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:
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 UptownMessenger.com 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.]