New Orleans Urban planning isn’t easy in any city. Add more than three hundred years of history and the challenges of geography between the great Mississippi River, Lake Ponchartrain, and the residue of swampland, the long goodbye of Hurricane Katrina, and the diverse and competing economic interests, and modern city planning faces a constant challenge in New Orleans. A recent addition to this gumbo has been something called the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance or CZO, which proponents contended would bring the city into the modern era, and more pointedly for many interests pull politics out of the process which is always a suspicious, often coded claim, and usually specious.
The adoption of the new CZO found me sitting in a meeting of the City Planning Commission for four hours in order to seek an amended zoning specification where the Affiliated Media Foundation Movement (AM/FM) wanted to locate the studio for the coming internet radio station for ACORN International and our FCC approved 100-watt low power FM radio station, WAMF 90.3. The longer I sat there, the more I felt like I was witnessing in microcosm the battle between old and new for the future of the city as it crashed into the best designs of mice and men in the CZO.
Neighbors paraded back and forth to the microphone for and against something called a “poshtel,” a 50-room hostel-hotel that developers proposed to be built on an empty industrial site in the red-hot Bywater neighborhood near the River several miles below the French Quarter. The plans were clearly within the CZO requirements allowing both residential and tourist developments in the area. One neighborhood association was on board, but business and residents along the proposed site bridled at the notion that the poshtel’s size, patio, bar, restaurant, and itinerant clientele would make the area “party central” with traffic, noise, and bad behavior commonplace. Business owners, led by an impassioned, eloquent plea from a popular barbecue purveyor argued that the neighborhood was typified by “neighborhood businesses,” run by owners that lived in the area. Some opponents argued for an alternative development like the Art Lofts elsewhere in the neighborhood, which many around the city have seen as a poster board for gentrification. The Commission was in a quandary. The CZO clearly allowed the development. They punted in hopes that other design changes might make their decision easier to swallow by the opponents.
A community center specializing in art, performance, dance, and music wanted an exception in the Uptown area of the city to their CZO zoning to be able to do events and a couple of other things, and pulled out everyone they could imagine for an easy unanimous approval. Elsewhere uptown a hotel wanted to expand and also won support.
A proposed Adult Live Performance Venue Study to determine amendments to the French Quarter’s Entertainment District was another warm potato. Adult Live Performance Venue is essentially a euphemism for the “strip clubs” that have defined Bourbon Street and the reputation of New Orleans for generations. Church groups were out to testify en masse. Groups worried about sex-trafficking seeking an age limit of 21, rather than 18 spoke. Club owners spoke against T-shirt shops and in favor of a moratorium that blocked new competition for their businesses. Quarter residents complained about noise and public urination. The study was approved, another skirmish in a perpetual war.
Whatever the claims for the CZO, several thing became clear. Any central planning ordinance that is not porous won’t survive the attack of a thousand cuts, bumps, and bruises that are a standard part of the process. People in the neighborhoods basically don’t want change no matter what the plans might say, unless it is something driven by their friends and neighbors, so happiness will never be part of the process, but populism will also often prevail. No matter the intentions the process is still stacked towards those with resources and power. Politics will never be out of the planning process as long as people are allowed in the system both at the level of the Commission and of course even more so when bumped up to the actual elected leadership of the city at the Council level.
I ran out of the hearing glad to have escaped with unanimous approval for our non-controversial application to build out the studio in our building so that we can go on-the-air on the St. Claude Avenue borderline of the rapidly gentrifying Marigny and Bywater areas below the French Quarter. I was also pretty sure of a couple of things. I was confident that a parking ticket waited for me, and that people power would still overwhelm any planning regime, which I found reassuringly comforting.