Land Use

Don’t take the Quarter for granted: Urgent reforms are imperative

A bulldozer scrapes the lot at 810 Royal St. following collapse of a 200-year-old French Quarter building.

Meg Lousteau

Workers clear rubble from 810 Royal St. following the recent collapse of a 200-year-old French Quarter building.

The fragility of the Vieux Carré was on full and terrible display late last month as a building more than 200 years old crumbled to the ground. Now that the dust has settled — quite literally  — we have the opportunity for some reflection and analysis.  The conclusions are not encouraging.

At its most stark, the collapse of 810 Royal St. was a brutal wake-up call that this entire neighborhood is under threat.  And that threat goes beyond the buildings themselves.  The building’s loss is a symbol of the degradation not just of our priceless architectural heritage, but of the French Quarter as a neighborhood.  The questions we need to be asking are these: Can the Quarter survive, physically, socially, and culturally?  And do we as a city care enough about it to make sure it does?

For too long, we have paid the French Quarter loving lip-service but have taken it for granted, assuming that because it has always been here, it always will be.  We haven’t always backed up our professed love with actions that translate into real protection for an irreplaceable neighborhood.

We’ve paid little attention to the kinds of investment, maintenance, and enforcement that are the essence of effective stewardship of an historic gem.  Sure, there’s been public outcry over high-profile violations of this neighborhood: 18-wheelers careening into buildings; scofflaw property owners installing ATMs in historic facades; beloved institutions threatened with becoming T-shirt shops. But where we have not done enough is in the realm of the “little things,” the policies and actions that ensure we don’t get to the point where the very viability of the Vieux Carré is in doubt.  That’s where the fragility of both the buildings and the neighborhood overlap.

For too long, we have allowed a bevy of violations to go unchecked.  Some might be considered minor — animal waste left on the streets, piled-up garbage, signage and merchandise cluttering building exteriors, sidewalk barkers hustling customers — but the cumulative effect is a culture not just of permissiveness, but of anything-goes.

The French Quarter is a finite resource, and yet we continue to behave as though it can accommodate an ever-increasing number of tourists, events, and erosion of agreed-upon standards. Like all ecosystems, it has its limits, and once those are crossed, there are consequences.  Last year we welcomed a record numbers of tourists – 9.28 million — without pausing to acknowledge their impact on a one-square mile neighborhood.  (By way of comparison, the nation of Ireland, with almost 33,000 square miles, had 8 million visitors in 2013.)

In theory, there are policies in place to offset the effects of such a heavy visitor load, but follow-through has been spotty at best. The good news is that civilian patrols are in the works to handle non-emergency problems ranging from traffic and parking control to illegal vending. Such measures are welcome in this enforcement-starved area, because it’s this stuff, the nitty-gritty, that we must focus on if we really want to ensure the long-term viability of the French Quarter.

But what about the Quarter’s built environment, its buildings and walkways and parks? What can be done immediately to avert further damage? Considering the potentially dire implications of doing nothing, everything should be up for consideration.  Here are some ideas worth exploring:

  • Increase allocations to the Vieux Carré Commission, which is charged with regulating and monitoring the exteriors of the 3,000 buildings in the Quarter
  • Strengthen administrative adjudication operations so that those cited for deteriorating buildings face real consequences.
  • Enforce all the laws regarding oversized vehicles in the Quarter. (It’s indisputable that vibrations from heavy trucks and buses are causing daily damage to buildings.)
  • Get proactive with inspections, both exterior and interior, especially of buildings that are not occupied full-time. (The Royal Street building that collapsed had been cited for exterior deterioration, but current rules kept inspectors from going inside to check for structural damage.)
  • Encourage or compel property owners to have their buildings inspected by structural engineers.  This could be handled by the city, or by the property owners, with the costs of inspections offset via a property tax credit.

We all say we love the French Quarter. Let’s back that up with action.  Let’s make sure that our oldest neighborhood, our international treasure and economic driver, has a future at least as long as its past.

Meg Lousteau is the executive director of the Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents and Associates, Inc., and a fifth-generation New Orleanian.

