May 122014
 

Owen Courreges

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.

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  • Moses

    Owen, if you can park 4 cars vertically in a paved front yard versus 2 cars horizontally on the public street – then based on that math it seems to me that there would be more public street parking available if you pave the front yard. Silly.

    The issue is that there is not enough space to accommodate car owners and not enough public transportation.

    Find a solution to reducing car ownership and providing reliable and increased public transportation.

    • Owen Courrèges

      Moses,

      See my response to Ultimateliberal above. If a property owner paves over a yard, they might create twice as many *private* spaces, but the city loses multiple *public* spaces. Public spaces can be utilized by anyone and are far less likely to remain empty for extended periods because they aren’t reserved for a small number of people. Calling parking on private property “public parking” is the only “silly” thing I’m seeing here.

      As for the idea that there’s not enough space to accommodate cars, I disagree. People in certain high-demand areas have difficulty finding street parking, but in most of the city you rarely have to park more than a half-block away. Supply isn’t actually a major problem. In any event, I don’t think the city should be trying to discourage car ownership to force people onto public transit. That’s an expensive proposition that virtually never works.

      • Moses

        Owen, I it is the “high-demand” areas that need to be addressed which I think you easily dismiss above. In those areas you have other concerns when you have to park your car more than a block away, i.e. security (which includes lack of street lighting).

        I am not for over concreting front yards, but I am for a holistic approach to solving the problem. Everything is connected and at the same time overwhelming.

  • ultimateliberal

    Such an oxymoron–a driveway “takes away” a parking space. Nope, it remains the SAME, except that the owner’s car is OFF the street instead of AT THE CURB. True, the apron becomes a “no-parking” space, but that space had been previously occupied by the owner’s car; net zero gain/loss of space.

    I do agree that too much concrete is ugly and damaging. Strategically placed potted plants can enhance the barren expanse of the parking lot for apartment buildings.

    Some municipalities limit parking pad permits to 20-25% of original lawn and garden space. Landscaping with shrubbery is required for horseshoe parking. It’s time New Orleans enacts uniform and workable solutions to our over-reliance on cars and places to park them. We do already have neighborhoods where concrete, fences, and landscaping are regulated. Let’s extend the rules to EVERY dwelling in every neighborhood!

    • Owen Courrèges

      ultimateliberal,

      >>Such an oxymoron–a driveway “takes away” a parking space. Nope, it remains the SAME, except that the owner’s car is OFF the street instead of AT THE CURB.<>Let’s extend the rules to EVERY dwelling in every neighborhood!<<

      The rules already exist and are finally being enforced. That's what I'm lauding here.

      • ultimateliberal

        I was going to reference my reply to Moses, but I see that it is not posted….wonder what happened to it.

        Yes, I agree with your statement about off-street parking aprons that extend the length of a building DO remove too many street spaces. I was thinking more in terms of a single-wide driveway with multiple spaces inside a yard, whether front or side; not considering corner buildings where an apron on a side street takes away 6-8 spaces on the street for the garages on ground floor of a building.

        There are too many examples of this situation along St Charles Ave….80-100 ft of curb on the side streets have been appropriated by the apartment building to provide access to off-street parking. There needs to be a better solution.

        • Owen Courrèges

          ultimateliberal,

          There is a solution, and it’s what the current law provides — properties are allowed to have driveways (which are 12 feet wide, if I recall correctly), and larger lots can even have wider driveways for two-way traffic (24 feet wide). I think that’s pretty reasonable.

          However, the law simply doesn’t authorize at all what we’ve been discussing here — paving over a side yard and having the spaces exit out directly into the street. The city is finally starting to enforce the laws on the books to stop this, although some older properties have probably acquired nonconforming uses because the city turned a blind eye for too long.

  • paulette perrien

    as always – thanks — for nailing pavement as opposed to green space — paulette perrien

  • QuienesSomos

    As an aside, what in the name of GOD is going on with the St. Charles Streetcar line??? Is it just me or has the contractor torn up the same sections multiple times now? I think the entire US Interstate system was built quicker.

    • Kelly

      I want to hear what is going on with the streetcar tracks too. They most definitely have torn up the same sections multiple times now.

  • TimGNO

    Don’t think for one second that Henry Rosenblat, creator and former owner of the O’Henry’s restaurant chain, doesn’t fully understand city code and building permits. Of graver concern to me is the erroneous presumption by many property owners that “the space in front belongs to me, so nobody else should park there.” I have witnessed homeowners running outside to yell at random drivers not to “park in front of my house” as if they were doing something wrong!

    • Owen Courrèges

      Absolutely. I hate homeowners that somehow think they have a greater right, or even an exclusive right, to the parking in front of their house. It’s public parking; people can park there if they want. I even wrote a column about it once:

      http://uptownmessenger.com/2012/05/owen-courreges-the-parking-mafia/

    • chopsley

      Let’s not forget that there are areas where vehicles owned by residents are the only ones allowed to park for extended periods, usually longer than 2 hours.

      I fell victim–er, I violated that rule–back when I was a Tulane student. The signs are still there, but 35 years later, I whether the enforcement still is.

      As much as I hated it when I was a commuter to Tulane, even then I understood that in some areas residents need priority for street parking. As for paving-the-lawn parking, I’m partial to the azalea bushes, grass, and trees. They’re a big part of what makes Uptown a desirable place to live.

  • Gio Bonura

    Let’s not forget that putting a 20 foot long vehicle in the front yard generally blocks the sidewalk.