Apr 182011

Owen Courrèges

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.

  • BurritoInMyTummy

    I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a small Target or a Trader Joe’s!

    • Justin

      I vote for a Trader Joe’s – give those greedy Whole Foods SOBs a run for their money! Unfortunately, “small” anything usually tries to get too big for its space and ends up messing up the neighborhood it is in – like Whole Foods is doing to my friend’s neighborhood over there in the University area. Whole Foods really pulled one over on that neighborhood AND the city. Too bad the city hasn’t figured it out yet.

  • A Trader Joe’s would be ridiculously amazing. Having lived in a city with one for 3.5 years I can’t tell you how much I mourn the loss of affordable, good groceries.

  • Owen Courrèges

    Trade Joe’s still hasn’t worked its way into most of the south, and in any case, I doubt they’d want to move into Uptown for their first Louisiana store given the anti-development impulses here. I’m betting the first Trader Joe’s will be in Baton Rogue or Metairie, although I could be wrong on that. It depends somewhat on corporate philosophy.

    As for Target, unfortunately they just don’t make stores as small as the old Borders (which is around 25k square feet, about a quarter the size of Targets). That said, I’d absolutely love a Target. It would give some competition to Wal-Mart (which actually does charge quite a bit more in Uptown than it does in, say, Kenner) and I’m sick of having to to Metairie for one. I wish they could find a large enough site somewhere along Tchoup.

  • RG

    Does the Uptown Messenger practice censorship of comments left by readers? There was previously a comment challenging Owen’s position on several articles he has written for UM. That comment has since been removed. Why is that? Did the “commenter” remove it himself?

    Can UM clarify its position regarding this issue? For the record, I have no ‘dog’ in this fight. I am just curious as to why the comment was removed.

    • RG, after I initially approved the comment, I realized I had a question about one relatively minor statement in the comment, and emailed the author of the comment to ask him about it. He actually asked that the comment be taken down so he could revise it, and I will gladly repost it with his revision when he gets back to me.

      All comments on UptownMessenger.com are read by someone here before they are approved. In general, we will not post comments that promote racism (a general scourge of all news sites), or anonymous personal attacks on the people featured in our articles – “Robert is a moron” probably won’t fly, though “Robert is incorrect” usually will. (We apply this standard more strictly to comments posted anonymously than to those with a full name attached, as we are willing to afford more latitude to people willing to stand by what they say – as everyone actually quoted in an article must do.) We will not approve comments that appear to be made by “sock puppets,” multiple pseudonyms intended to create the appearance of broad agreement on one person’s opinion.

      None of those factors apply to the comment you’re asking about. In this case, the comment was left under a full name and primarily stuck to challenging Owen’s positions, as you say. But when I see a factual statement that I can’t personally verify, I’ll often contact the commenter to provide a source, and that was what happened here.

      Thanks for your question and for reading UptownMessenger.com.

      • RG

        Thanks for the clarification. Keep up the great work.

  • Carmen

    I’d like to see some fast fashion or speed-to-market shop open in that space: H&M, Zara, Mango or even TopShop. Good revenue (lots of product turnaround means more sales tax), perfect location on the Avenue to zip in and out, good collegiate market + moms who don’t have time to run out to Lakeside or deal with Magazine St. parking issues. The interior would most likely need tweaking rather than a total rebuild, and getting an international store brand would be good for the city as well.

    Going the other way pricepoint wise, something with the cachet of a Barney’s COOP would fare equally well in the present economy. I know men tend to think Best Buy & Apple, but I don’t believe either will have staying power in that location if Borders didn’t. And I’d love a Target, an IKEA and a Trader Joe’s somewhere central, but the traffic and the parking don’t make that corner good for any of those.