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.
  • good start Meg. I’d add incentivize rent controlled apartments in underused upper levels of storefronts (including on Canal Street), create a citizen-led (term-limited!) council modeled on post-Katrina Beacon of Hope framework – overseeing building renovations with the power to fine businesses using smart phone technology that captures the infraction in real time, create a CDC to work with city in a public/private partnership to manage all of the city-owned historic properties in the FQ and to work across the entire area to add needed amenities and needed services, neighborhood groups to band together to offer funding for social entrepreneurial ideas that benefit the historic city center socially, culturally and economically in ways that are ecologically just, neighborhood groups to band together and canvass entire Quarter regularly, map issues, add a feedback loop to allow regular citizens (not just residents but regular users of the Quarter) to offer ideas on the spot, maybe update refine and adapt Candy Chang’s Neighborland idea…

  • Lori Atkinson

    Supporting the full-time residents and RESPONSIBLE property owners would do a lot to maintain the French Quarter as a neighborhood. On my block, there are six full time residents that I know. Everything around me is used for AirBnB rentals or weekend party condos. Very few people are around full time to promote the neighborhood, much less protect it. Not to mention that City Hall does very little to support the people who have been there for decades and would like to stay there.

    I do wish you had addressed the problems with excessive noise; especially the thumping bass that echoes through the streets and walls.

  • nickelndime

    Mitch and the City Council do not look worried. Yes, the Vieux Carre’ is a historical gem, but think of it as one gem in a necklace or a bracelet. Many gems have been lost. It is broken. Just like so many things, places, and neighborhoods in New Orleans, it got ruined. You (collectively speaking) cannot have this level of corruption in a city and expect good things to happen. Do you (collectively speaking) realize how many wonderful old neighborhoods have collapsed!? The Vieux Carre’ is not the only one that is suffering. Despite what its residents think, the Vieux Carre’ does not operate in a vacuum, although that is what many people (including tourists) believe. “Watch where you all walk!” That’s my contribution. BTW, I do not support civilian patrols, and neither should city government or the NOPD.

  • Ah Contraire

    The drug dealer cars with the THUMP, THUMP, also cause vibrations, as everyone already knows. They definitely rattle the windows and causes the residents to MOVE OUT. Heck, some of these car stereos shake the building walls with the deep bass.

    Let’s face it. The French Quarter can’t have it both ways. The anything goes, loud as I wanna play, drug addict street performers, Bourbon St, bars, clubs, GUN RUNNING, teenage prostitution, drug dealing is what causes residents to move out and property owners to CARE LESS about investing in
    the French GUTTER..notice the letter “G”.

  • Oversize vehicles should not be in the FQ because they impede traffic, can’t make the turns and endanger galleries and buildings. First step to keeping them out: good signs. Support that, not NOLA Patrol. A bus you give a ticket to is already in, and still has to get out.

    It is indisputable that vibration affects foundations, masonry and mortar. It is just as indisputable that vibration is not a function of the length of the vehicles. Length and vibration are not the same problem. Long road buses are low vibration. This is very easy to confirm by observation. When the buses and 18 wheelers are out, there will still be heavy vibration from heavy trucks. Heavy rubbish removal and construction trucks well within the legal length, with dirt tires and high loading per square inch on the roads, transmit more vibration than the oversize road vehicles. If you don’t do something about that, the vibration hazard will not be reduced.

    Focus VCPORA’s attention on these real physical issues, not fatuous culture wars.

  • NOLA Tourism Economy

    Sorry, Meg, too little and too late. VCPORA, you, Stuart Smith (who was convicted of cyberstalking on behalf of your corrupt organization), and your elitist cabal do not exactly come to the discussion about “protecting the French Quarter” with clean hands:

    “Lawyer in New Orleans noise ordinance debate accused of intimidation”

    “Lawyer pleads guilty to cyberstalking charge in French Quarter noise ordinance feud, gets probation”

    Where was VCPORA as the number of strip clubs, alcohol beverage outlets, and fried chicken establishments exploded in the French Quarter?

    Where was VCPORA as crime exploded in the French Quarter?

    Where was VCPORA as sidewalks, streetlights, and streets crumbled in the French Quarter?

    Oh yes, VCPORA was busy wasting the time of the City Council, the Department of Safety and Permits, and the Vieux Carre Commission in hassling restaurants (like Antoine’s), musicians, tour guides, t-shirt shops, and a host of other harmless businesses in the French Quarter.

