Question: When is a bridge not a bridge? Answer: When it proves more expedient to call it by some other name.
Jesuit High School wants to build a thing over Banks Street. It’s a bridge, and they called it a bridge until they didn’t. When they ran into unexpected opposition, they decided it wasn’t to be a bridge at all. It was to be a “private walkway,” for which the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance conveniently has no rules. The amazing part is that, so far, City Hall has gone along with this ploy.
Maybe that’s not so amazing. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. The privileged and powerful are used to getting what they want. That’s kind of how things work.
Jesuit means well, in their way. They probably don’t feel unduly privileged or powerful, as individuals. The motive for their proposed bridge is a decent one: to enhance student safety. (More on that later.) Because of the zoning variances involved, they were required to do a public meeting, a mere formality. Who would object to a nice little bridge?
That’s where the trouble started. I know, because I was there at that first public meeting in December.* They sent me a postcard invitation to come and learn more about this thing they wanted to build. They were still calling it a bridge then. I had a front row seat to watch what appeared to be a slow-motion train wreck.
It was clear that Jesuit didn’t expect any opposition to the bridge. Yet opposition is exactly what they got, and plenty of it. Many of the neighbors who showed up were extremely skeptical of Jesuit’s plans. I came to that meeting inclined to support the bridge, but I left opposing it.
The Neighborhood Participation Project requires such meetings precisely so neighbors can be informed about proposals that will affect the neighborhood. Mission accomplished.
However, from a Jesuit PR standpoint, it probably felt like a disaster. The City Planning Commission deemed it to have suffered from “improper notice,” and required a do-over, a second public meeting in February. Bizarrely, Jesuit asked neighbors to provide identification at that second meeting, and some were turned away when they were unwilling or unable to produce ID at the door, leading to further acrimony and accusations of non-compliance.
I missed that second meeting, but from all accounts they were still calling it a bridge.
Meanwhile neighbors were starting to get organized. All our activity is volunteer work, cobbled together in what is laughingly called our “free time.” This has represented a significant sacrifice for some of us, but we do it because we love our neighborhood.
My own efforts have been modest. I went from door to door one afternoon, collecting signatures against the bridge, trying to do my part. I was amazed to find most of my neighbors were already aware of the bridge proposal, well-informed, and dead-set against it.
There are numerous reasons to oppose the bridge, such as damage to the canopy of ancient live oaks that give Banks Street its distinctive character. As I canvassed, by coincidence I ran into an arborist from uptown who absolutely opposed the bridge on the grounds that it would do irreparable harm to the already-stressed trees. Another arborist has estimated the trees are around 130 years old; he says if a bridge is built, it should follow a different plan in order to save the trees.
One neighbor pointed out that Jesuit students have been crossing Banks Street to reach their building on the other side for over 60 years, and there’s never been a single incident indicating a safety issue.
There are many other objections (see a list compiled by neighbors) but the biggest concern I have regards the conflict between public and private interests. This bridge would serve a narrow private interest. As such, its construction over a public right-of-way should be subject to public review.
Jesuit has taken steps to avoid such public review. After those first two public meetings, they petitioned the Director of Safety & Permits, pointing out that the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance says “private walkways” are allowed to encroach into the required setbacks. In other words, no special zoning variances are needed to build a “private walkway” in a front or side yard. Therefore, the Department of Safety & Permits removed the zoning hold and issued a permit for construction.
Looks like they didn’t even need those pesky public meetings in the first place!
Removing that hold denies the neighborhood our legally mandated opportunity for a public hearing before the Board of Zoning Adjustments. At the very least, such a hearing might have generated modifications to mitigate the bridge’s adverse impacts.
Almost immediately, official communications from Jesuit began referring to the bridge as a “private walkway.”
These word games were followed by swift actions. Crews began working to construct the foundations of the “private walkway” almost immediately. Excavating holes, driving piles, et cetera. The flurry of activity is very impressive, and I’m sure it represents a considerable investment.
But hold on a second. Doesn’t Jesuit still have to get the “air rights” to build something across a public street? That’s a mere formality, it seems. Both the City Charter and municipal code clearly require a City Council ordinance for any construction in a public right-of-way, but Jesuit is spending on construction as if assured of the outcome.
So, apparently, if Rand Owens wanted to build a “private walkway” connecting his two properties (Mid-City Pizza and Banks Street Bar) on opposite sides of Banks Street, he could do so, without any concerns about zoning regulations. I think he should apply for a permit just to see what happens.
I believe Safety & Permits erred in their decision. Elsewhere in the zoning ordinance, there are references which indicate that a “walkway” should be construed as a landscape architecture feature, not an elevated covered structure.
There are numerous provisions in the CZO which regulate covered elevated structures. In plain language, you can’t build a covered elevated structure in your front or side yard. Yes, you can have an at-grade walkway, but a bridge by definition is a “structure.” Safety & Permits ignored the “structure” that elevates and covers the walkway. The director exceeded his interpretative authority by creating a brand new definition for use within the CZO, effectively changing the meaning of “walkway.” Only the City Council has the authority to change the meaning of provisions and add essential content like new definitions.
That’s why I threw down a few bucks to help cover the costs when a neighbor filed an appeal.
What happens next isn’t hard to guess. Reference my note above about power and privilege. I’m almost inclined to shrug this off, cynically, to say that “the fix is in.” It sure seems like Jesuit is assured they’ll get their way, while the community at large can like it or lump it.
(It is painfully ironic to consider how this private school project flies along with such speed, while public school children in our community continue to be neglected. I could cite safety issues at Jesuit’s next-door neighbor, Esperanza, or the pitiful state of the rickety Lopez Street Bridge which Warren Easton students used for years to get to their practice field. I have to wonder, what are our priorities?)
We would most certainly rather be spending our time on other things, rather than fighting this bridge. We are motivated by love. We don’t hate Jesuit. As noted, they mean well. It’s just that they have been inwardly focused. Frankly, they’ve been kind of clueless, even frightened of the neighborhood that surrounds them.
I’d like to think some good has derived from our work already. Jesuit has realized they need to do a better job listening to their neighbors and communicating with them. They hosted a “community meeting” to address the many other concerns neighbors have about the school. They called it a “listening session,” and that’s what it seemed to be. Mainly, they listened to our concerns. That’s a positive development, and it wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t voiced our opposition to the bridge. Was it anything more than a show, a distraction?
If we seem to be skeptical, there’s a reason for that. Jesuit still has a lot of work to do to earn the trust of the neighborhood.
*As first published, the column stated incorrectly that the initial meeting was in January.
Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband, a father and a resident of Mid-City. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Greenway, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle. More at BartEverson.com
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.