SCENE: GRAND INQUISITOR’S CHAMBERS, NEIGHBORHOOD ASSOCIATION (FICTIONAL)
APPLICANT: (Proposing a gas station on an industrial road)
INQUISITOR: (The singular embodiment of the stubborn will of an association)
(Lights rise slowly.)
(The room is dim. A single spotlight shines on the applicant. He stands flustered before the tribunal as sweat drips from his brow.)
INQUISITOR: What?! (Sputtering incredulously) You’re proposing that we support your application for rezoning to add a new gasoline station and retail center in this half-blighted, waterfront industrial area? Surely you can’t be serious.
APPLICANT: (Responding meekly) Um, yes, I think it’s a profitable venture. It – um – it shouldn’t interfere with neighboring land uses, and –
INQUISITOR: This is a massive change! (Shouting and gesturing wildly) Massive! Earth shattering! You will shatter the Earth, sir! The next thing you know we’ll have strip clubs next to nursery schools and hog-rendering plants next to five-star restaurants . You just don’t understand the delicate art of planning.
APPLICANT: But-but, you see, this corner lot is surrounded by nothing but warehouses, power substations, and a chain pizza delivery franchise. I mean, that is to say, there aren’t any houses nearby; don’t you think –
INQUISITOR: “THINK?! THINK?! (Tone of total disbelief) We don’t have to think; the zoning code is sacred writ. Besides, offhand I can just think of the traffic problems. Other gas stations in the neighborhood have traffic lined up into the street!
APPLICANT: (Lips now quivering in submissive fear) But sir, that’s the problem. If I may be so bold as to observe, there simply aren’t enough gas stations around. If we add another gas station, won’t that help prevent lines at other local gas stations and ease traffic congestion overall?
INQUISITOR: Can’t you listen, man! (Yelling) THIS IS OUR NEIGHBORHOOD AND WE DON’T WANT YOUR ‘SUBURBAN’ GASOLINE STATION HERE!
APPLICANT: (Stuttering) I-I-I understand that, but-but-but I think we’re responding to consumer demand and bringing land back into commerce in in an industrial zoning district, so unless there’s some kind of articulable land use conflict don’t you think –
INQUISITOR: Silence! We’ve heard enough of this pusillanimous groveling. Now, shall we vote against this feeble development and in favor of maintaining the existing disuse?
(The applicant stands crestfallen. Approving murmurs come from the gallery).
(Fade to black).
* * *
Ok, that was a bit of a strawman fantasy. I’m sure there was quite a bit more to the meeting of the Coliseum Square Association meeting held on November 19, 2012. However, despite some major artistic license, the foregoing cringe-worthy parody is what I took away from the play-by-play description of the meeting and my own research.
The background here is pretty straightforward. “Treme” actor Wendell Pierce and business partner Troy Henry have proposed to build a Sterling Express convenience store in the 1600 block of Tchoupitoulas. The Sterling Express would have gasoline pumps in front and a couple of truck fueling stations in the rear. The gas pumps (particularly the truck bays) have been the main sticking point, but objectively it’s difficult to see why.
The 1600 block of Tchoupitoulas is located near the riverfront in the Lower Garden District. It is a reasonable distance from residential development and consists primarily of old warehouses. The exact corner consists of an empty lot, a small Domino’s pizza franchise, blighted warehouses adored with razor wire, and a massive power substation. To the north are more empty lots and warehouses. To the south is the port, where cargo is unloaded into trucks.
To make a long story short, the area surrounding the proposed Sterling Express has that imposing, old industrial vibe that attracts the most intensive, dirty, and noisy land uses. It is difficult to conceive of many possible land uses that would give anybody a reason to complain.
However, the area is actually zoned Mixed-Use Industrial (MUA), which permits a wide-range of land uses but is hardly the most permissive. Moreover, MUA (like so many zoning categories) is a bit of an unpredictable mess. It incorporates permissible uses and conditional uses from two separate, lesser commercial zoning designations for (C-1A and C-1, respectively). This results in a gap in the zoning code whereby MUA allows many very intensive land uses, but technically omits gasoline service stations as either a permitted or conditional use.
To show how ridiculous this is, consider that MUA allows the following as permitted uses (meaning that Sterling could ignore the Coliseum Square Association if it wanted these):
- Sheet metal manufacturing
- Iron fabrication
- Dairy production
- Bottling plant
- Auto body shop
- Auto dealership
- Textile finishing
And Sterling would merely be asking for a conditional use, as opposed to an outright rezoning, if it were opening a commercial kennel, an auto repair shop, a strip club, an off-track betting parlor, or (I’m serious here) a prison facility. The bottom line is that a gas station is tame compared with the types of uses allowed in an MUA district. Its omission as a permitted use, or at least a conditional use, appears to be more by mistake than design.
You can understand how Pierce and company didn’t think that they would need to consult the Coliseum Square Association at all. The location has permissive zoning and isn’t near any residences. If you haven’t gone through the pain of New Orleans politics before, you might not realize that a residential neighborhood association would claim to represent huge swaths of industrial zones. You know, because that sounds a bit crazy.
You might also not realize that the members of neighborhood associations have started to view zoning standards as their own justification. The biggest problem the Coliseum Square Association seems to have with the Sterling Express proposal is that it requires a spot zone due to the gap in MUA. However, that has nothing to do with whether the Sterling Express is an appropriate use of any particular lot. It is uncritical deference to existing law in the name of avoiding a “spot zone.”
The substantive objections expressed by members of the Coliseum Square Association were equally strange. I can understand not wanting people fueling up in your backyard, but if you can’t have gas stations in industrial areas, where can you have them? There’s a bloody cement plant nearby, and a massive, exposed power station is just across the street. Really, it’s the idea of a gas station that’s bothersome? That doesn’t wash.
Of course, there was particular opposition to the truck fueling pumps, but let’s face it – the omission of any truck fueling bays along a major truck route like Tchoupitoulas is rather conspicuous. Although some legitimate discussion was given possible traffic impacts from the truck bays, it amounted to very little given the association’s overall reluctance to support gas pumps of any sort.
Ultimately, the flaws in the Coliseum Square Association’s decision-making is endemic among neighborhood groups. Commercial development is always suspect. Deviations from the zoning code are usually rejected out of hand. There is a tendency to want to micromanage every project, often without regard to actual neighborhood impacts. The default position is to keep properties out of commerce, to maintain the disuse.
The result is a kind of central planning that depends on having a steady stream of investors willing to grovel and ultimately conform, even when it might cost them profitability. You know what, though? Busybodies are a dime a dozen. People willing to invest in our city are highly precious, and frankly, easily deterred. Alas, we treat investors like heretics and make inquisitors out of self-absorbed meddlers. This is a scene I’m tired of watching over and over 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.