Land Use

Scramble for variances already making a mockery of the city’s new zoning code

The proposed Marriott at 400 Canal Street would shatter the zoning ordinance's height limit.

City Planning Commission

The proposed hotel at 400 Canal Street would shatter the zoning ordinance’s height limit.

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.

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  • NolaDude

    So Matt, do you believe variances should ever be permitted? Or only that variances related to height should never be permitted?

  • NolaWXGuy

    There is a great need to preserve the historical aspects of New Orleans. These areas, such as the French Quarter and Warehouse District, are true gems that the city needs to protect. But just as you’ve stated in your article about how we have to protect these areas from out-of-character development, so too must we protect in some way developers (at least the ones who try to abide by the strict rules put in place) from over-bearing rules that seem a little out of place. Maybe it’s just me, but when I see CBD on a sign, I instantly think of tall buildings and highrises. One thing is for certain, the current zoning laws feel very piecemeal. I think a reform of the current zoning laws is necessary. The fact that the Virgin Hotel was given a big fact NO over a 23 foot height difference when it literally is on the same plot of land that touches Poydras Street and has buildings taller than it, disgusts me. Confining highrises to tiny little slivers of land (Poydras Street, Loyola, and near the Pontchartrain Expwy- even here someone puts up a fight because it blocks their view of the under-structure of the bridge) does not allow for much development. If we are to truly have compromise in this city, we need to define boundaries that allow for development, but also protect the districts. Loyola Avenue is fine to be a border. But I feel that the traditional downtown core (the area bounded by Poydras Street, Canal Street – opposite of the French Quarter, and I-10 should be zoned as unlimited height. I’m sorry but it’s now becoming ridiculous. The city never had height restrictions. I’m glad that we put some in place. However, other people live and work in the CBD too. It’s not all about the Warehouse District. The Warehouse District is not the French Quarter. I say this for two reasons: 1. the Warehouse District is not as old and developed along side the American sector, but 2. and most importantly, almost every other city has their own version of the Warehouse District. The French Quarter is unique and should be strictly protected. However it should also not be able to create it’s own ideas of what to build and what not to when the development falls within the area that I’ve outlined above. This area should be the defining area of the CBD. I think the proposal on the American Sector side of Canal (pictured at the top of this article) was a great idea. It wasn’t even close to being as tall as other buildings along Canal. And yes, I know that preserving the buildings on the plot of land was everyone’s concern and wound up basically killing it, but even when the developers went back and incorporated the buildings into the design, then everyone freaks out about it’s height when it’s in the CBD. I know my response is long, but I think, for the amount of issues that need to be discussed about this, it is appropriate. I feel that if we set strict boundaries and not this piecemeal idea of zoning areas (there are mutliple areas that show varying height restrictions), I think you will see everything fall into place. Define an area as the Warehouse District and set it aside with a max height of the area. Then you can go in an delineate various other height restrictions instead of the confusing mess presently in place. Then make a region of the CBD. As I stated, it should include the Poydras Street side of Lafayette across to the American Sector side of Canal, from I-10 to the River. Then we won’t have to keep having these height waivers issued because everyone will understand what the limit is in each certain area.

  • Jof

    The image that New Orleans can’t afford is having obtuse and over restrictive zoning regulations. Balance and flexibility are necessary. Height + density ≠ bad.

  • nx_2000

    All the links in the “CZO under attack” section are dead.

  • Jed Horne

    We’re trying to work around problem linking to city’s one-stop site. Meanwhile, we’ve removed the defective links. Apologies for the confusion.

  • MGatzman

    A variance is a land use tool that should be used sparingly. They serve a purpose, but use them too much, as the city does, and they effectively invalidate planning and undermine the public’s trust in city government.

  • MGatzman

    I agree. The new code is overly complex. The CBD height IZD is not. It’s incredibly simple and easy to understand. Think more form-based and much less math. Density is great. Height is too, but if we don’t designate where the height can be we’ll end up just like Gold Coast, Australia. Great beaches, ridiculous height discrepancies. Except we won’t have the beaches.

  • MGatzman

    Thanks for your response. It’s interesting to read another view on the issue. The DDD did a great job getting multiple viewpoints represented in their height study and subsequent taskforce. The resulting height IZD is very easy to understand. I’m not aware of the conflicting height issues you’re referring to; the IZD replaced the existing height restrictions in the old CZO. There’s plenty of real estate still out there for skyscrapers. Interestingly, some developers, like Domain, are choosing not to take full advantage of the allowed height in their developments. I also don’t think the DDD or the developers on the height study taskforce would agree to a height limit that would restrict development. Hopefully the new CZO will turn out to be less “piecemeal” than its predecessor.

  • MGatzman

    Apologies. I’ll try to get them fixed ASAP.

  • nickelndime

    Don’t you be talkin’ ’bout my ASP!!!! Hold up! Hold up! THAT IS “ASAP.” Oh, my bad.
    Do you see – this is exactly how the first humans – d/b/a “ADAM AND EVE” got fooled by a snake. Jesus H. Holy Christ 2000 years later – and still waiting…(if you is Catholic – you is waiting for the 2nd Coming. If you is Jewish – like Leslie Jacobs, et al., you is still waiting for the 1st.).
    07/17/2015 1:48 AM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    If anybody can do it (fix it), you can, Matt. U is a gaddam resident of the CBD and not many of us can claim that, Matt. Oh look that rhymes. I am a gaddam (expletive deleted) J. Billington “Bulworth.”
    07/17/2015 1:57 AM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    Let Matt fix it, Jed. He appears to be able to fix “the links.” Perchance Matt may become interested in the other problems in the city. However, a shooting on Basin and Bienville might be a tad close to Matt’s “home” in the CBD.
    Welcome to our world, Matt. ASP wears a full-body bullet-proof vest. Oh OK, it’s a (expletive deleted) sock. What does he know – he is a SNAKE! He “feels” safe, and isn’t that what it is really about!?
    07/17/2015 2:07 AM DST USA

  • NolaWXGuy

    What I meant by piecemeal and difficult to understand was that reading the zoning regulations, I found it very confusing to determine exactly what the height limits are for various areas. But I do see your point with them. I just feel that to make this easier for residents and developers, the city should just section off the areas in defined districts, and then within each district subdivide the height limits based on what they feel is appropriate. Thanks for your point of view and the information provided as it certainly allowed for a better understanding of the situation.

  • nickelndime

    The City of New Orleans should consider “herself” lucky if she ends up with a beach similar to the likes of Australia. And the U.S. might also want to consider how the legal system operates in Australia as well. Public trust in government – what in the hell is that ? on a scale of 1 – as being aloof and disinterested to 10 – as being WE (expletive deleted) DON’T READ AND WE DON’T GIVE (expletive deleted) BUT WE CURSE A LOT.
    07/18/2015 1:51 AM DST USA