Jun 162014
(via habananeworleans.com)

The corner of Esplanade and Rampart, site of the proposed Habana Outpost. (via habananeworleans.com)

Owen Courreges

Put a fork in it.  The Louisiana Landmarks Society is done.  They’ve bought the farm, cashed in their chips, and kicked the proverbial bucket.

I could go on listing aphorisms signifying death or obsolescence, but the gist is that the Louisiana Landmarks Society has become a joke.  They have abandoned their mission of helping preserve landmarks in favor of the far less laudable enterprise of hawking restrictive zoning for the benefit of local NIMBYs.

I have reached this conclusion following the society’s release of its annual “New Orleans Nine Most Endangered List,” which lists “at-risk historic properties.”  The Louisiana Landmarks Society as a whole was founded in 1950 in order to promote historic preservation, and the list was envisioned as a means to highlight certain properties at risk of being lost.

After this year’s list, it’s clear that is no longer the society’s agenda.

Although the list has certainly gone beyond simply citing individual properties, many of the “nine” still bear on historic preservation.  For example, the society begins by bemoaning the lack of code enforcement in the Tremé and the potential loss of federal historic tax credits.   These aren’t individual properties, but at least they fit with the society’s supposed goals.

Alas, the “nine” then quickly devolve into defenses of restrictive zoning that has absolutely nothing to do with preservation.  Three of the “nine” stand out as particularly egregious in this regard.

First, the society bemoans the lack of sufficient staff with the planning commission to enforce the Master Plan.  However, whether a zoning decision conforms with the Master Plan has no real bearing on whether historic properties are preserved or not.  In fact, having an army of bureaucrats breathing down the neck of every property owner actually makes it more difficult for residents to preserve historic buildings.

Next, the society condemns recently-approved plans to develop the old Holy Cross School site as “out of scale development.”  Now, the society doesn’t have to love the plans to develop Holy Cross, and I understand the arguments from some neighbors opposing the high-density development. However, that’s not about preservation.  The developer’s plans preserve the administration building and none of the other structures to be build will be taller than it.  Therefore, from a preservationist perspective, the project is really not objectionable.

Finally, the society condemns the proposed development of a “Habana Outpost” restaurant at the corner of Rampart and Esplanade as “inappropriate.”  The society describes the site as the “gateway” to the French Quarter’s “fragile and dwindling residential sector,” and calls the proposed restaurant “out-of-scale.”  This is all balderdash.  The properties in question have been zoned commercially for decades, and Rampart is a commercial strip.  One of the lots to be consolidated is a moldering gas station.

It is here that it becomes the most painfully clear that the society has become more interested in land use determinations than it is in preservation.  The society is curiously silent about the hundreds (if not thousands) of historically commercial buildings that have lost noncomforming use status over the years and have either been retrofitted as residential properties or left to rot.

Nevertheless, a developer proposes consolidating lots that are commercially zoned while preserving the historic structures, and the society comes down against it.  It’s base hypocrisy and demonstrates that the society is now at war with its own stated mission.

In truth, restrictive zoning polices run counter to preservation.  Zoning limits the options available to potential buyers for utilizing a vacant property.  The fewer options available for redevelopment, the longer it takes for redevelopment to occur (if it ever does).

Now, nobody is claiming that the society has to take a firm stand against our overly complex and strict zoning laws in order to claim the mantle of preservationism.  The society can certainly acknowledge completing goals, decline to take a broad stance, and avoid taking sides in specific cases involving contentious land use issues.  There’s no shame or hypocrisy in that.

However, what the society cannot credibly contend is that their apparent love of zoning has anything to do with preservation.  Hiring more planners to enforce zoning laws is not about preservation.  Fighting redevelopment projects that preserve existing historic buildings is not about preservation.

The bottom line is that Louisiana Landmarks Society listed nine items that it claims are about “preservation” and a third of them have nothing to do with it.  If anything, they indicate that the society thinks certain goals supersede historic preservation.

That’s their prerogative, of course, but I don’t want to hear them crow about “preservation” when they’re placing themselves on the wrong side of the aisle.  For that reason, the Louisiana Landmarks Society is dead to me.

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.

  10 Responses to “Owen Courreges: Losing faith in the Landmarks Society”

  1. Good Stuff,Owen. Written with insight and perfect clarity. Good Stuff.

  2. I can see many of your points, however preservation is not just a building by building issues; there is also the idea of preservation of communities/neighborhoods. If you put a loud dance club next to a 200 year old property, the vibrations of music, the crowds of people, traffic, parking, trash and so on all jeopardize the integrity of the historic building as well as the integrity of the community.

