In theory, the New Orleans Master Plan is second only to the City Charter in terms of its importance to the future of our city.
In theory, the Plan is a community-designed and community-owned road map to creating a prosperous, inclusive city.
Remember that more than 6,000 residents participated in creating the Master Plan, and that in November 2008, we voted by citywide referendum to give the Plan “force of law” as a way to end the days when the blueprint for the city’s future was something to be negotiated among interested City Council members and whatever developer had come through with the most generous campaign donation.
We voted to put an end, once and for all, to “planning by surprise.”
In theory, given this context, the final City Planning Commission public hearing and vote regarding the proposed Master Plan amendments, which took place on October 10, was the Commission’s most important meeting of the year.
The planning commissioners certainly did not treat it that way.
Let’s start with the timing of the hearing. Initially, it was advertised that consideration of the Master Plan amendments would begin at 3 p.m. The Friday before the meeting, at 4:45 p.m., as the city was preparing for Hurricane Nate, an email was sent out stating that the amendments would be heard at the beginning of the Planning Commission meeting, at 1:30 p.m. On Monday, the day before the meeting, another email went out stating that the meeting would commence at 12:30 p.m. and begin with consideration of the amendments.
Given how challenging it is for the average resident to take time off from work and get down to City Hall to participate in any public hearing, repeatedly changing the start time on extremely short notice is highly disrespectful of the public. It raises the question of how interested the commissioners really are in listening to community voice. But it gets worse.
The start of the meeting was delayed by 15 minutes due to problems with the audio-visual system. Then commissioners voted to move up another agenda item ahead of the Master Plan amendments. Then there turned out to be three additional items on the agenda prior to the amendments. Consequently, actual review of the amendments began after 1 p.m. Would-be participants had already begun leaving the meeting.
But it gets worse.
For this critically important meeting, a mere five of the nine commissioners managed to show up. This meant that every vote had to be unanimous or it failed. This meant that the fate of dozens of amendments under consideration for what is again supposed to be the road map to our future were for all practical purposes at the mercy of any one commissioner. This is not exactly an example of a great deliberative body in action.
But, unbelievably, it gets worse.
As it turned out, one of the commissioners who did manage to squeeze the meeting into his busy schedule had to leave at 3 p.m. Consequently, instead of the usual (but still very limited) two minutes allowed per speaker, public comments were limited to one minute per person per amendment. To allow concerned citizens a mere one minute to state their views on the sometimes quite complex subject matter of many amendments is, bluntly, pathetic. It shows no real interest in hearing thoughtful input from the community that theoretically owns and is considerably impacted by the Master Plan.
Similarly, there was little discussion of the amendments among the commissioners themselves, especially towards the end of the meeting, as they raced through the agenda before losing their quorum.
Just to provide a few examples of these issues and impacts, among the topics under consideration during the meeting were:
- Increasing building height and density along multiple major New Orleans streets
- The right of the public to comment on future developments in our parks
- Future uses of the former corner stores that are found in so many neighborhoods
- The most pivotal issue was this: whether all of the Master Plan will have “force of law,” or only the land-use chapter
Underlying all of these problems is the fact that the meeting was scheduled for the very last possible day it could take place under the Master Plan’s own guidelines for review and amendment. The clock started ticking on this process all the way back in June 2016.
As someone who was very involved with the creation of the Master Plan in the first place, I can assure you that it was never, ever anticipated that the amendment process would stretch out over a year and half. It is beyond unreasonable to think that the average New Orleanian can stay on top of a process like this for such an extended period, no matter how important it may be.
Also, as a former member of the Historic District Landmarks Commission for the Central Business District, I can assure you that the meeting schedule for the entire year is set at the very beginning of the year, and thus commissioners can put the meetings on their calendars well in advance. In my six years on the Landmarks Commission, I missed less than one meeting per year. If you take this job seriously, you work your schedule around the Commission meetings – especially the most important ones.
In theory, we as a community are engaged in a vitally important process, considering more than 300 amendments to a document that will play a major role in guiding our collective future. In reality, after experiencing the debacle that was the Planning Commission’s final hearing and vote, I have to wonder: Does anyone think the Master Plan really matters?
Keith G.C. Twitchell is president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans, which fosters civic engagement, develops community leaders and advocates for open, effective, accountable government.
The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.