Issues relating to the demolition of historic buildings dominated Thursday’s meeting of the New Orleans City Council, culminating in the quiet restructuring of the city panel that oversees them to protect its decisions from court challenges.
Thursday’s meeting there on Thursday, however, included intense debates over whether preservation laws accelerate the loss of property by original owners, or if city bureaucracy is actually impeding preservation efforts – and ultimately suggests a widening philosophical rift among City Council members over the role of architectural preservation in New Orleans.
‘Fixed up … or sold’
The tension rose to the surface only minutes after the council began its business meeting, shortly before noon on Tuesday. Doris Tuckson, a Kenner resident, was seeking permission to demolish a home that she and her siblings own at 2817-19 Joliet Street in the Carrollton area. Tuckson said a sister initially received a permit to demolish it in 2010, but fell ill and eventually died after the work had only begun.
“The wood is rotten, the foundation is not sturdy and there’s termite damage,” Tuckson says. “The outside might look like it’s intact, but the inside is not.”
City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, whose district includes the residence, said she planned to oppose the demolition. Even if the demolition was allowed, Guidry said, the Tuckson family has no plans yet to rebuild — leaving an empty lot in the neighborhood.
“What I see is a house that very easily could be renovated,” Guidry says. “The fact that the inside has been gutted just lends itself to renovation. … It should be fixed up or it should be sold.”
Councilwoman Stacy Head said the house was a “lovely” example of a cottage from around the 1920s that could be saved. Further, she said, the property is worth more with a house on it, especially in that Northwest Carrollton neighborhood where neighbors are so ardent in favor of renovation. Tuckson and the other heirs would likely get as much as $200,000 for the house at auction, Head said, instead of letting it continue to be neglected.
“To the extent that you don’t want to be stewards of our architecture, maybe another alternative is better,” Head said.
Councilmen Jason Williams and James Gray both took a slightly softer approach. Head’s point about the value of the house as historic construction is probably correct, they said, so the family might be better off trying to move forward with a renovation.
“I know it may look like a headache, but it does have more value than a flat piece of ground,” Williams said.
Councilwomen LaToya Cantrell and Nadine Ramsey, however, took exception to the suggestion that Tuckson should sell the property. Cantrell urged her to take more time to decide what to do with it.
“I don’t want you to feel like you’re being pushed to sell. Bottom line is, this is also part of your family history,” Cantrell said. “It’s a strong market, but at the same time, we have to use balance, because gentrification is happening at the same time.”
Ramsey noted that the Council has voted to allow some homeowners in the university neighborhoods to simply tear down similar aged, small houses because they want something different or larger. She is concerned, she said, that the effect of historic-preservation laws can be to separate poor people from their family property more quickly.
“We have allowed demolitions continuously, despite the talk of historic preservation,” Ramsey said. She added later, “We need to remember that people are more important that property.”
Head said she believes that in cases of New Orleanians coming home and needing to demolish in order to return to their own homes, she will vote for demolition. But just generally putting the desires of property owners to tear down homes because they don’t want to keep them up any more, she said, represents the kind of small-government thinking normally associated with Libertarians and the Tea Party.
“I’m concerned that you believe the individual property rights supercede the obligation that people many decades before us have put in the law to preserve our properties,” Head said.
Despite the range of viewpoints, the 5-2 vote sided with Guidry, the district council member, in ruling against the demolition. Only Gray and Ramsey voted against her.
Tuckson complained that even the city’s interest in what she does with the property is a relatively new phenomenon.
“The house was never historic prior to Katrina,” Tuckson said. “It only became ‘historic’ after Katrina. Prior to 2005, it was not considered ‘historic.'”
‘Penalizing people for doing the right thing’?
The demolition issues continued into the next agenda item, which concerned $13,380 in fines relating to construction on a house at 6124 Camp Street.
Megan Fuselier told the Council that the house was badly in disrepair when her family bought it, cited for blight with vines growing inside and squatters living there when they took possession of it. They intended to do a selection demolition in order to renovate it, and submitted plans to the city showing the changes they planned, including the the walls and siding they intended to remove.
“We submitted plans, they were reviewed and approved, and a permit was issued,” Fusilier said.
They began work, but were issued a stop-work order about a week later, she said. They were told that the portion of the second-floor they removed constituted a demolition outside the scope of the renovation permit, and that they must not return to the property until the issue was resolved.
The NCDC voted to uphold the fees (or actually, to reduce them by half from the original fee of $26,760) as part of what is called a post-demolition permit — essentially, a fine for demolition the property without permission. But this sequence of events, Fuselier said, will actually discourage people from renovating — if they submit plans and receive a permit, but then are told they need a demolition permit instead and are fined for lack of it, they simply won’t renovate at all and will try to obtain the demolition permit from the outset.
“We weren’t trying to do anything other than save the historic part of the house,” Fuselier said. “We weren’t trying to play a gotcha game. We were just trying to do a historic renovation, but we’ve been extremely damaged. The building is in complete disrepair.”
