Owen Courreges: Cracking down on the opera house while Coliseum crumbles

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A sinkhole stretches across Coliseum Street while orange cones mark the city's response. (Owen Courreges for UptownMessenger.com)

A sinkhole stretches across Coliseum Street while orange cones mark the city’s response. (Owen Courreges for UptownMessenger.com)

Owen Courreges

Procrastinating until something becomes absolutely critical is undeniably an American tradition.  And when it comes to procrastinating, New Orleans is always at the forefront.

There’s an example of this phenomenon just down the street and around the corner from my house.  In the 2000 block of Coliseum Street there has long been a broken water or drainage line (it’s unclear which).  It first became obvious over seven years ago when the street began to sink and the adjacent brick sidewalk began to break apart.

The city responded as you might imagine – it slapped on additional asphalt and declared, presumably in a Russian accent with apathetic monotone, “good enough for government work.”  An image from Google Maps from August 2007 confirms the sad, pathetic repair.

Naturally, the problem only became progressively worse.  Every time it rained, water would pool for weeks in the sunken portion of the street before finally evaporating (a rare occurrence).  Not only was this bad for vehicles and passing pedestrians, it couldn’t have been great for the condition of the already-deteriorating pavement either.

A few weeks ago, something finally gave.  Instead of just dipping, the pavement began to break apart and left large holes.  At least that appeared to be the case, because at the same time the Sewerage and Water Board left large orange cones around the site.  No repair was forthcoming, but for a while, a small section of intact pavement remained on one side that allowed traffic to pass.

This state of affairs went on until this past week, when the crumbling of the remaining pavement began creeping further down the other side of the street.  Nobody from the city came to set down a metal plate or put gravel in the holes.  Accordingly, cars started being forced to hop the sidewalk or simply turn around.

One day I arrived to find a small white hatchback stranded in the middle of the hole.  To my dismay, it has become treacherous enough to disable a car.  And this situation remains.

In many cities, this would be a shocking state of affairs.  In New Orleans, I’m willing to bet that this story struck many readers as so pedestrian, so pitifully common, that they stopped reading after a few paragraphs.  We’re inured to this sort of thing; it’s outsiders that are shocked.  “What is Owen, some kinda tourist?”

At the same time, I am shocked how we’re so blasé about the city’s neglect of its basic obligations, while at the same time blithely accepting the city’s excesses in regulating the property and behavior of its own citizens.

Two weeks ago, the New Orleans Fringe Festival was forced to cancel its Wednesday and Thursday shows (including opening night) because a special use permit for the event was denied by the city, which escalated the dispute to the point of filing for injunctive relief in Civil District Court.  Apparently certain code issues raised by the Fire Marshal were the nexus of the fracas.

The city’s issues with the Marginy Opera House may well have been legitimate, but it’s the speed and alacrity with which they shut the venue down which is truly impressive.  We can conclude that when somebody else’s property is deemed to be unsafe, the full weight of the city may be brought to bear.  They won’t mince words or waste time.

On the other hand, when the city’s own property (which includes our streets) becomes downright hazardous, you can absolutely hear those crickets chirping.  Had the city not ignored a burgeoning sinkhole on Coliseum Street for more than seven years, I doubt I would have been blocked by a stranded car, and a local thoroughfare would not be impassable.

Of course, when you ask the Landrieu Administration about our crumbling streets, the common refrain is “there is no money.” Oh, there’s money to enforce a Byzantine permitting system and money to file last-minute lawsuits in Civil District Court, but sorry, dear citizen, there’s simply no money to fix a pipe and fill a damned hole in a reasonable time.

The issues with infrastructure in New Orleans no longer concern whether every street and sidewalk will be perfectly paved or every storm drain will be clear and functional.  It’s much more basic than that.  The issue is whether the city is even going to bother limping along our infrastructure and keeping it generally functional, or whether it will allow it to fail completely until a more comprehensive rebuilding scheme comes along.

The position seems to be that the city can procrastinate until it has the money to fix everything, and until then, it will avoid fixing anything.  That’s the motto of the procrastinator.  It could just as easily be the motto of our current leadership.

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.

