The ongoing discussion about the future of the former Border’s location at St. Charles Avenue and Louisiana has gotten me thinking. Whenever a major commercial site in Uptown goes vacant, there’s always a discussion of what it will become. This is always an interesting debate where everybody suggests the ideal business they’d like to move in.
Personally, I’d like a “Best Buy” or something similar. Uptown doesn’t really have a dedicated electronics and appliance store, and Wal-Mart is shrinking its electronics department.
There are other examples of this phenomenon. The former American Legion building on Magazine has generated immense speculation, particularly since Walgreens expressed interest. Likewise, when it came to light that the Market Street Power Plant was going to be redeveloped, everyone wanted to know exactly what developer would jump in.
I’m not going to be a spoilsport. I relish and value these discussions. People who feel like they are invested in a community are naturally interested in significant commercial developments.
However, these discussions can also easily take an ugly turn. This commonly starts when somebody says “we don’t need another ‘X’” or “we don’t want an ‘X’ in our neighborhood” (with ‘X’ being a particular type of business, be it a restaurant, boutique, pharmacy, etc.). Next, somebody plumbs the zoning code, with its Byzantine web of designations, and comes up with a reason why ‘X’ should be prohibited.
Any reasonable request for a variance is opposed.
Before you know it, neighborhood associations get involved, angry letters are written to the City Council, and development of ‘X’ halts.
At some level, this is simply irrational. Ultimately, it is rarely true that we don’t “want” or “need” another “X,” because if that were really the case, then “X” probably wouldn’t be trying to move in to begin with.
The most honest vote a person makes is a vote they make with their pocketbook. We call it “putting your money where your mouth is.” In these discussions, it is the developer that is throwing in its chips. The developer is essentially saying, “I think that deep-down people want my development to move in, and they’re going to shop here and I’ll make a profit off of their business.” Meanwhile, the bystander who bandies around hypothetical development proposals risks nothing.
This is not to say that there aren’t multiple profitable uses for a given commercial site, and that people can’t favor one use over another. What I’m trying to raise here is the distinction between being interested in development projects and wanting to micromanage development. Neither of these has any direct cost to the ordinary citizens. However, the latter has massive costs to the developer who is trying to put a property back in commerce, thereby providing a public service, creating jobs, and generating more tax revenue.
There’s also one more aspect to this. All too often, the interest in development projects doesn’t extend to vacant properties, which often tend to languish for years, even in good neighborhoods. An outside observer looking at New Orleans’ policies might assume that the city is simply promoting vacant lots.
What it all boils down to is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, where the “perfect” is something that not everybody even agrees on. Few would dispute that a less-than-optimal development is better than a moldering building or a vacant lot, but time and time again we as citizens yearn for our ideal business and oppose anything else.
Yes, I want a “Best Buy,” but far more than that, I want a city where people feel secure investing their money, where free commerce is valued above the subjective approval of a self-appointed group of busybodies. That’s something I strongly hope we can have again.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.