In early 2013 — barely a month after she was sworn into office — City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell issued a statement forcefully proclaiming her opposition to the demolition of a century-old house at 820 General Pershing that was essential to the “the residential fabric of the community,” she said.
On Thursday — citing an impasse that fellow Councilmember Stacy Head described as a more of a “hostage” situation — Cantrell voted to approve the demolition of the same property. Cantrell declined to explain the reason for her change of heart, but residents who met with her extensively leading up to the decision said it may have to do with concerns about the viability of the city’s overall process for denying the demolition of historic properties.
Created in 2008, the Neighborhood Conservation District Committee (NCDC) governs the demolition of significant buildings outside the city’s official historic districts. The NCDC is made up of 13 members — one appointed by each of the seven City Council members, one appointed by the mayor, and the five representatives from various city departments such as Safety and Permits or the City Planning Commission. Anyone attempting to tear down a building within the NCDC area must make their case before that panel first, though if they are rejected, they can appeal the decision to the City Council.
The house at 820 General Pershing have participated in that process twice in recent years, first appearing before the NCDC unsuccessfully in late 2012. Cantrell was elected to the City Council that December, and in January issued a statement announcing her opposition to the demolition — later citing that stance on her campaign website as evidence of her support for historic preservation.
The house returned to NCDC for another try with a new owner in June of this year. At that hearing, the NCDC voted 5-2 to reject the demolition (the vote total was low in part because the agency currently has a number of vacancies). The owners of 820 General Pershing then appealed that decision to the City Council, and the request has been pending for several weeks as the Sept. 9 deadline for a decision drew nearer.
On Wednesday, a day before the final City Council meeting before the deadline for a decision on the property, Cantrell invited neighbors to her office for what turned into a six-hour meeting to discuss her decision to allow the demolition. She refused to let Uptown Messenger attend that meeting, and in a brief interview afterward declined to explain why her support for a demolition she once so ardently opposed.
Several residents who attended the meeting, however, said that Cantrell explained her position on the General Pershing property as related to ongoing questions about the validity of the NCDC process.
“She says the NCDC process is not legal,” said Faye Lieder, a neighbor who has spearheaded efforts to preserve the General Pershing property.
The concern among city officials, according to the residents’ account of Cantrell’s explanation, is that a flaw in the structure of the NCDC process leaves decisions made by the panel so open to legal challenge that they cannot be defended in court.
“Right now, anybody can demolish anything,” Lieder said.
With the problem with NCDC increasingly well known, Cantrell told the residents she could not support a decision that leaves the city open to a lawsuit, the neighbors said.
The scope of the issue with the NCDC — how many demolition denials are ripe for legal challenge, and how long city officials have known about it — remains unclear, as officials involved with it have largely refused to discuss it this week. Cantrell declined to discuss the neighbors’ account of her explanation to them. A representative of the Preservation Resource Center who attended that meeting also declined to discuss the issue. Garnesha Crawford, a spokeswoman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office, said only, “We don’t have a comment today,” in response to questions about the NCDC issue and did not respond to subsequent questions about it.
When the demolition request for 820 General Pershing reached the City Council meeting on Thursday morning, officials were likewise circumspect in their description of why it could not simply be denied, as before. Cantrell said the demolition request at 820 General Pershing was at an “impasse,” but explained her support for the demolition based on two reasons: first, that the owner had signed an agreement to keep the lot as a garden, rather than a parking lot or other commercial use, and second, that the condition of the building would continue to deteriorate if the demolition was denied — the latter rationale essentially condoning a policy of demolition by neglect usually condemned by preservationists.
Only City Councilwoman Stacy Head — who formerly represented the neighborhood before being elected to her at-large Council seat — challenged the demolition, which ultimately passed with a 6-1 vote.
“I think we’re being held hostage by some people who aren’t doing what they should have done,” Head said.
In an interview outside the City Council meeting, Head said it was “absurd” to allow a demolition because of potential challenges to the panel governing it.
“There have been legal challenges to the NCDC. Developers don’t like being told ‘No,'” Head said. “But if we stopped enforcing the rules because of challenges, I’m not sure we’d need a government. There are very few laws that are already enforced that haven’t been challenged in court.”
Meanwhile, however, Head is working with the city administration to craft an overhaul of the NCDC. A draft of a new ordinance would rename it the Neighborhood Conservation District Advisory Committee, and its function “shall be limited to counsel and advice.” All of the mayor’s appointees to the panel would be removed, leaving only seven members appointed by each City Council member.
The goal of the new legislation, Head said, is to “remove an argument” that developers use in court against demolition denials, placing the board that reviews them under the purview of the legislative branch instead of the executive branch. The existing process is sound, she said, but her ordinance will strengthen it.
As of Wednesday night, the NCDAC ordinance was still slated to be introduced at Thursday’s City Council meeting, and was even mentioned in a news release from the City Council about agenda items scheduled to be heard. When the meeting reached the NCDAC item on the agenda, however, the council clerk said it was deferred to the Council’s Sept. 18 meeting, and no council members commented on it.
Regardless of when the Council takes up the NCDAC proposal, one thing is clear — it is likely too late to save the house on General Pershing. Neighbors have said the owner plans to begin demolition on it within a week.
“We fell through the cracks,” Lieder said.