56 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: Cracking down on the opera house while Coliseum crumbles

  1. I have had to repair my car three times due to damage caused by the road in from of my house Uptown, New Orleans – Vincennes PL. It is downright embarrassing when people come to visit me and I have to warn them about the road and ask if their vehicle is low to the ground. This is ridiculous and NOTHING is being done about it!

    • Vincennes and other streets nearby would have better surfaces if the city crushed the concrete and filled holes with shells! Good luck!

      • And Vincennes PL has been like this for 30+ years. My neighbor has lived around her for her whole life and she told me that the city has spent more money over the years surveying the road that they could have paved it over multiple times for the amount of money they spent surveying it!

  2. I have never had a problem with s&wb……..within 2-4 hours, everything I report is fixed. How many times have you and your neighbors called about this problem and described it fully to the emergency crew supervisor?

    • ultimateliberal,

      Can you not read? The SW&B is aware of the problem — those are their cones around the site, and they left it this way. Worse, the city has been aware of the problem for over seven years. It’s not the job of citizens to harass the city and the SW&B into doing their jobs. Sheesh.

        • ultimateliberal,

          That’s disgusting and pitiful. The city shouldn’t have to be harassed to keep basic infrastructure at least marginally functional.

          • Correct. The city SHOULDN’T have to be harrassed. Pitiful is the right word for it!

    • What’s your secret? We have had a work order number with them for a while and nothing is happening. It is impossible to get from your car to your house without getting muddy.

      • The secret is getting several neighbors to rotate calling every day, I would imagine. I have never had to wait. I don’t have a magic answer, other than that I provide the exact location, I fully describe the problem, and I provide plausible reasons why it’s an emergency that needs to be repaired immediately.

        I get trees trimmed, also. When they say 18 weeks, I call Councilwoman Cantrell and the work is done within two hours.

        • ultimateliberal,

          You must be one of those cherished few who have actually had an easy time dealing with city government. Do you have a four-leaf clover or something? This is like winning the lottery.

          Oh, and recommending that a bunch of neighbors rotate calling daily really just serves to prove my point.

          • ” You must be one of those cherished few” or he might be one that doesn’t use a news outlet to to report his problems. Owen, I have a feeling you complain so much that you become the little dutch boy.

    • I call BS! Unless your name is Mitch there is no way, no how.

      Put your money where your mouse is and call S&WB for us if you know the secrets.

  3. Well, it is good that the Fire Department is doing its job and not cutting corners on inspecting of old buildings being.used in novel ways by enthusiastic amateurs.

    • Deux amors,

      It’s really the state that does fire inspections. The NOFD follows them up, but the one time I saw them do one they openly admitted that the inspection was redundant (though required) and apologized. That’s not exactly a bright shining light of competence either.

      • Well, it is good that the city follows up on those state fire inspections and does not permit use of dangerous premises.

        • Deux amors,

          I’m not privvy to the exact facts, but I doubt there was significant danger. Perhaps it was simply the lack of a couple of exit signs or an out-of-date fire extinguisher. It doesn’t take much to fail an inspection even if the property is far from being a fire trap. The fact that the issue was resolved soon after suggests that the problems weren’t that great.

          On the other hand, car-disabling streets are probably something the city should start dealing with quickly. They’re keen on crowing about the splinters in the eyes of private property owners while they have planks in their own. That’s the real takeaway from this piece.

          • You’re not going to convince me that anything other than the strictest enforcement of fire safety procedures is called for, especially in something like the Marigny Opera House. Are you kidding? As for street repair, I think the unexplored story is how much or how little is actually done in house, and how projects are chosen.

  4. So big a problem and so entrenched in New Orleans. The lack of response indeed destroys cars – mine again recently eaten by the streets. Is it a barrier to drawing business and professionals to the city? Maybe, but certainly a black eye for New Orleans that is known across the country. The two blind, crippled elephants, DPW – street repairs and Sewer & Water Board – water leaks causing streets to cave in, compound the problem by inter-agency paralysis /stagnation. The “pot-hole killer” truck is a weak short term fix, not a solution we need. Although funding woes are true, how much does it cost to send a truck with asphalt, a shovel crew, and a pavement roller? Should have all of those in house and workers on salary. The small town I am from had no problem fixing streets and Jefferson Parish does not have pothole cancer… Lack of attention and insufficient response by Sewer & Water Board may have had something to do with the 17th Street canal failure after Katrina – learn from mistakes? (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5022074

  5. By your logic it seems no police powers of the city should be invoked until the Sewerage and Water Board has been able to upgrade the system so that it has no defects. The two issues aren’t related. Mayor Mitch can do more than one thing poorly at the same time.

