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.
In November, the Lens published my commentary on proposed changes in the proposed CZO that would eliminate the requirement that there be sufficient parking for new businesses. I noted that, even if parking requirements for new businesses were eliminated, their customers “are going to park somewhere.” The commenters to my article took this to mean that I want every new business on these streets to provide a parking lot.
What I said was that large intensive commercial development in Historic Urban Commercial Districts — which I clearly oppose — “will create more demand for parking, not less, exacerbating the demand for off-street parking and encouraging more demolitions for parking lots.” So let me make this clear:
I do not support the creation of parking lots to support new development on historic urban commercial corridors. (In fact, just a few months ago, I wrote the Council opposing the demolition of a residential lot off Magazine Street by the owner of a small restaurant on Magazine.) But the best way to prevent new parking lots is to make sure that we don’t zone these historic urban areas for businesses with intensive parking demand.
Simply put: If you don’t want parking lots, don’t zone for businesses with intensive parking demand.
By removing all parking requirements in historic urban commercial corridors, as the proposed CZO does, businesses with high parking demand will be able to locate in those corridors despite a current shortage of parking. As the demand for parking increases, it will make for only more spill-over into surrounding residential neighborhoods and hurt existing businesses, whose customers will have a harder time parking.
Once businesses see that their customers can’t park, they will want to create more parking, meaning they will want to demolish commercial and residential buildings for parking. So, here’s the slightly counter-intuitive upshot: By removing all parking requirements, you will increase the demand for parking lots (or at least create lots of congestion and make life miserable for those who live in adjacent neighborhoods).
There’s nothing wrong with most of our Historic Urban Commercial Districts. Magazine, Oak, Freret, and Maple are all booming under existing parking requirements. These streets are booming because the businesses there tend to be small, local, and quirky. They provide merchandise and services unavailable in the malls and big boxes. Because the businesses are small, they don’t create the parking demand that a national chain would.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The proposed CZO shouldn’t make a radical change to parking requirements on these streets.
One commenter, Gaston, suggested I was wrong in suggesting that the changes to the parking requirements would encourage national chains to locate along these neighborhood commercial streets. He wrote: “The national chains . . . will not flood into older urban commercial areas.” However, just a couple of years ago, Walgreens closed a store in a shopping mall on Tchoupitoulas and opened up a new one only four blocks away on Magazine. Currently, CVS wants to open another drug store on Magazine. Contrary to Gaston’s premise, most of the chains now have plans for smaller stores in urban areas.
In support of his argument, Gaston cites Hartford, Ct., where he says the city applied stringent parking regulations for development and wound up with big buildings surrounded by parking lots. Hartford’s goal was big offices and stores with a big parking demand, and it required them to provide big parking lots.
I’m proposing the opposite: that we continue to protect our historic commercial corridors, which are populated by small, idiosyncratic businesses that don’t require a lot of parking. But if existing businesses are replaced by businesses with higher parking demand, the operators will look for buildings to demolish for parking.
When you pass a law removing all parking requirements, this doesn’t mean that there won’t be any demand. And just because parking isn’t required doesn’t mean that businesses won’t want to provide it. As I noted in my article, there’s not going to be an automobile rapture that magically rids the streets of private vehicles; the customers of these businesses are going to park somewhere.
So, contrary to the claims of the commenters, I don’t want to see any more parking lots on or near our historic urban commercial corridors. Nor do I want to see more intensive businesses, particularly national chains, on those corridors. I want to see these streets remain like they are today: full of vibrant, small local businesses. And the best way to protect existing businesses is to maintain existing parking requirements, which will force more parking-intensive businesses to locate in more appropriate areas.
New Orleans can and should have BOTH intensive retail businesses, national and local, and smaller-scale neighborhood commercial areas. We just can’t have them next door to one another. So let’s keep high-demand businesses off our historic corridors and put Trader Joe’s and IKEA where current zoning allows. Magazine, Oak and Freret are doing quite well without them.
New Orleans native Keith Hardie is an attorney active in community fights over regulatory and land-use issues.