Uptown New Orleans is renowned for its urban green space. Some of it consists of public parks, places, and neutral grounds, but most of it is private – yards and gardens abutting buildings. These spaces aren’t only aesthetically pleasing, but also help manage storm runoff and reduce the need for drainage infrastructure.
However, Uptown also plays host to numerous apartment buildings whose owners want to provide the amenity of off-street parking. Where space is lacking for a proper parking lot, these owners would prefer to just pave over everything.
And sometimes, they do just that.
That’s what happened with the apartment building at the corner of Prytania and Constantinople owned by one Henry Rosenblat, according to The Lens. After Hurricane Katrina, Rosenblat paved over the front yard and side yard abutting the structure and marked it all as parking for residents, The Lens reports.
Predictably, Rosenblat’s actions didn’t sit well with his neighbors or the city. He was charged with zoning violations and appeared before a hearing officer last month.
Thankfully, Rosenblat was frank and contrite, accepting blame and promising to remedy the situation.
Wait, scratch that. Actually, the opposite was the case – Rosenblat’s attorney claimed that enforcement was selective, heaped blame on “preservationists and people like that,” and erroneously indicated that no vehicles were being parked in the side yard, The Lens reports. The city has already filed suit for injunctive relief against Rosenblat to have the pavement removed.
Assistant City Attorney Christy Harowski gave Rosenblat an ultimatum: “You can agree to take up the paving and not park there, or go to court.”
Rosenblat is hardly the first property owner to illegally pave over a yard and he won’t be the last. While I am usually the first to defend the rights of property owners and condemn onerous zoning laws, the paving of lawns is just awful and generally indefensible.
Paved lawns are bad for at least three reasons. First, they’re simply ugly. Although aesthetic concerns normally shouldn’t trump property rights, there is a limit. This is particularly the case when you’re dealing with historic neighborhoods. A concrete slab is ugly compared with landscaping.
Secondly, paved lawns have environmental effects. Concrete can’t absorb water; if everything is a series of concrete slabs, flooding becomes a problem. Likewise, concrete leaves little room for trees and vegetation, and less shade leads to higher temperatures. In the Gulf South, with its legendary heat and chronic issues with flooding, allowing people to pave over lawns is a losing proposition.
Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly – is the fact that when a property owner paves over a lawn or side yard to provide parking, they’re not just creating parking, but a gigantic driveway. That driveway reduces street parking, which last I checked remains a public good.
Put more glibly, the property owner is converting a public good into a private good. Although paved lawns are prosecuted as zoning violations, they’re really more analogous to theft.
Accordingly, you don’t have to believe in “green infrastructure” and the like to oppose allowing property owners to pave their yards. All you need to understand is that when a property owner paves a yard, several public parking spaces are lost. If you’ve ever been frustrated driving around looking for a place to park, that alone should get your dander up.
While landowners may want to characterize the city’s crackdown on lawn paving as yet another example of zoning overreach, it simply is not. It is not preservationists and environmentalists kicking up an unreasonable fuss. There are legitimate public interests at stake.
Sometimes people who face enforcement action by the city have legitimate gripes, other times they are merely scofflaws masquerading as victims. I, for one, am glad to see that the scofflaws aren’t fooling anyone.
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.