    • Nah, he’s just pointing out that we have a truly shitty, lazy local government that only picks the lowest hanging fruit.

    • jexni,

      That’s not my argument, and the two issues (maintaining city property and enforcing code restrictions on private venues) are indeed related in a broad sense.

      What I am saying is that the city has invested significant resources into code enforcement that bear actual costs (the city has to pay several hundred dollars in court costs to get a TRO). Meanwhile, the city doesn’t invest enough to even perform *emergency* infrastructure repairs.

      It’s about misplaced priorities and hypocrisy. That’s where the two relate.

  6. UPDATE: I would like everyone to know that the SW&B came out sometime today, flagged off the damaged area, and put gravel along one side of the roadway to make it passable again. I assume this is all a grand coincidence.

      • LDG Resident,

        One wonders why they didn’t do that when they put up the cones. They should never dig out three-quarters of the pavement going across the street and just leave it that way (from what I now understand, that is what happened).

        • Owen they did do that originally. I live nearby as well and the S&WB was out and tore up the asphalt where the sinkhole is, put gravel down and tore up asphalt on the opposite side of the street, presumably to get to a main/valve. They put gravel/rocks in both the sinkhole area and the the valve/main area and all was well for 2-3 days. Cones were put in the sinkhole area at the time and cars drove over the valve/main portion of the street as the rest was blocked off.

          Of course a lot of cars drove by picked up the gravel and exacerbated the hole into an un-driveable mess. No one came out for at least a week and finally repairs were made the other day. Also saw a TV truck there while they were doing repairs. Coincidence??

          The gravel is back and is more robust then before but it is only a matter of time before it is gets scattered again. The big questions are: When will permanent repairs be done? And will the S&WB be back to patch this mess up again or will someone have to call the news another time?

  7. I lived near UNO & drove to work to CBD. I would get a flat tire every 4-6 months. I moved to a small city in East Texas, about 2 hours from Dallas. I have not had a flat tire in the last 1.5 years since I moved up here. The city recently repainted the lanes on major roads; I don’t need to guess where the lanes are, like I used to do in NOLA. A small pothole was patched within 2 days. I see the power company trimming the tree branches every 6 months.

    It’s a shame that a pothole of this size doesn’t receive any attention. I hope that a child doesn’t get lost in such a pothole.

    • I can do you one better. In California (where I grew up), you can actually get the state to reimburse you if you blow a tire or rim on an unfixed pothole.

      • I paid extra for an “insurance” or warranty for my tires. If the technicians determined that I didn’t slash the tires myself, the tire was replaced at no cost. I just paid for labor & disposal. What I did lose was time from work.

        My main problem was that my supervisor didn’t believe that my tires went flat so often. She lives in a nice part of Metairie, where the streets are maintained.

  8. I don’t think anyone would argue points with you here if they had the bad fortune to come across this spot. After walking by that huge water pool for weeks, I assumed there was some sort of construction and it would be repaired, though didn’t understand why it wasn’t blocked off. I could also drive around it. 2 or 3 weeks ago, when I went to drive around, I realized there was now a huge whole that would’ve destroyed my car. It was impassable but it was also not roped off. I awkwardly backed up, turned around and 3 cars spent 20 minutes negotiating getting turned around to go the wrong way down Coliseum. I have never seen in any city, anywhere, such utter neglect of street condition as here.

    • CeeCee,

      Exactly! I wasn’t even sure if the SW&B had dug out the pavement or if it had started failing on its own. It now appears that they simply started work and just left it that way, despite the obvious danger it posed. Insanity.

  9. I should also add that the orange cones were around the perimeter of the water, while the -I’m guessing – 6 to 8 inch drop of the collapsed street was in no way marked as dangerous. In the dark you wouldn’t be able to see it at all.

