Land Use

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

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.

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.

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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  • TimGNO

    Where’s the best place to keep apprised of upcoming Code hearings?

  • Joel Wietelmann

    Try to walk 3 blocks on Banks without going into the street. Between unmaintained sidewalks and people routinely parking (in their existing driveways) across the public sidewalk, none of this is enforced anyway. Also, I just have a really difficult time considering my neighbor’s yard to be my urban “green space.”

    Anyway, I’m not really buying the safety argument, seeing as I’ve never been able to walk much of anywhere in New Orleans entirely on the sidewalk (cars across it, overgrown shrubs, tree roots). From a safety perspective, file this under “one more nitpick no one has the resources or will to enforce.”

    From the property value standpoint… if it only makes homes lose value when everyone in the neighborhood does it, then who is really even a victim there?

    I don’t know. Seems like silly hand-wringing over trifles in a city with more than trifles to deal with.

  • Jenel Hazlett

    Watch someone with a walker or a group of kids maneuver from the sidewalk to the street because there is a car parked across the sidewalk and tell me there is not a safety issue.
    Drive down the street and have a car pull out into head on collision scenario because they parked facing the wrong way on the wrong side of street and tell me it’s not a safety issue.
    Watch cars park on the green space between the sidewalk and the street and then have the S&W infrastructure breakdown and leak and tell me that it’s just a quibble. It’s Not a quibble after you watch this happen over and over again and watch you money go right down the drain.

  • ebwhite23

    A lot of this is the product of greed and poor urban planning. In the University section, the student-slum landlords squeeze as many units as they can into a building. Then, because there is limited on-street parking and because the students all have cars, they pave the front yard. There is a tension between density, which means you have enough residents to support grocery stores and other services, and quality of living, which requires maintenance of green space, walkable sidewalks, and not having automobiles on every inch of open space.The CPC staff, who were weaned on Jane Jacobs, whose work was done mostly in New York, think that more density is always preferable. However, like most concepts, the idea that density is beneficial has to be applied carefully, and may work better in some neighborhoods than others. In New York, there is great public transit, tall buildings, and most people don’t have cars. But in an old suburban neighborhood like Carrollton, if you want to maintain the Garden City or City Beautiful look, you have to accept a lower density or otherwise discourage automobile ownership. If you allow eight students to live in every house on a block, and those houses are required to provide little or no off street parking, you can bet that people are going to park on lawns and sidewalks. Unfortunately, the Master Plan and new CZO, which preach the “maximum density = maximum good” gospel, play right into the hands of the greedy landlords, and you are going to see a lot more of this. The City aggravates this trend by placing a low priority on parking enforcement, and lets Tulane off the hook when it comes to requiring sufficient on-campus parking for students, faculty and staff.

    So at least part of the problem here is the by-the-book urban planning, aggravated by poor enforcement. And, of course, a lot of it is just people in love with their automobiles. Note the Porche Cayenne in the picture above.

  • Notice how you said, STUDENTS. As if that demographic, typically, OUT-OF-TOWN STUDENTS, are the only ones landlords can find in the first place.

    Very similar problem with the French Quarter. The only people the property owners of the French Quarter can find are OUT-OF-TOWN; since no one wants to live in an area with an “anything goes” noise ordinance.

    The current noise ordinance is not enforced so even the musicians cannot live in the French Quarter. Hence, the FQ is only occupied 2 months out of the year for events like Mardi Gras.

    And, before you talk NEW YORK, just remember New York has JOBS and doesn’t have to cater to students, hence, the landlords can charge more as they have an economy that has GOOD JOBS that can pay for RENT for a single house that doesn’t need extra parking. See how that works?

  • Christopher Fischer

    I’m disappointed that the concerns for aesthetics, safety, and property values continue to obscure the lack of natural resource management and land stewardship within the Code. The constant increase of impermeable surfaces replacing urban green space adversely impacts storm drainage, increases heat islands, and diminishes the broader quality of life. New Orleanians selfishly paving their front yards exhibit a disgraceful contempt of biophilia.

  • spot on for most, but J.Jacobs wrote 7 books (only 1 or 2 in NYC) and was not that simple; i.e.- the importance of economic diversity + listening and doing 1st for people who live in a neighborhood, not what’s the best practices of experts.
    + its “greedy landlords” who wrote the rules- and clear cut for student cattle and cars.
    + We have a Washington like gridlock after our post-k Woodstock for urban planners charretted logic to death- and left us CAVE dwellers (citizens against virtually everything)- VS NO NOISE ORDNANCE!!! freaks catching fallen sky chunks in go cups- so there’s little middle ground for big solutions.
    So how about these small ones…
    1) Clamp down on illegal vehicle registration- look around this problem is huge! Many who live OP, lie JP or other for lower insurance rates no brake tags. + Students who stay… much could be solved with incentives to private companies.
    2) Do what was done in and around Freret corridor- 80+ parking spots were gained when abandoned, broken, and unused vehicles were towed… Won’t work on State and others, but if you see it call 504-658-8100.
    3) Lets all demand Errol Williams does his DAMN JOB!!!!! no Betty Jefferson rates = less scummy landlords and lower millage for all.
    Best from Freret,
    Andy Brott

  • Travis Martin

    Here is a link to the adjudication hearing agenda for Feb. It wasn’t posted until very recently, sorry for the delay.