After the City Council approved the demolition of a pair of Upperline Street homes last week, a group of neighbors are hoping to find more ways both to monitor demolition requests and hopefully to help owners preserve historic houses before they succumb to neglect.
The houses at 1020 and 1032 Upperline were bought by Ken Flower after the previous owner recently died, and determined that they were both in such poor condition that they were beyond saving, his architect said at a meeting of the Neighborhood Conservation District Advisory Committee in July. Preservationists, however, argued against allowing Flower to replace the houses with new construction, and the NCDAC declined to recommend approval for either demolition.
The issue came before the New Orleans City Council last week, and Mark Tullis of the Faubourg Avart Neighborhood Association that represents the area said the association got involved too late to make a decision. But many of the same neighbors who opposed the Upperline demolitions before the City Council wanted to hold a broader discussion of the issue at this week’s meeting of the association, Tullis said.
Hillary Irvin and Mary Robinson presented a list of recent nearby demolition approvals in addition to the Upperline houses — 918 Soniat, 5019 Annunciation, 4810 Constance, 514 and 1009 Bellecastle, and partial demolitions at 5329 Laurel and 532 Upperline. This pattern, Robinson said, creates a “domino effect” of demolitions of smaller, older homes in the neighborhood, because larger houses in the formerly working-class neighborhoods near the river can now fetch nearly $1 million on the market.
Leigh Carriere said that once the older houses are gone, any style of single or two-family home can generally be built. The NCDAC only has jurisdiction over demolitions, unlike the Historic District Landmarks Commission, which controls what is built in some Uptown neighborhoods.
“If they demolish a house, you have no control over what’s put in its place,” Carriere said.
The City Council is creating a committee to study expanding the HDLC to more Uptown historic neighborhoods, but the group has yet to hold its first meeting. In the meantime, said Bryon Cornelison, a spokesman for Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, the council generally tries to seek out construction plans to ensure demolitions don’t lead to vacant land.
“Nobody likes an empty lot,” Cornelison said. “If we get that at the council level, we usually stop it.”
Bryan Gibbs, a developer present at the meeting, said the neighborhood should try to distinguish between houses that are truly historic and salvageable, versus those that either have no historic value or are too far gone to be saved. On the whole, the development is good for the neighborhood.
“I know that values have gone up, and neighborhoods change,” Gibbs said. “Things are getting better. It’s natural to upgrade the housing stock, and that helps us all, regardless of whether they live here or not.”
Better than trying to stop demolitions at the council level, Gibbs suggested, is trying to prevent them early on. Neighbors can be more vigilant about calling in blighted conditions that they see in the neighborhood, and urging the owners of historic homes to be better stewards of their property.
“The best thing the neighborhood can do is keep these houses from getting on this list,” Gibbs said. If a property owner refuses to take care of a house, at some point the city should be asked intervene through its blight process. “Owning a piece of property is a privilege, not a right, so people have to take care of their property.”
Wyoming Quinn, another neighborhood resident, said many of the older people in the neighborhood have lived in their houses for years. If they didn’t have the money to keep them perfectly up to code, it was generally overlooked. Now, with prices higher than ever before, the pressure is on them to sell.
“People seeing this neighborhood with dollar signs in their eyes is painful, a little bit, to watch,” Quinn said. “People are looking at this neighborhood in a whole different way than previous generations.”
Resident and author Stephanie Bruno, who had advocated for a compromise on the Upperline houses (demolishing one and saving the other), said that some neighborhoods have adopted a more holistic approach. Both the Freret Neighborhood Center and the Delachaise Neighborhood Association have adopted property committees that follow a similar process.
First, members rigorously document blighted homes in the neighborhood, sometimes through “blight walks” or other community activities. Then, they try to establish personal relationships with the owners. If it’s an elderly person or someone else who otherwise can’t fix the home up themselves, the neighborhood committee will connect them to a visiting church group or other volunteer organization to help them get the repairs they need, sort of a “help the elderly care for their houses” program, Bruno explained.
But if the owner is an absentee landlord or otherwise refuses to take care of the property, the neighborhood will then report the issues to the city and try to follow the property through the blight system.
With all those options, the neighborhood activists concluded the discussion by collecting email addresses for volunteers to help form a strategy.
“We’re just trying to figure out what the process is,” Carrier said.