Magazine Street is one of the glories of retail commerce in New Orleans: a wonderfully vibrant and eclectic mix of mostly independent boutiques, eateries, bistros, hardware stores, yoga studios — you name it.
New Orleanians shop there and tourists flock there precisely because a lot of what’s offered you can’t find anywhere else.
So it was disappointing to see the new City Council at its inaugural meeting on May 24 cave in so quickly and agree to consider sliding a Subway fast-food joint into a poorly run strip mall in the 4600 block of Magazine. It was particularly disappointing given that many of the new members ran on platforms of respecting neighborhood voices. On this issue, the neighborhoods all along Magazine were united: the fast food chain should not be allowed.
Why did the new Council vote this way?
If you watch minutes 7:11 to 7:35 of the Council meeting video, the reasons articulated by Council Member Jay Banks were: 1) he wants “more time” to hear from neighbors and meet with the developer; 2) there are other fast-food joints on Magazine — so why not yet another! and 3) “people” called him — none were named and none showed up at the Council meeting to support the Subway.
Rather than reject the whole idea as a clear degradation of a thriving and improving shopping environment, the Council equivocated. It approved Banks’ motion to support the conditional use but promised to delay approving the required ordinance until more meetings take place.
This particular strip mall has long been an eyesore on Magazine Street. During my years on the Council, I wrote to the owner asking him to clean up his trash-strewn property and replant the dead vegetation. But it remains a mess and continues to house tenants such as a usurious check-cashing store that preys on our poorest residents.
It’s not as if the landlord couldn’t do better. Despite the strip mall’s condition, the adjacent area has seen steady improvement. Locally owned small businesses have grown in number and variety. La Boulangerie, JCB Creations, Apolline and very recently Shaharazad Cafe and Tal’s Hummus are welcome newcomers. Just across the street from the strip mall, an owner is developing upgraded commercial space. Meanwhile, the oldies but goodies — among them Le Bon Temps, the Bead Shop and Crescent City Automotive — have stuck around and continued to flourish.
Thank you to Council Members Helena Moreno and Jason Williams who respected the coalition of neighborhoods. I hope that the rest will change their position and deny the fast-food franchise at the ordinance stage.
This is not just about the strip-mall Subway. As the City Planning Commission made clear, allowing this one will pave the way for more fast-food chain restaurants on Magazine Street. The CPC staff made it clear that this is a slippery slope and a precedent that will open the door on Magazine — and arguably on other commercial corridors as well.
Thus, the Council’s decision is a pivotal one. Will our traditional commercial corridors be junked up by an influx of franchisees and fast-food chains, or will we fight to keep independent local businesses dominant?
Once Subway gets its way, McDonald’s, Burger King and all the rest will begin clamoring for the same consideration. Independent restaurants and mom-and-pop shops can’t compete with that breed of high-volume, relatively low-quality rivals. They drive up rents and degrade the overall retail ambience. New Orleans has room for all, including Subway. Just not on Magazine.
Stacy Head represented District B for six years, followed by six years as Council Member-at-Large. She retired from the Council in April.
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