We’ve seen a lot of shenanigans of late when it comes to civic participation in City Council meetings — from actors paid to masquerade as proponents of a power plant, to employees and contractors advocating for projects without revealing they have a financial stake in them.
As a foe of the proposed Sun Yard hotel development in the Bywater, I have witnessed first-hand how citizens who speak out — mostly women — can be scolded and belittled by folks — mostly men — on a developer’s payroll.
May 3 was the final meeting of our outgoing City Council; it was also the second City Council hearing on the Sun Yard, a boutique hotel and event space that has been trying to install itself in a largely residential Bywater neighborhood — a property formerly known as the Truck Farm, which annually hosted the music festival, Chazfest. The property fronts half a block on the river side of St. Claude Avenue, which is zoned commercially, but stretches into the backyards of houses on Rampart Street, a residential zone.
Like every part of the Sun Yard review process — Historic Districts Landmark Commission hearings, City Planning (twice), and the previous City Council meeting, scores of neighbors opposed to the project were in attendance. We took time off from work and family and cherished New Orleans events to voice concerns about our neighbors, our neighborhood, and the precedent this tourist venture within a residential neighborhood would set.
The $10 million, 90-plus bed hotel project first came before the City Council on April 19. One of five speakers chosen to support the Sun Yard was Steve Dumez, who, as principal architect and president of Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, the architecture firm for the hotel, stood to profit professionally and personally if only the Council would change the zoning for the back portion of this property and grant the developers a conditional-use permit to operate a hotel greater than 10,000 square feet.
Dumez began his remarks by asserting: “We stake our practice on designing projects that contribute to the broad benefit of the community at large.” But then, rather than explaining how the Sun Yard hotel would benefit the community — either locally or at large, he spent his three minutes at the podium describing the project’s particulars, asserting its alignment with the master plan and, most troublingly, denigrating the citizens whose backyards and streets the hotel would impinge upon.
The Sun Yard would not degrade a residential neighborhood, Dumez argued. Quite the opposite. The Sun Yard would be its salvation. “Four historic structures along St. Claude Avenue… will be rehabilitated as part of the project,” he claimed, lapsing into knight-in-shining-armor mode.
Wait. Four historic homes are “rehabilitated” by propping up their street facades and chopping the rest into hotel rooms? Is “rehabilitated” architect-speak for forever altering a building’s historic use as a home?
For over half a decade I lived in one of these historic structures, the one at 3030 Saint Claude. It’s a gorgeous, double-shotgun, full of original features. Like any historic home, it requires constant attention, something that ceased when the current Sun Yard owners bought these four buildings in the summer of 2017 and refused to renew leases on the seven rental units these homes provided for our neighbors. The buildings’ deterioration accelerated during the freeze this past winter when the pipes in my former home ruptured and water spewed onto the avenue for days.
Dumez went on to describe how the project’s density would be in keeping with surrounding buildings, but said nothing about the grossly greater intensity that would come with a 90-plus bed hotel/restaurant/pool/event space/bar and the street traffic it would generate. “The reality,” said Dumez, “is that this project is smart, appropriate economic development for a corridor that deserves investment.”
Not only does our neighborhood deserve investment, it has been receiving said investment. I can see Saint Claude Avenue from the doorstep of the home I now own, around the corner from the one I once rented (170 paces from it, to be exact), and over the years, I have watched an abundance of businesses spring up — businesses that cater not to visiting tourists but to us residents. I can walk to a beloved bike shop, a wine store, thrift shops, corner stores, an herb shop, and a coffee shop on St. Claude, not to mention the three restaurants on the very block this hotel hoped to eat up half of.
All of my neighbors have lived in their homes for years, most for decades. We have invested substantial capital in our homes, as well as sweat and love. Those commitments have strengthened our community, including the commercial corridors which run through Bywater. How belittling of Dumez to rank the promised investment by two out-of-town developers above the countless roots set down in our neighborhood by working, tax-paying New Orleanians.
But more upsetting than that was Dumez’s insinuation that we neighbors — by participating in the process that reviews zoning change requests and conditional-use applications — were some sort of unruly mob.
Dumez, during his council appearance, declared: “I believe that decisions regarding smart, appropriate development in our city should not be about who has the loudest or angriest voices, or who can assemble the largest group to oppose or support a project.”
I was sitting next to Frieda Brown, a Bywater resident for 25 years who had spoken against the Sun Yard proposal 10 minutes earlier. “Did I sound angry?” she turned and asked me.
Small wonder Frieda Brown thought Dumez was dressing her down. She’s a 72-year-old African American woman, and the word “angry” is code often used to belittle the voices of women, in particular women of color. When was the last time a group of men speaking before the Council, or in any forum, was labeled “angry”?
Opposition to the Sun Yard has crossed racial, class, age, and professional lines, but we are an opposition movement whose most prominent voices have been women. Dumez’s comments rang a bell all too clearly. Perhaps disparaging us was an attempt to negate the validity of our participation in this democratic process. Or perhaps he was implying that if only we were more smart or less angry, we could grasp how right he is about what is best for our neighborhood.
Mr. Dumez did not return my call to his office seeking comment.
Thankfully, the Sun Yard fell short of the votes needed for Council approval. Seeing that coming, I suppose, at the eleventh hour developers withdrew their application for a conditional-use permit to operate a hotel greater than 10,000 square feet, as though, after talking for eight months about building a hotel on the site, they suddenly had no idea what they planned to do with it. They still wanted the zoning change — from residential to commercial — for the large back lot, so that someday they could build … well, something. Thankfully, this zoning change was denied.
Before the Sun Yard project inserted itself into my life, turning countless unpaid hours into a collective crash course on civic participation, I thought of architects as artist/engineers, professionals who design structures so that we may all live more harmoniously together. Dumez has left an altogether different taste in my mouth. It seems some architects are really just developers. They build for whoever’s got the money to hire them. Harmony, to say nothing of community, has little do with it.
I am an independent radio producer, married to a working musician who also holds down a full-time job. Because I live in a two-income household, and because I am largely in charge of my schedule, it was feasible for me to put aside my work and attend meeting after hearing after meeting in order to have a voice in the Sun Yard dispute. For weeks and months, I allocated the lion’s share of my workdays to uncovering how this process works and subsequently sharing this information with my neighbors, in particular my elderly neighbors who are wholly unfamiliar with navigating websites and deciphering byzantine passages of the zoning ordinance.
Unlike Dumez and his team of architects, or, for that matter, the Sun Yard’s lawyers and PR team, I was not paid for my time. I billed no developers for the hours I spent in City Hall voicing my concerns and assisting my neighbors in doing the same. This process has been confusing, time-consuming, and stressful. Yet apparently, the herculean effort it required is what it takes for citizens to have a voice.
How are single-earner households, low-income families, disabled persons and elderly people with mobility issues expected to participate? And when they do, why are they not championed? It takes effort to be a citizen. Those claiming to work for civic good should praise the people’s participation, not demean or discredit it.
Eve Abrams is an audio documentarian, writer, and teacher whose work focuses on telling stories from her adopted hometown, New Orleans. She is the lead producer of the award-winning radio program and podcast, “Unprisoned.”
Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.