Owen Courreges: Easier growth is the real smart growth

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Owen Courreges

“Smart growth” is a concept that I have long derided.  Reduced to its essence, smart growth is an ideology borne of a single idea (that the rise of the suburbs is somehow evil), and dedicated to forcing people to live in dense cities.  Their boogeyman is sprawl, which they condemn endlessly.

Oversimplified?  A bit, sure, but then the rhetoric and policy proposals from smart growth advocates strike me as simplistic and single-minded.

Thus, it should come as little surprise that I was not among the approximately 800 people who attended the eighth annual Louisiana Smart Growth Summit held last week in Baton Rouge.   I wasn’t there to discuss unrealistic plans for regional passenger rail, or to hear Councilwoman Palmer drone on about streetcar expansions and “Complete Streets” when half our streets are barely possible.

There was, however, at least one interesting voice.  Andres Duany, a planner who helped create “Plan Baton Rouge” for planning the redevelopment of downtown Baton Rouge, gave a keynote address in which he pitched what he has dubbed “lean urbanism,” a form of “New Urbanism” that emphasizes cutting red tape, cutting bureaucracy, and making laws clearer and more accessible.

Duany’s position tends not to be shared by smart growth advocates, who more often favor heavy-handed zoning and other measures that invoke the police power to force density.

In the past, Duany has also addressed an issue very dear to my heart, what I have called the “neighborhood veto” whereby neighborhood organizations are effectively given control over development decisions, particularly with respect to non-residential uses.  In 2003, during a debate with conservative planning consultant Wendell Cox, Duany observed that when a new development is proposed, “neighbors who are in fact affected can basically pack the room, and actually prevent something which is again the common good.”

Duany then recounted a discussion with a man from Perth, Austrailia.  Duany noted that there was a newer beach club for nonresidents, and wondered aloud: “How’d you do this? Don’t you have a democracy here?”

“Yes,” the Perthian responded, “but we don’t confuse a democracy with the immediate neighbors.”

Duany proceeded to explain how Perth went through a process not unlike jury selection to select a group of citizens for public discussion.  In this way, Perth ensured a wider scope of viewpoints and interests were represented.  “[T]he basic principle is,” Duany explained, “the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.”

I personally wouldn’t favor the system described by Duany, but it’s far better than what we have now in New Orleans.  Now, if a neighborhood group says “jump,” a council member responds “how high?”  Uptown is victim to some of the worst of this.  Councilwoman Guidry has become downright notorious among business owners for her deference to neighborhood organizations.

This wouldn’t be so much of a problem were it not for the fact that neighborhood groups are not democratic, but the result of self-selection.  The type of individual who engages with a neighborhood group is far more likely to want to control development decisions.  Live-and-let-live types won’t invest their time discussing new businesses and new developments, while busybodies won’t shut up about them.

In practice, this is where a great deal of the red tape comes from that holds back growth and renewal.   All the talk of preserving neighborhoods and fostering a vibrant urban environment goes out the window the moment anybody actually wants to do something.

I don’t agree with everything Duany says.  Like most planners, he can be a bit of a slave to trends; for example, his statement at the conference that Baton Rouge needs young people with a “nose for cool” was downright cringeworthy.  You don’t need to make assumptions about the type of commerce a city will attract to justify making a city more attractive to entrepreneurs.

However, Duany is absolutely correct that we need to cut the bureaucracy and red tape, and put the power back in the hands of those who are actually trying to start a business or develop a property.  We don’t need more government-backed mega-developments so much as we need a groundswell of smaller players with the ability to make things happen.

That’s the way forward for cities like New Orleans.  That’s a type of “smart growth” actually worthy of the name.

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.

21 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: Easier growth is the real smart growth

  1. I could not agree more. Last night, when I used the drive through window at the Walgreens on St. Charles to pick up medicine for a sick kid, I couldn’t help but be reminded when that location was being built, and Janet Howard, representing the Garden District Association (not even in that district) did everything in her power to keep the window from being built – lumping it in the same category as the “evil fast food drive through windows” ruining the Avenue.

    • It’s a good thing they didn’t want to build a multi-million dollar residence there. You’d be surprised at the red tape and appeals to the bureaucracy to stop that you would have heard.

    • Joanne,

      That’s exactly the type of attitude I find so frustrating — these knee-jerk reactions against those who are actually investing money (not just free time and noise) in building something demonstrably useful in this city. There is no doubt in my mind that our economic and population declines are intimately tied to the blase attitudes of many who act as though we can continue along the current path and everything is fine. Everything is not fine when a city like ours, so starved for commerce, treats commerce as a secondary consideration.

    • This isn’t so much about growth as it is about managing land use. Growth is certainly a good thing, but I don’t think “smart growth” actually promotes it.

      • Let’s see. First there are the poor who can’t even afford a 50-cent raise in bus fares. Yet, have smart growth via smaller players in businesses who will pay how much to these poor (who can’t even afford a 50-cent raise in bus fares?)

        Smaller players of business will pay very little to the poor when compared to mega players.

        • AhContraire,

          I’m saying that “smaller players” can do more if you cut regulation and red tape than big players can with taxpayer subsidies and other forms of government backing.

          • Let’s say you cut regulation and red tape for the smaller players, how much more do you think the poor can get paid? Would it be enough to afford a 50 cent hike in bus fare? Say if it’s 1 dollar more? Could smaller players pay that to workers for bus fare?

