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.