The New Orleans Street by Street Battle Between the Old and New

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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.


Attempting to Hijack Low Power Community Radio

2010_May_432_750New Orleans    There has been virtually radio silence about the rush of applications from hopeful communities around the country hoping to build low power radio stations under the new opening by the FCC for applications.   The deadline recently passed, and more than 1000 applications were filed, which would seem like good news, but might be both more and less than that as people try to get a voice in their cities.  

Corresponding with Peter Franck, a veteran Bay Area lawyer and low power radio advocate, he may have put it best looking forward:

“…by March 1 we won’t know final outcome.   What we will know is how many real community groups filed and how many phony cookie cutter applications there are from right wing…and evangelical groups.  Then one of the tasks…will be to help the true community groups file petitions against the phony ones, since there is so little spectrum space ….”

For some folks there’s already good news and some signs that the FCC may be moving faster than usual.  Our friends in Fayetteville, Arkansas, who have been trying to put together a community radio station for years were a “singleton,” meaning the sole applicant for an available frequency, so know that they are finally winners.   Meeting in New Orleans at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse with other area nonprofit applications who like AM/FM had filed for low power frequencies, all of us had competition of one sort or another with only the Vietnamese application being a singleton.   Robert Dunn, head of the media department for Delgado Community College, couldn’t help feeling outrage as a victim of the “cookie cutters” who are trying to hijack the process and block legitimate access.

One of the local applications was filed by the notorious Hispanic Christian Community Network and its president Antonio Cesar Guel.  This network of 40 existing low power stations incorporated all of the applications on one day late in October as nonprofits in Texas and filed a total of 245 applications, hoping, I assume, to bullrush the FCC into scoring another 20 or 30 by mucking up the process.  Recnet, a radio consulting and engineering company, filed an “informal” objection with the FCC to “flag” this strategy citing the following problems with the applications:

  • Identical phone numbers for all of these organizations,
  • Identical e-mail addresses for all of these organizations (Cesar Guel),
  • Identical educational statements for all of these organizations,
  • In some cases, main studios in gated communities, apartment complexes and non-existent addresses.
  • All applications, despite the physical state are incorporated in the state of Texas.  This is despite many states requiring “foreign” non-profit organizations to also register in their own state.

M&M Community Development Corporation also seems to have filed about 100 applications, one of which is also blocking Delgado’s application.  Fraught with errors, including saying they were located in Gretna, VA not LA, substituting Virginia for Louisiana, this outfit already has stations around Atlanta and Boston along with Lafayette and some low power television in Texas, so is using the same tactics.  They will lose but the delays could be costly and take years.

Even when there is an open window, some folks still believe the only way to stop communities is to try and breakthrough a back wall when they can’t fairly walk through the front door by the rules.