Sep 102012

Owen Courreges

What follows is one big “I told you so.”

Last month, at the August 20th meeting of the Neighborhood Conservation District Committee, a proposal to demolish the mansion located at 4706 St. Charles Avenue was denied. The mansion, built in 1887, appears to be in sound condition and could easily be returned to commerce.

Typically, when a well-funded party wants to bulldoze a historic mansion on New Orleans’ signature avenue, they succeed. As I noted in my previous column, “How to Tear Down Anything in Three Simple Steps,” the key to destroying the fabric of this city’s history is getting the neighborhood association on your side. For those with money and influence, this should be a relatively simple task.

But Jack Ryan (not the protagonist from Tom Clancy’s series of espionage thrillers) applied for the demolition after entering into an option to purchase the property, but apparently neglected to go through the obligatory lobbying process with the St. Charles Avenue Association. Ted LeClercq, head of the Association, suggested that Ryan had failed to go through the necessary “months-long discussions” that enabled the Goldrings to raze another mansion at the corner of Octavia and St. Charles.

Instead, Ryan just gave vague plans and tried to rush through a demolition application, a rookie mistake. Substance is irrelevant; what matters is groveling before the local neighborhood association, who in turn control the district council member, who in turn controls the council as to demolition applications in their district.

Developer John Schroeder spoke in Ryan’s favor, noting that the existing building was broken up into apartments and infested with rats. Somehow he posited a ballpark figure as to their number (I guess he tried to count them).

The idea apparently was that nobody should oppose tearing down some old rat-infested apartment house, a description that evokes images of a blighted tenement building with critters the size of badgers eating the wiring. Just look at a photo of the structure. You might want to avert your eyes in you have a weak stomach:

4706 St. Charles Avenue (photo via Preservation Resource Center)

Fooled you! The house is attractive, historic, and consistent with the architectural fiber of St. Charles. It isn’t a blighted out monstrosity at all. Ryan isn’t trying to get rid of obsolete, blighted housing. Ostensibly, he just wants the lot to build some dream house his way. While that impulse is understandable, it is wholly inconsistent with this city’s preservation scheme.

Then again, if Ryan were just some poor guy in Central City wanting to tear down an old, tired shotgun and put a prefab home on the lot, we wouldn’t even be debating this. We’d be laughing in Ryan’s face.

Ryan is expected to appeal to the city council, but all of this could be avoided. Again, it isn’t the substance of a demolition application that matters. It’s the process that’s crucial, and boy is that process ever expensive and time-consuming. If you want to go through it, prepare to open your wallet.

Thus, I am proposing a simple revision to our historic preservation laws. Instead of a myriad of regulations striving to preserve our architectural history, how about we just print the words “MONEY TALKS” in their place in bold, giant letters. Then at least we won’t be fooling ourselves, and we can honestly say that the process is open and transparent, even if it serves no valid purpose.

The sad part is, that would be a step forward.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

[Correction: An earlier version of this column misidentified the owners of the home on St. Charles Avenue that was recently demolished. The family is the Goldring family.]

  10 Responses to “Owen Courreges: Demolition denied, St. Charles Avenue-style”

  1. Hey, brown-nosing works for most people. But it is an art!

  2. I love reading your column, Owen. You don’t mince words which is so appreciated in this day & age.

  3. He probably actually just answered one question incorrectly on the demolition application…”Where’d you go to Highschool?”

  4. Always gotta grease the palms. If you google image the address there is a bulldozer in the picture, he ready.

  5. hopefully it can sit another 5yrs with no one touching it. Nothing better than a vacant building on a major street.

    • capt: I’d prefer to see it returned to commerce. There’s no reason whatsoever for it to sit empty. If it is truly rat-infested, the city should fine the owner and start enforcement proceedings. And although I’d prefer it be preserved, I’m sick of this double-standard whereby us mortals could never hope to demolish a historic property but those with money get carte blanche so long as they get chummy with neighborhood groups.

  6. You’re absolutely right. As a professional musician in this town, the money is winning the battle against live music and it’s a crying shame.

  7. While agreeing with Owen in principle, this is not the hill I’d choose to die on. A newly constructed eyesore on this site couldn’t be any worse than this never-distinguished structure that’s been a steadily-decaying eyesore itself my entire life — I’m speaking as a life-long uptown resident in his sixth decade, who lives about four blocks away. Regardless of vintage, this meritless heap has nothing to recommend it but its address: had it been located elsewhere no one would be crying for its preservation. If this is what we’re fighting to preserve for our world-famous St. Charles to delight and amaze streetcar-riding tourists, the fight has lost all purpose or meaning.

    For the record, I have nothing at stake here, and no relationship with anyone who might.

    • Romulus – Well, it’s really a matter of personal taste, but I think that the house is fairly attractive. The 1920’s Spanish revival style isn’t my favorite, but it gives a nice look. It could look a great deal better if renovated. As for its decay, I would agree but I think the issue there is getting it back in real commerce by enforcing blight laws. You argue that nobody would be fighting for this building if it were not on St. Charles, but that kind of misses the point of my column. If this building were elsewhere, you likely wouldn’t have monied interests pushing to demolish it and thus it wouldn’t happen.

  8. I’ve loved that house since I was a child. Wish I could buy it and save it.

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