New Orleans has achieved something momentous: comprehensive zoning reform. For better or for worse, this past spring we completed the first major overhaul of the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance in 40 years.
For the better part of a decade, residents, bureaucrats, elected officials, and stakeholders have worked together on amendment after amendment in an attempt to get future land use right and prevent as many unforeseen consequences as possible. But if precedent is our guide, citizens have reason to be wary. The new CZO could end up being little more than a ream of wasted paper.
Heretofore, those of us concerned about the quality and scale of our communities have been focusing one by one on neighborhood-busting development proposals: the riverfront condos in Holy Cross, the out-of-scale hotel on St. Charles Avenue. It’s time to up the ante and recognize that while we may win the occasional skirmish, we are losing the larger war. What’s needed is full-throated support, not for scaling back this project or that, but for upholding the bedrock principle that underlies all post-Katrina zoning, especially when it comes to building heights: limits on development that have the force of law.
In the last year alone, at least six major development proposals for hotels and residential buildings have asked for waivers to exceed proposed height limits, and some of them have been granted.
But here’s a dollop of good news to go with the bad. The subject of my last column, the proposal to build an eight-story structure at 744 St. Charles Ave. in defiance of the five-story/65 foot height limit at that location, has been trimmed. Faced with heavy public pushback, developers now propose to comply with the height requirements in the zoning code. (They’re still trying to get a variance allowing them to have one loading dock instead of two.)
CZO under attack
- 632 Tchoupitoulas – proposed: six floors/65 feet on Tchoupitoulas and eight floors/85 feet on Commerce Street. CZO limit: 5 floors/65 feet.
- 611-615 Commerce – proposed: six floors/65 feet. CZO limit: five floors/65 feet.
- 744 St. Charles Ave. – proposed: eight floors/65 feet, later reduced to six floors/65 feet. CZO limit: five floors/65 feet. Now building within height limits – 5 floors/65 feet.
- 749 St. Charles Ave. – proposed and granted: six floors/65 feet. CZO limit: five floors/65 feet.
- 400 Canal St. – proposed 21 floors/250 feet. CZO limit: 70 feet.
- 1035 Tchoupitoulas — Proposed: 10 floors/125 feet. CZO limit: 6 floors/75 feet.
A little history: Currently and until the new CZO takes effect in mid-August, the all-important ratio of a building’s height to its floor area is governed in the downtown area by something called an Interim Zoning District. (You want the full title? Here goes: The Central Business District Height and Floor Area Ratio Interim Zoning District. Let’s call it the CBD Height IZD.) Created in 2014 and formally adopted in February of this year, it’s the descendant of the Lafayette Square/Warehouse District Refined Height Plan Interim Zoning District — an equally clumsy name for a nonetheless remarkable 2012 ordinance that was the result of landmark cooperation among residents, developers, and city government. Stakeholders of widely varying viewpoints came to agreement on common, predictable height standards for all development in the Lafayette Square and Warehouse Districts. The CBD Height IZD took those standards and expanded them to cover all of downtown.
It almost worked.
Building height has been a contentious issue since early humans first added a second story. Tower of Babel, anyone? Height limits and requirements have been included as a major part of comprehensive zoning since at least 1915 when the Equitable Building in New York effectively eclipsed the sun, casting a seven-acre shadow over neighboring real estate.
Getting three staunch preservationists to agree with three gung-ho developers on a height standard for all future development in downtown New Orleans was a feat of diplomacy Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin could only have envied.
The details on how we did it are summarized in a Downtown Development District memo titled Historic Area Height Study and Interim Zoning District Summary. But in a nutshell, here’s what happened:
Many development projects in the early post-Katrina years were greatly out of scale. Residents, property owners, and preservationists fought back. The DDD intervened by hiring H3 Studio Inc., an international design and planning firm based in St. Louis, to conduct a height study. An 11-member taskforce of stakeholders — three pro-preservation, three pro-development, five unallied — was empaneled to review the consulting company’s recommendations. The result was the Refined Height Plan that was precursor to the current Height IZD and that has been more or less incorporated in the new CZO. ( It was Section 18.61 of the old CZO.)
The common denominator in all three iterations is a mandate that building height standards be kept predictable. They are to be in scale with existing historic districts while allowing for “taller development along the Poydras Street, Loyola Avenue, and Pontchartrain Expressway corridors that frame the Central Business District.” The IZD subdivided the area into smaller districts and identified height standards suitable to each.
One of the standout accomplishments has been the addition of limits not just on height but on the number of floors a building of proper height can contain. That’s an important step toward keeping new development in harmony with our historic neighborhoods.
Make sense? Sure it does. And so it should, given that New Orleans voters ordered by referendum in 2006 that zoning laws and master plans be given the “force of law.” No more hanky-panky, voters were saying. No more developers playing footsie with City Council members in exchange for variances from the zoning code. But fast-forward to present day New Orleans and chaos reigns, what with the half-dozen projects — for both hotels and residential buildings — that have sought waivers to exceed height limits specified in the CZO.
The height requirements in the IZD weren’t created by bureaucrats. They were agreed upon by stakeholders and community members — people who believed in the process. And every time an exception is given, the process is betrayed.
To put it very plainly, if preservationists and developers can agree on a regulation, why the hell is the city not abiding by it? The taskforce members held varying viewpoints but they were united in one goal — seeing downtown New Orleans thrive. These were not people inclined to set standards that would choke off development.
The height study says “historic areas need continued growth and evolution to survive.” Developers and preservationists are the yin and yang that keep our historic districts vigorous, relevant, and intact. Zoning, with its commitment to predictability and sustainability, is the force that maintains the balance. If a project is not feasible under these circumstances, then it simply does not belong there.
Each variance, each exception, is a precedent others are going to invoke in their own striving for special treatment in defiance of the zoning code. Need proof? Read any application for any variance — they all say who’s been granted one in the past. That kid got a shiny new toy, I should get one too!
Brace yourselves. Applications for excessive building heights are a virtual certainty not just downtown, but all along the river’s edge.
The City Planning Commission, the Board of Zoning Adjustments, and the City Council need to rein in the variance process. If city leadership doesn’t take zoning seriously, developers certainly aren’t going to. Unless a project offers substantial benefit to the public good, i.e. a hurricane defense shield, the height waivers should not be granted.
At 749 St. Charles Ave, the height variance was approved because the developers were preserving an historic building. But that’s what developments in historic neighborhoods are supposed to do — preserve as much of the historic structure as they can. We should not be rewarding developers for doing what the law requires of them any more than we should pay rewards to drivers who actually slow down in school zones.
Each and every time one of these height variances is approved, it lets the world know that New Orleans is a city run through spot zoning, political connections, and back-room deals. That’s an image New Orleans can’t afford if it expects responsible growth in the 21st century. In the decade since Katrina, the city has gone through a long, arduous, and very involved community review process, and the wishes of citizens are clear. We want predictability. It’s good for business.
Matt Gatzman is a UNO graduate in urban planning and a resident of the Central Business District.