A poster on a Marigny wall calls for greater attention to public concerns about the CZO process. Credit: Andrea Slocum

Editor’s note: Rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina inspired reforms that reflected public disgust with the cronyism and outright corruption that had long pervaded relations between developers and city politicians. Voters demanded a Master Plan with the force of law backed by a Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (CZO). The City Council recently accepted a draft of the CZO, the product of years of community meetings and professional guidance. Amid widespread criticism of that document, the council has agreed to accept additional public input and consider possible amendments before granting final approval. The column that follows is one in an occasional series in which Lens readers sound off about the CZO.

For 17 years we’ve had a framed Latin inscription on a wall of our house in Marigny. It’s from Horace, and in English it goes:

“Small but suitable for me, hurtful to no one, not grand, but acquired by my own funds:  Home.”

For over 10 of those 17 years, along with hundreds of our fellow New Orleanians, we have participated in a succession of citywide planning efforts: Riverfront 2005, the Unified New Orleans Plan, the Master Plan — leading up to the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance.

And although much good and thoughtful work was done by the City Planning staff to produce the latest CZO, elements of it, if not reconsidered by the City Council, threaten the place we call home.

For one thing, the very diverse downriver neighborhoods are in danger of being turned into colonies — the kind of places where the needs of the people who reside there are considered secondary to the interests of the tourist/hospitality/entertainment industry that caters to visitors.

A look at the Cultural Overlays and Enhancement Corridors prompts this question: What’s in it for us?

And by us I mean the people who choose to live in these residential neighborhoods and whose quality of life will be damaged by the zoning ordinance as currently drafted. Is the last-minute inclusion of citywide extended hours and expansion of alcohol sales and live music on predominantly residential streets really advisable? We, the residents of those streets — again, citywide — haven’t even been consulted.

It shouldn’t be necessary to point this out, but residents are also part of “the culture” that New Orleans markets so aggressively, unless by culture you mean nothing more than what can be commodified, branded, and sold to visitors — whether locals or tourists — seeking nightlife where anything goes, any place, any time.

[module align=”left” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]”You Marigny people just want to live in the 19th Century.”[/module]Please note that Marigny already has two destination entertainment strips within easy walking distance of each other. We are saturated with galleries.  There are numerous live entertainment venues — both permitted and unpermitted.  And over 60 places to purchase alcohol, by the glass or package.

But Marigny still has no full-service grocery store, no emergency care, and no Laundromat — to mention just a few of the many essentials we must leave the neighborhood (and sometimes Orleans parish) to obtain.

By any reasonable standard, it’s clear that Faubourg Marigny is, and has been, pretty darn hospitable. For years we’ve done our part to support the cultural economy.  But it’s also clear that you can get way too much of a good thing, especially if it means you lose or can’t get the things you actually need.

And the fact is the current CZO draft, if adopted, will only further tilt the balance toward diversions and away from necessary goods and services. This is particularly disheartening to many of us, because we were repeatedly assured that meeting the genuine needs of citizens was the paramount goal of the 10 years of citizen-participation planning that were to culminate in the CZO.

For one example, the federally-funded Community Development Block Grants for the Riverfront development were specifically to be used to improve the quality of life of residents of a neighborhood, according to the state Office of Community Development.

Otherwise, what was the purpose of years of charettes and meetings, the hours spent poring over flip-charts and power points, the reams of post-it notes, not to mention the on-going investment of federal money and citizen good faith?

At a public comment hearing in August, our neighbor Carol Gnaidy asked a great question in regard to the Cultural Diversity Overlay Districts: How come there’s no cultural overlay proposed for community engagement?  For crime prevention? Housing? Education and job training? Or, most notably in an historic district, why no overlay meant to promote historic preservation?

Failing to nurture a community’s skills and commitment to preservation is particularly short-sighted in such a tourist-dependent city. Not only is historic preservation and restoration an important though under-appreciated industry in itself, the city’s cultural economy hinges on maintenance of the built environment. New Orleans historic building crafts created the distinctive sense of place that draws so many people here.

In the words of Tulane geographer Richard Campanella:

”To a remarkable degree, the identity and economy of our region rest on the aged timbers and piers of our historical structures. If you don’t believe this, try to imagine what metropolitan New Orleans would be like today had the French Quarter been razed a century ago, as was routinely suggested, and had not the success of its preservation inspired the restoration of thousands of other old buildings citywide.

“Without large-scale historic preservation, our largest source of employment — tourism — never would have germinated. The sense of exoticism instilled by legions of local-color writers would have dissipated. Culinary and musical traditions would have been deprived of a space for paying customers.”

So when I hear about the “bonuses” being given to developers under certain circumstances or the newly-introduced CZO concept of an “enhancement corridor” allowing for extraordinary development along Elysian Fields Avenue, for example, I want to know specifically what’s getting enhanced and, more specifically, who is the intended beneficiary.

Tulane professor Gene Cizek speaks eloquently of the vista from Algiers Point as you look back across the river. To the left of Canal Street, you see a modern 21st Century city; look right and there’s a virtually intact 19th-Century cityscape.

Mess with that, by throwing up tall buildings — on the riverfront or anywhere else in these historic neighborhoods — and something unique and iconic about New Orleans will be forever lost.

During the Riverfront Vision 2005 process, a member of the City Planning Commission staff remarked: “You Marigny people just want to live in the 19th Century.” In response, I said, “No, it’s even worse,” and went on to quote Plato who, around 400 B.C., offered this truth: “The city is the soul of the citizens writ large.”

Make no mistake. What is at stake here is no less than the soul of a city. You disagree?  Just try to visualize:

  • How the French Quarter would look if vested interests had succeeded in their plan to put an expressway along its riverfront.
  •  How Marigny would look, if, over 40 years ago, citizens had not created Historic Marigny Zoning (HMZ) in order to preserve the character of the neighborhood by curtailing plans for more out-of-scale developments like the yellow-brick seniors’ residence that looms over the south side of Washington Square.
  • What Claiborne Avenue would look like today if the elevated interstate that guts the Treme neighborhood had never been built.

It seems that someone’s always got a compelling reason to propose new developments that damage a community. I can only hope that city leaders are fully aware of the far more compelling reasons not to do those same things.

Our past is not passé, no more so than the ancient ideals of harmony, balance and proportion that shape our very experience of the world.

And I am hopeful that another old ideal, that of democratic process, is still alive in this city and in the hearts of our leaders, because as citizens we all need to revisit the planning process and give ourselves more time. Time enough to get this right.

Diane Lease has been a full-time resident of Marigny since 1997.