelerating subsidence; and more tax dollars spent on pumping.

In a city just recovering from the horrors of Katrina and other recent floods, yard paving represents a huge step backward in our crucial struggle to change the way we manage storm water.

To that end, city planners have proposed updating the draft City Zoning Ordinance with something called Article 23. If the impervious surfaces of a lot under development or redevelopment exceed 10,000 square feet, Article 23 would require the developer to mitigate runoff problems by adopting “green” strategies. These range from rain gardens, green roofs, pervious pavement, rain barrels, and retention/detention ponds to restoring wetlands.

Article 23 is a step in the right direction for a city that is partly below sea level, receives 62 inches of annual rainfall and lost 100,000 trees in the aftermath of Katrina. Storm water runoff must be slowed, stored and retained on site through green infrastructure. Widespread paving and ever-greater reliance on pumping must become things of the past. But if real change is to be achieved, it must occur on small residential lots at the neighborhood level, as well as the big developments touched by Article 23.

The negative effects of yard-paving are not limited to London and New Orleans. New York and San Francisco have crafted strict ordinances backed by heavy fines to halt practices that had led to drastic increases in street and storm sewer flooding.

San Francisco launched an incentive program in which the city provided concrete removal, native plants, and education in how to make such plants thrive — the only stipulations being that the owner must purchase a $200 permit, help with the project, and that five homes on the block must participate. To put teeth in the program, the city also imposed a hard $500 fine for ignoring a 90-day warning to comply and then $250 for each day beyond a subsequent 30-day notice. New Orleans needs to get just as serious.

As is evident throughout much of the city, many New Orleans property owners are either unaware of laws against yard paving or unmoved by them. Small wonder. Inconsistent enforcement and slap-on-the-wrist penalties breed contempt.

Why the lack of enforcement? Yard paving in New Orleans is generally an “after the fact” violation. It takes place after the building permit has been issued and is almost always illegal — the exceptions being cases in which the Board of Zoning Adjustments issues a variance based on hardships such as the applicant’s health or old age.

Since the violation occurs after the fact, the reporting of yard-paving violations is mainly complaint-driven.  Once City Hall’s One-Stop Shop receives a complaint, the Department of Safety and Permits cites the property for excessive paving and requests compliance. The department then mails out two warning letters, each granting three-to-five weeks for the property owner to comply. Safety and Permits does not have the power to fine the property owner.  If compliance is not reached after the two warning letters, the property owner must appeal to the Board of Zoning Adjustment’s adjudication court. Adjudication can be a lengthy, uncertain process. Prior to June 7, 2013, the adjudication court handling code violations had not met for more than a year. But while adjudication officers can levy fines of up to $500 dollars a day, it’s at the discretion of the officer. No penalty is guaranteed and, apparently, neither are court hearings.

That could all change soon.

The One-Stop Shop Enforcement and Adjudication office are scheduled to hold hearings February 12, and they are empowered to levy heavy fines. However, unless the hearing officers understand what “compliance” looks like, not much will change.

According to the Code Enforcement office, excessive yard-paving is “generally permissible” and is only considered a violation when paving leads to standing, stagnant pools of water.  This interpretation is a bit troubling since the adjudication hearings will be held in the Code Enforcement Office. Unless hearing officers have a broader understanding of what constitutes non-compliance, we still won’t see violators getting fined.   And without the fines, pave-o-mania will continue unabated.

Stay tuned.

Travis Martin is a graduate student in the University of New Orleans’ Department of Urban and Regional Planning and an intern with the Urban Conservancy.

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