Safety and Permits director Jared Munster said the city’s analysis of the plans didn’t show the extent of demolition that was actually taking place.
“Certainly, there was some level of removal,” Munster says. “It did not indicate that over 50 percent of the structure would be removed.”
Guidry said the neighbors believed that they were witnessing an unpermitted demolition by the Fuseliers anyway, and that there has been outcry from the neighborhood to uphold the fees.
“The developers need to be held accountable for going beyond the scope” of what was permitted, Guidry said.
Further, Guidry said the neighbors have complained about the condition of the lot since the stop-work order was issued. Fuselier said she was told she could not return to the property by code-enforcement officers, but would have preferred to be able to keep the site free of further deterioration. Instead, it is in worse shape now, she said.
“We couldn’t even pick up demolition debris,” Fuselier said. She added, “If we thought we could have maintained it, we would have.”
Councilman Gray sympathized with that aspect of Fuselier’s complaint. From looking at the stop-work order, he can understand why they thought they had to cease all activity.
“If the stop work order means something other than what it says, perhaps you ought to change what it says,” Gray said to Munster. “I look at this notice, and it’s easy to believe that.”
Williams and Cantrell both said they, too, felt that the issue exposed problems.
“To cite somebody for blight in the middle of a renovation is extremely problematic for me,” Williams said.
“The miscommunication is a problem,” Cantrell said, adding, “Sometimes it feels like we’re penalizing people for doing the right thing.”
Councilman Jared Brossett said the problems speak to a need for “reform” in the Safety and Permits office.
“This has been a systemic problem over administrations with Safety and Permits,” Brossett said.
Guidry, however, said that the larger issue she sees is people applying for renovation permits, but then actually demolishing historic structures instead. For example, she has seen documentation that the Fuseliers were told they could clean up the job site, but they persisted with the NCDC appeal instead. Ultimately, they are professionals who should have known how to follow a stop-work order.
“These inconsistencies concern me,” Guidry said.
Matt Wilson, speaking on behalf of the Fuseliers, pointed out that Guidry is suggesting that developers and individual residents be held to different sets standards of standards in the renovation and demolition process. Guidry said she felt the issue had had enough discussion, and voted 4-3 in favor of upholding the $13,380 fine, with Cantrell, Williams and Brossett voting against it.
The briefest discussion of the day’s demolition derby centered on perhaps the most substantive decision of the three, Head’s plan to restructure the NCDC into a new agency called the Neighborhood Conservation District Advisory Committee.
In technical terms, the primary difference between the old NCDC and the new NCDAC is that the new body is simply advisory in capacity — unlike the old NCDC, none of the NCDAC decisions will be binding, and all must be ratified by the City Council. Little difference will be evident in practical terms, however, as any NCDC decision could previously be appealed to the City Council anyway.
The real effect, Head said, is to strength the body’s decisions against court challenges. One argument made by unsuccessful demolition applicants with increasing frequency was that the NCDC was allowing decisions to be made by the wrong branch of government.
“This ordinance removes a challenge that had been heard in court,” Head said after the meeting. “I’m not saying that I agree with it or that they could have won, but this is a conservative approach to removing any doubt.”
A previous draft of the proposal would have removed all the mayor’s appointees — one each from five different city agencies, and an additional appointee at-large — leaving only the seven City Council appointees on the NCDAC. The ordinance passed Thursday, however, includes an amendment restoring all of the mayor’s appointees, back to its original 13-member format.
“The administration had wanted to be taken off, because of the amount of time it takes the higher-ups in the city departments,” Head said. “But on second thought, they decided that having that expertise on the committee was worth the time.”
During the meeting, Ramsey asked Head if the city’s legal department believes that having the departmental representatives on the committee simply repeats the original problem. Head said it only appears to be an issue when the head of Safety and Permits is voting on a review of decisions made by Safety and Permits.
A city attorney said the conflict seems to be removed, because the City Council will have the final decision in all cases anyway.
Cantrell — who neighbors said had cited the issue in her private discussions with them over the demolition of 820 General Pershing two weeks ago, though she has not spoken on it publicly — made a point of thanking Head for her work on the issue.
“As you know, I’ve had issues from it in the past, but this is putting us on the right track,” Cantrell told Head.
Michelle Kimball of the Preservation Resource Center joined in the praise for the change, noting that historic preservation in a place as unique as New Orleans belongs on an equal level with individual property rights.
“The historic buildings make our city what we are,” Kimball says. “Without our historic buildings, we would lose our uniqueness and what makes us attractive as a city today.”
That ordinance passed with less than five minutes of discussion. After the meeting, however, Head said that the day’s discussions point to the need for a more substantive exploration of how the city should handle issues of historic preservation in the future. Choosing answers on a case-by-case basis, she says, sounds dangerously close to an older style of decision-making based on the who is asking for the demolition.
“We need to have a broader conversation,” Head said. “It sounds like we have a philosophical disagreement about individual property rights versus historic preservation.”
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