Proposed zoning ordinance amendments: a gift to the booze biz; raw deal for neighborhoods

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Jed Horne

Restaurants would become vendors of packaged goods to-go if the amendments are approved.

Restaurants would become vendors of packaged goods to-go if the amendments are approved.

Jed Horne

Thousands of us gave time and our insights to community meetings that helped shape New Orleans’ recently approved Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance. If you were in that number, you assumed — as promised — that your contribution would matter, that land use in your neighborhood would be guided by citizen input, that the CZO would reflect the hopes and desires of you and your neighbors.

You may be in for a rude awakening.

In a last-minute move, a City Council member has introduced a barrage of complicated amendments that, if adopted, will, among other things, scatter de facto liquor stores throughout the city and turn courtyards into entertainment venues. In short, the proposals will fundamentally change the way restaurants, bars, and clubs operate in the city’s many mixed-use neighborhoods.

Councilmember Ramsey

New Orleans City Council

Council Member Ramsey

The proposed 11th-hour changes to the CZO are the work of Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, whose district includes Algiers and the French Quarter. Without warning or any kind of public notice, she tried to insert her liquor-friendly amendments into the CZO, effectively sabotaging a document that the City Planning Commission and legions of citizens spent years crafting.

The City Council will consider her proposals at its Thursday meeting. If passed, they undermine the integrity of every neighborhood in our city.

The intent of these amendments is clear: to allow restaurants, bars and entertainment venues unfettered expansion opportunities, at the expense of New Orleans residents and neighborhoods. All too many New Orleanians have no idea what’s in store should Ramsey’s package of amendments pass.

Since I advocate for the French Quarter as a neighborhood, I’m particularly concerned about Ramsey’s amendments that would allow entertainment, both live and recorded, in Quarter courtyards. That’s always been prohibited for good reason: by their nature, these open-air spaces cannot contain sound.

Given the dense, mixed-use nature of the city’s oldest neighborhood, opening this can of worms would be disastrous not only for nearby residential uses, but also for businesses. Imagine one establishment trying to drown out the sound coming from another one next door, which responds by upping its volume. Now imagine 10 such businesses, all in the same block.

But while the French Quarter may be particularly vulnerable, most of Ramsey’s amendments would affect every neighborhood in New Orleans — Gentilly, New Orleans East, Mid-City, Lakeview, Carrollton, Broadmoor, the Irish Channel, you name it. And you, the neighbor, would have no say in the matter.

One amendment removes the size limit on “holding bars,” basically, small bars that often serve as waiting areas in restaurants. (Both the old and new CZOs say they can’t exceed 15 percent of a restaurant’s floor area.) Another amendment changes the definition of restaurant, removing the requirement that sale of alcohol be “incidental to food sales.” Put the two amendments together, and you’ve got a new generation of establishments that could legally operate as a restaurant during breakfast and lunch, and as a bar at night. By the same token, a weekday restaurant could transform on weekends into a bar.

The new CZO recognizes that most of the complaints about neighborhood alcoholic beverage outlets spring from safety and noise issues — which is why ABOs are required to submit plans addressing these concerns. Ramsey’s gift to the liquor industry strips away that requirement and spares ABOs from having to include in their applications for licensure the traditional list of all churches, schools, and playgrounds within 300 feet of their proposed locations.

Liquor sales and playgrounds do not make good neighbors, as the folks around Stallings Playground in the Fairgrounds Triangle neighborhood can attest.  They worked for years to stop liquor sales at one convenience store within 50 feet of Stallings, only to face another store across the street attempting to sell alcohol. Thanks to their work, the playground has been transformed into a place safe again for children and families. But why should citizens have to constantly fight these battles? Weakening the scant protections provided by the CZO is not the answer.

Ramsey also targets the part of the new CZO that requires restaurants offering entertainment to keep doors and windows closed during performances. Containing sound while a band is playing or while a party is underway makes sense, given the number of restaurants that are in mixed-use areas, with homes at close range. Good luck getting your children to sleep before closing time, however, if the restaurant down the street has booked a wedding party and thrown open its doors and windows to the cool night air. Ramsey’s amendment throws your family’s needs right out the window as well.

The biggest bombshell in her misbegotten slate of amendments is Ramsey’s intent to allow every standard restaurant in New Orleans to operate as a liquor store. The bureaucratic wording of her amendment extends permission to sell packaged liquor  to any “restaurant, standard, which may sell alcoholic beverages for consumption on premises or which may sell alcoholic beverages for consumption off-premises when sold in conjunction with meals to go.” In other words, any restaurant that offers take-out food — which is virtually all of them — could sell packaged liquor as well, becoming, in effect, a liquor store.

These amendments will increase crime. These amendments will undermine neighborhood integrity. These amendments are crafted without any concern for the residential community in which commercial establishments exist.

Not surprisingly, New Orleans citizens and neighborhoods were given no opportunity to study or comment on the amendments before Ramsey rolled them out.  Since then, she’s refused to take questions on them at numerous public meetings.  And citizens groups seeking meetings with Ramsey to hear her explain her actions have been rebuffed. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this package of amendments has been drafted with but one set of beneficiaries in mind: vendors of  alcohol.

This is not how we build good neighborhoods. This is not how we increase transparency in government. If you value your home, your neighborhood, your school, your church, your playground, and your family’s ability to live in and enjoy your community, let Ramsey and her colleagues know. Tell them that these amendments are wrong for New Orleans.

Meg Lousteau is the executive director of the Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents and Associates, Inc., and a fifth-generation New Orleanian.

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