Land Use

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

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

Paulette Hurdlik/CultureThirst

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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  • Geoff

    Yes let’s require every business to provide a parking lot. In fact why don’t we strip mall every street front along magazine because we’ve all been screaming about how much we all wished that New Orleans looked more like Metairie. Thank God the CZO had the good since not to trade commercial space for parking lots. Limited parking is the price you part for living in a big city. The second point is desperate, feeble, and is completely illogical. Let’s keep the big chains out that need parking by requiring that businesses provide parking???

    This all sounds like the gripes of someone who wants the perks of living next to a vibrant center of commerce AND the peace and privacy of living in the suburbs. I can’t blame the author for wanting both, but they can’t have their cake and easy it too.

  • Travis

    The last thing we need is more parking lots on magazine street, the pedestrian oriented atmosphere and lack of catering to the all-mighty car help make it so special. Parking lots create dead space and encourage automobile use. Low parking requirements encourage pedestrian/bicycle/transit friendly development, as is beginning to take place in the CBD and Warehouse District (where there is ample parking compared to other city centers). And chain stores/big boxes want more parking not less…

  • Gaston

    “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 fantasy here is in the sensationalism and negativity in this piece. To get back to a reality that will help solve the parking problem the writer could, for one, put his gadfly legal skills toward prodding the city and its citizenry to embrace and improve public transit.

    Notwithstanding the writer’s claim to be able to foretell a future of big rapacious outsiders overtaking our quainter areas should parking requirements be relaxed, the evidence shows that the opposite is far more likely to be the case. In many a once-quaint city, like Hartford, CT, which implemented stringent minimum parking requirements for new developments, many old buildings were demolished to make way for parking, so much so that this historic city has become “a big office park” for non-locals as described by one noted researcher who lamented the permanent loss of the interesting pedestrian-oriented streetscape he once enjoyed. The fact of the matter is that dedicating valuable real estate for parking space makes for plain bad social economics. Real estate used for commerce, on the other hand, offers the highest possible return for municipalities, which means a city with more money to fight crime, educate children, fix roads, and, indeed, improve public transit. The national chains that proliferate in the suburbs, however, will not flood into older urban commercial areas because most of those areas are inherently inconducive to the chains’ business model, whether it be parking, street layout, real estate cost, taxes, competition and consumer resistance, or a host of other disincentives. That is, unless the citizens make things hospitable and inviting for those chains, such as by requiring abundant parking.

    In regard to parking at least, the planners of the new CZO should be commended for their boldness in taking a progressive approach to preserving our historic neighborhoods and encouraging more walkable, diverse, and local areas of commerce.

  • Muriel

    So I guess this is what happens when bumptious old lawyers with too much time on their hands decide they know better than the urban planners about the highly complex issue of urban planning. Mr. Hardie’s opinion is so simplistic, antiquated and destructive that as I was reading it I couldn’t help wondering if he actually took it seriously. Then seeing his rhetoric elsewhere I realized he’s being totally serious. To use his own statements and figures, he is pushing for all commercially zoned areas to be at least half covered up with parking lots and driveways and even more if he had his way. How could anybody want that in NOLA’s dense historic neighborhoods? More and more parking only attracts more and more cars, sort of like putting out food for animals. We should be encouraging less driving and more businesses geared for workers and customers who are within walking distance, and the essential first step is to discourage easy parking. I sure hope the City Council has the good sense to think two steps ahead instead of being reactionary like Mr. Hardie.

  • adam

    Hopefully Mr. Hardie makes a better attorney than city planner. The lack of parking combined with inadequate transit service on one of the city’s most iconic corridors is creating this mess. Parking lots, however, are not the answer. No one comes to New Orleans to admire asphalt.