    Just as Holy Cross is not just a collection of historic dwellings, it is also a historic community and should also be looked at and protected as a whole, not just building by building.

    • Destiny,

      I just don’t think that’s really “historic preservation.” For starters, the fact is that the demographics and culture of a community change over time, and nobody can stop that. I really question the motives and goals of any organization claiming to know the true and appropriate culture of a community and neighborhood in terms of how land is used. That seems very far removed from simple preservation to me.

      Secondly, when you start talking about land use, you’re no longer about preserving landmarks but about what the current residents of a neighborhood consider “appropriate” development. Long ago, a gas station at the corner of Rampart and Esplanade was considered appropriate. Would the neighborhood really be happy if that gas station simply reopened? I don’t see this about “preserving” anything.

      Finally, I see the Louisiana Landmarks Society as simply being hypocritical. The history of New Orleans is one of development occurring in the absence of zoning, of corner businesses and commercial corridors popping up in residential neighborhoods. However, I don’t see the society ever condemning the adaptive reuse of commercial buildings because it’s ahistorical and runs counter to the history of the neighborhood. I don’t see them arguing for zoning changes that allow historically commercial structures to stay commercial. Their argument always seems to be a one-way street. Thus, it’s disingenuous.

      • If noise from clubs was that destructive to historic buildings, much of the Quarter would be a pile of rubble by now.

      • Out of scale development is a fine line – what is the balance. Banks loans are the prime drivers of out-of scale developments. A noble architect, if there are any left, factors expressions of human spirit. Banks factor the immediate cost per square foot – not the potential of appreciation.

        While I can see your point regarding Louisiana Landmarks expanding your definition of historic preservation, I will still support any one person and any one organization that does fight the Goliaths of out-of scale development. This is New Orleans – not Houston, Mr. Courreges.

        • Moses,

          Yes, this is New Orleans, and here we have plenty of large restaurants and major high-density developments. The proposed Habana Outpost was not so huge as to be objectionable; its seating capacity was going to be 417, which is pretty standard for a large restaurant. You can compare that to Antoine’s, which has a capacity of 800.

          As for the Holy Cross development, I would point out that there are high-density residential buildings mixed in all over the city. The Muses development is Central City is a prime example. A block from my house there’s the Carroll, which is much larger than the proposed Holy Cross buildings. As for older structures, you have the Georgian and the Octavia on St. Charles. I would argue that a large residential building can rarely be called “out of scale” when you actually look at how the city has developed.

          Accordingly, I don’t see there being a real issue with “out of scale” development in these instances, and even if I did, I couldn’t fathom how it could have anything to do with any definition of preservation.

  3. “…Knowledgeable, and passionate about his city, Owen Courrèges is a New Orleanian in the most classic sense.”

    Passionate, yes. Knowledgeable, not so much.

  4. Valence,

    A drive-by insult. That’s not pathetic at all.

    In all seriousness, if you have something of substance to say, then do. Otherwise, perhaps you should consider Lincoln’s maxim: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

  5. Owen pretty much nailed it. Zoning should not be used as a mechanism for historic preservation; it’s a blunt instrument. When zoning is employed to “preserve” historic properties by groups, it often looks like zoning is being used to regulate lifestyles, minimize inconveniences for a select few, and exclude certain communities.

    Historic preservation and density are not mutually exclusive. Neither are historic preservation and economic development. In fact, tourism and historic preservation are not necessarily incompatible either.

    Why, then, is the pretext of “historic preservation” used to slow or block projects that increase density, provide economic development, and/or generate additional tourism? Often it seems the claim of “historic preservation” is used by groups and associations to cover up their selfish ends and parochial interests. Because these groups and associations do not want to show that they are opposed to a project that may inconvenience their lives in the slightest and because they do not care about New Orleans’ interest as a whole, they use “historic preservation” to neutralize their opponents.

  6. This week a tenement of 6 small apartments was torn down at 600 – 608 Soraparu. These were utterly unique in the Irish Channel and a true historic loss. It is a mystery to me how HDLC and City Planning allowed this demolition. Well Goody for the Waldorf School, but considering the pain I had to go through with the HDLC regarding aspect ratio of my windows, it makes my blood boil that they allowed this unique structure to be demolished. This was one that truly merited a “most endangered” status.

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