Auto ‘rapture’ along Magazine Street? CZO parking changes seem to bank on it

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Paulette Hurdlik/Culture Thirst

Parking along Maple Street: already a mess, likely to get worse.

Parking along Maple Street: already a mess, likely to get worse.

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.

Popular shopping areas in the older parts of the City — Magazine Street, for example — are already short on parking.  The problem may get much worse if the new  Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (CZO), currently before the City Council, is passed.

The proposed CZO, which allows for more intensive development in those areas, will undoubtedly lead to increased parking demand. But rather than insure that developers provide adequate parking, the proposed CZO takes the opposite tack, deregulating and pretty much doing away with parking requirements.

There’s wishful thinking behind this deregulation, a hope that, by doing away with parking requirements, the zoning ordinance will somehow discourage people from driving when they come to shop in these neighborhoods. But unless there’s an automobile rapture in the works — with Priuses and Suburbans ascending into the heavens, leaving behind only pedestrians, bicyclists and mass transit riders — the primary effect of deregulation is going to be increased congestion in these historically sensitive areas. And commercial traffic will inevitably spill over into surrounding residential neighborhoods.

The changes to parking regulations in the current draft are a developer’s dream: They strip away the few protections area residents have against creeping commercialization and congestion, allowing new projects to come on line without incurring the expense of providing adequate parking.

For example, under the proposed changes, standard restaurants and bars will be obliged to provide only one parking space per 500 sq. ft. of floor space, a reduction of 30 to 50 percent from current standards. At present, these establishments are required to provide one parking space for every 150 sq. ft. in “low and medium density districts” and one for every 250 sq. ft. in “high density districts.” Worse yet, the parking spaces they are required to provide under the CZO won’t have to be off-street spaces; the draft ordinance allows businesses to “grandfather” in the curbside spaces the previous occupant was entitled to.

In many areas, there will be no required parking at all.  Businesses throughout the CBD (including the Warehouse District and Lafayette Square areas) and most Historic Core Neighborhood Districts (French Quarter, Marigny, Treme, Bywater) are completely “exempted” from the already reduced parking requirements.  For projects in the Historic Urban Non-Residential and Mixed Use districts, which include Maple Street, Oak Street, Magazine Street from Henry Clay to Race, parts of St. Bernard and Broad, and for new businesses in what are designated “Neighborhood Commercial Establishments” — i.e., the old corner store — the first 5,000 sq. ft. will be exempt from any off-street parking requirements — a complete exemption in most cases.

Thus, most new businesses will be able to open in our historic core districts and historic urban commercial areas without an iota of proof that their customers will have a place to park.

In a recent staff report, the City Planning Commission attempted to justify the reduced parking requirements on grounds that the Board of Zoning Adjustments has granted most variances for parking requirements in recent years. But, according to the CZO, variances are supposed to be given only for demonstrated hardships and are not supposed to “alter the essential character of the locality” or to be “based primarily upon a desire to serve the convenience or profit of the property owner or other interested party.”

The problem should be fixed by curtailing the BZA’s excesses, not by institutionalizing those excesses in the zoning ordinance.

The staff report also claims that lowering off-street parking requirements would somehow “reduce the incentive for parking-related demolition.” That line of reasoning hinges on a false dilemma — the notion that that if we don’t do away with most parking regulations, we will have more surface parking lots. On the contrary, the primary effect of reduced parking requirements will be more intensive commercial development in Historic Urban Commercial Districts — and that will create more demand for parking, not less, exacerbating the demand for off-street parking and encouraging  more demolitions for parking lots.

The deregulation of parking makes a mockery of the CZO’s own stated rationale for parking regulations: “[to] provide the appropriate number of spaces in proportion to the demands of the proposed use.”  Under the proposed ordinance, businesses seeking to open where parking is inadequate or entirely unavailable will nonetheless be granted permits, spawning an increasingly unmet demand for parking.

Those cars are going to park somewhere. The idea that people are going to opt for our not-so-great public transit system is, I’m sorry to say, a fantasy. The deregulation is a gift to developers with a thin coating of green paint. It’s green-washing.  It’s Donald Trump in drag as Ralph Nader. To those of us who haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid, it’s clear that if the proposed CZO is not amended, traffic in these historic commercial areas will invade surrounding residential neighborhoods, increasing parking on sidewalks and in front yards and generally creating congestion.

A second effect of parking deregulation will be to skew development in favor of cookie-cutter national chains, crowding out the quirkier, locally-owned shops. Chains which can’t now open in historic neighborhoods because their operations require too many parking spaces will be relieved of that burden. So will larger tourist-oriented clubs and restaurants. Our historic and quirky shopping areas will begin to look more like airport terminals, filled with the usual ho-hum corporate logos.

The proposed changes attempt to fix what isn’t broken. There’s no shortage of demand for store fronts on Oak or Magazine streets, and Broad and Oretha Castle Haley are seeing substantial development. There’s no real reason to ditch existing parking regulations (which are pretty relaxed as it is).

The proposed CZO should continue to require new businesses to act rationally and demonstrate that there are sufficient available spaces for their operations.  If a business is too intensive for an historic area, why should it be granted a permit? Smaller, less intensive local businesses have smaller parking requirements; they’re greener, and they’re more likely to circulate money back into the local economy rather than funnel it to the distant headquarters of the national chains.

Big business has always pushed deregulation as a panacea, and ordinary people have paid the price. From the deadly deregulation of dietary supplements to the financial deregulation that led to the global economic crisis, deregulation has tended to aggravate the very problems it seeks to correct. The proposed deregulation of parking requirements will do the same, permitting intensive business development in neighborhoods whose appeal lies precisely in their having been — so far, at least — successful in resisting it.

If the Council does not change these poorly thought out regulations, in a few years we’ll be as chagrined as those who, assuming the rapture was imminent, gave up their homes for a promise that never materialized.

New Orleans native Keith Hardie is an attorney active in community fights over regulatory and land-use issues.

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