    Meg and VCPORA are out of touch, obsolete, and outdated. Focus on the real quality-of-life issues, not your useless pet projects.

  • Lori Atkinson

    I was referring more to bar owners who could care less about the problems they cause in the neighborhood as long as it doesn’t affect their business, but you do bring up a host of other issues.

  • Ah Contraire

    Don’t be surprised that the many FAMOUS of bars and clubs on Bourbon St are where the GUN RUNNING, teenage prostitution, drug dealing are made involving locals with locals, and foreigners with locals….and even some higher public entities.

    You know, the bars and clubs with really high drink prices, and half empty seats inside, and you ask yourself, “How do these people make money with a half empty club?”

    And if you want to purchase a GUN, don’t be surprised you can easily get one at many famous and lesser known bars and clubs on Bourbon, as look at “certain” people INSIDE these bars. Do they look like your tourist or visitor? Or do they look like Orleans Parish ghetto inhabitants that sticks out like a sore thumb among the tourists and visitors? Hip Hop among the suits and ties? And this inside a bar or club.

  • TimGNO

    If this discussion isn’t a CLASSIC example of why New Orleans needs (now!), I dunno what is.

  • It’s neither “too little too late” nor a hopeless “french gutter” case, and lucky for Meg and Mr. Smith that Redemption is still a big thing for most locals (how could we live here without it? (: But she’s right –VCC’s hands are tied and many other ways to save the French Quarter need discussing. I hope the Meg and Mr. Smith activist -types can prove they’re sincere, show a little good faith, do something positive –something like, for instance in the late-’60’s when many property owners such as jazz photographer Jules Cahn gave 100-year leases to musicians and artists at affordable rents, knowing that supporting a music & art colony would help draw tourists. And we see how that worked. But sadly, today the very musicians and artists who created the French Quarter have been forced-out of the neighborhood through gentrification, greed, NIMBY fools, the vengeful, soulless…–the opposite of music & art. So, it’s not only about restoring the buildings; we need to restore the culture of art, music & food –along with the architecture.

  • nickelndime

    This entire city suffers from THUMPS, gunrunners, prostitution, drugs, vibration, crime, crumbling streets, potholes, corruption, decadence (oh, wait – that is acceptable), poverty, and a crumbling infrastructure. The artistic roots (that nurtured the charm) of the French Quarter have suffered a sorry fate and have succumbed to the greedy influence of the powerful politicians and wealthy who inhabit this city and look down their noses at the artists and musicians who barely make a living here. No, you will not find them in the cafes or the art galleries in the Warehouse District. And now you won’t find them in the French Quarter either.

  • boathead12

    I agree on all points and I’ll even go one long measure further. Except by special permit, no vehicles over 2000 lbs allowed in the French Quarter….period. Develop parking outside the quarter and let visitors get to their destination by bike, foot, pedicab, or dwarf taxis. All deliveries should be queued outside the quarter at the Wharf and delivered by those cute little italian 3 wheel delivery vehicles. (Ok, that really sounds like I’m being sarcastic, but I really believe this is where we need to end up.)

  • Blair Kolb

    I agree in principal. But your solution focuses on delivery. A limit of 1 ton would prohibit vehicles necessary for trash collection, maintenance, and public safety. A per axle limit of 10000 # per axle with an exemption for municipal vehicles is a better limitation.
    That, and a complete ban of on-street parking, would go a long way towards making the Quarter more accessible, sustainable, and liveable

  • Roger Lee

    The majority of the masonry structures in the French Quarter were constructed using “soft red” bricks and mortar consisting of lime, sand, and water.They were then covered with stucco also consisting of lime, sand, and water.
    As per Vieux Carre standards, there can be no more than 1/13 Portland cement used in this “French Quarter mix”.
    As a result, deterioration is more rapid than buildings using mortar with a higher concentration of Portland cement.
    I see so many buildings in dire need of re-pointing, and a fresh rendering of stucco. Simple maintainence in this area would go a long way to preserving these beautiful old buildings.
    While preserving the masonry is important, these buildings also rely on an infrastructure of old beams to support them.
    Termites are the unseen danger that contributes to structural failure. Diligent inspections for termites should be the rule, not the exception.