        • Yes, the “big players” face daunting, costly roadblocks when doing projects – like the obstruction faced by Kabacoff re Walmart on Tchoupitoulas. But he’s KABACOFF, and he lives here (thank God) so I can’t imagine how many other “big players” from out of town have walked away from doing business in this atmosphere.

      • I think “growth” is over rated. We want better, not bigger. I certainly don’t want that thing on my neck to grow. The Weill house replacement is actually bigger, but some found that not so good. The city (and metro area) has adjusted very well to its post-k reduced population. I certainly don’t want uncontrolled growth free of “red tape” and bureaucratic reviews. Urban life is as close and intense contact as human life gets, and it is unreasonable to not expect scrutiny from a zillion sources.

        • Deux,

          Cities that act as though growth doesn’t matter tend to grow smaller and poorer. You don’t have to anticipate becoming a megalopolis in order to have a regulatory environment that isn’t stifling and conducive to growth as opposed to stagnation and decline. It’s this kind of talk that leaves New Orleans poor, half its former size, and largely void of opportunity.

          Also, I find this line of yours to be, frankly, a bit scary:

          “Urban life is as close and intense contact as human life gets, and it is unreasonable to not expect scrutiny from a zillion sources.”

          It’s not unreasonable to expect people to mind their own business and allow others a large degree of latitude in conducting their business, their profession, and their personal lives. The idea that everything I do should invite “scrutiny from a zillion sources” is a bizarre and frightening notion.

          • Do you have a cite for that first contention? As for minding one’s own business, I think the nature of city life is that we are affected by what others do and thus it is our business. You are all over the board on this. Last week you were lamenting the latitude university and private property owners on St. Charles had to redevelop their properties, and today you are outraged that some would seek to limit new drive up retail services on the avenue. I think since the dawn of civilization, cities have required a great deal of regulation to protect the quality of life of the citizenry.

          • Deux,

            >>I think the nature of city life is that we are affected by what others do and thus it is our business.<>You are all over the board on this. Last week you were lamenting the latitude university and private property owners on St. Charles had to redevelop their properties, and today you are outraged that some would seek to limit new drive up retail services on the avenue.<<

            Preservation laws that prohibit destruction of major historic structures are fairly minimal intrusions in my view. Recall that I have criticized the HDLC on multiple occasions for being too intrusive; I am hardly "all over the board" on that issue or on the appropriate level of government regulation in general.

            I think you're reaching here and I find it insulting. You cite one example where I support the most basic of preservation laws and act as though I'm completely inconsistent on the level of municipal regulation that is reasonable. It's a lousy argument and you darn well know it.

          • Owen, you were lamenting the lack of historic controls and I don’t understand your complaint about the HDLC, which had no jurisdiction in the cases where you wanted more municipal regulation. Proposing historic preservation regulation where none exists is exponentially more intrusive than opposing drive through retail drugstores on an historic avenue. Just what most basic preservation law did you think you were supporting? I am sorry you feel insulted, but I did mean to offer some good faith criticism.

  2. Way to go, Owen! These associations are often self-appointed loudmouths, whose “concern” is often self-serving. I’ve been involved in multiple associations, and have seen both the good, and the bad. When there aren’t term limits for their appointments, or even actual elections, why should anyone cowtow to them? Meanwhile, they’re allowed to “complain” on behalf of “their” associations, and the city jumps. It’s embarrassing. It’s become a bunch of cliques and popularity contests, controlling things like how much soundproofing goes into a music venue, (which is cost-prohibitive to doing business.)

    The go-cup debacle is a great example of this. Keep up the good work!

    • I don’t mind neighborhood associations opining, but Owen is right that our true elected representatives should not yield just because it is a “neighborhood” association. The paid membership in such groups is small, the active membership even smaller, and the control group usually two or three people.

  3. Also consider: Members of the City Council and the leaders of neighborhood groups share the same psychological makeup of narcissism and egocentric personality types, so council members will invariability relate more so with these folks.

  4. I’m fine with removing obstacles to growth, but sometimes that means increased density in desirable areas. Numerous proposals for multi-story buildings in the Riverbend/Black Pearl have been shot down by neighborhood groups, even though the plans came from private developers seeking to capitalize on river/park views. A similar battle has played out in the Marigny, where neighborhood groups have defeated several proposals for so-called “highrises” (as if six stories was a skyscraper).

    Regulations also force high costs. Why, for example, are developers still required to provide on-site parking for most new buildings, be they residential, commercial, etc? Why not let the market decide? We can’t really bury parking underground here, so that parking takes up valuable space that could potentially be leased out to paying tenants.

  5. Deux,

    I’m not proposing regulations where none exist. There are rules against demolitions on St. Charles, but the well-connected can work their way around them.

    As for the HDLC, I wasn’t talking about non-local districts; I was noting that I don’t support that level of nitpicky regulation, particularly given how much “money talks” when we’re dealing with proposed demolitions of major structures.

    That’s the whole point — I’m saying that I favor less regulation, and at the very least that we actually enforce the basics of preservation (which should include not allowing the well-heeled to raze historic mansions) before we second-guess the choice of roofing material on a dilapidated shotgun in the Irish Channel. I favor minimally-intrusive preservation laws, as I think I’ve made clear.

    • No all of St. Charles Avenue is protected against demolition. You really need to check on that. I’m not sure what “minimally intrusive preservation law” would look like. Do you think original roofs are not worthy of preservation? I hope you will comment on the concrete plant/coffee house cases reported here recently.

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