  10. What you need to do first, Deuxamours, is find out what happened. S&P and the usual suspects ignored applications for six or seven months, then went into revenge mode because Solange Knowles’s wedding producers didn’t kiss the right rings. It was high profile, so S&P did its familiar dance of too much, too late. I suspect the timing when a court was not available for a few days was not accidental. As soon as court opened, a judge stopped the comedy and opened the venue. No urgent or significant violations had been found. Street collapses like Coliseum are real safety issues. Have you noticed S&P laying any injunctions those failures lately?

    • You have so many figures of s speech in there, I don’t know what issues were involved. I don’t even understand your last sentence. I only say I want fire codes and procedures to be un-compromised. and I do believe they have greater urgency than street repair

      • Deux,

        I’ll just say that we can have strict enforcement without having TROs issued over minor violations. I’m not personally privy to the facts surrounding the opera house’s shutdown, but I’m not about to laud the city if it forced Fringe Fest to move over something relatively trivial.

      • Deuxamours – come on, the language is not that obscure. Anyway, if the violations that got Jared Munster down personally to poke around were so serious, why weren’t they addressed many months before? The venue’s use change was not secret, has been active for a long time, and the owners put in applications. If the code violations were serious, why did a judge cancel the TRO within 30 minutes of court opening, and give them months to meet the code? Let me try to use simple language: this is not the first time people have seen S&P do nothing for as long as it could get away with it, then go over the top to try to appear a serious, concerned department.

        I will try to narrow the last sentence, though it seems simple enough to me. The department is SAFETY and Permits. I think it has the largest staff numbers inthe administration. Your particular concern may be fire, but it is not the only risk in the city. The department should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Serious street collapses are hazardous as well, but the responsible parties are not a small business, but other city or quasi-city operations, like DPW and SW&B. Do you see the difference yet? S&P makes a show of action against the vulnerable.

        Example: the issue became public because of the Knowles wedding. Once it was out, S&P had to act. But they moved in AFTER the celebrity wedding. Does your special concern for fire regulations really so obscure events that you can’t give any validity to the pattern?

        The Opera House’s violations were mostly about signs. Signs don’t prevent fires. It was minor stuff. The TRO was butt-covering. Safety for S&P’s management, not for the audience.

  11. Re: “no money” May be money
    is wasted. By Lafayette 1, water was leaking on city side of water
    meter for years. Meter reader said he would call in a work order.
    In a couple days at least 2 trucks, a backhoe, and at least 6 men,
    with backhoe breaking up sidewalk and flagstone curb. When work was
    completed the group had something like a safety meeting. Later saw
    male and female meter readers and told them how one of them had
    gotten such quick results. Also told them the work could have been
    done more quickly by 2 men with hand tools — or by one woman.

    • The triage system at least ought to be explained. When Bill Capo or Owen report that they got results after making noise, I wonder whose previously-scheduled job got bumped.

      • Deux,

        They didn’t come out to fix the problem. All they did was mark off the dangerous area more clearly and put gravel in to make the road passable. Those are things they should have planned to do BEFORE they started work. That SW&B thinks it’s unnecessary is appalling.

        • I’m waiting for some full explanation of their procedures. I think I read somewhere that the actual street reconstruction after some pipe repair is sub contracted to some Metairie firm.

          • Deux,

            Irrespectively, I’m betting that there is somebody with the S&WB that is responsible for at least, you know, driving by fleetingly to make sure that they didn’t just destroy the street and leave. If that isn’t the case, then their “procedures” are tailored to prove my point.

  12. That’s New Orleans in a nut-shell. There are two main reasons why things like this are allowed to happen every day in our city, over and over again:

    1. It’s the city of lowered expectations. We the citizens have become so accustom to poor, inefficient, and half-azzed city services that we have begun to accept things as they are instead of demanding better. Some call it “culture.”

    2. No city in America preys upon their own citizens like New Orleans does. It’s City Hall’s mission to go out into the streets everyday and create revenue, not spend money on things like repairs. Their primary objective is to find ways to get at your money, not provide services.

  13. Whoa…not one mention of the swampy soil!?!? That’s what I always heard when I’d call about a sinkhole or a pot hole that tried to eat my car. Imagine our surprise when we moved…..a street cleaner on a residential street? two men cleaning storm drains? and every week?!?! No pot holes, no flat tires, no front ends knocked out of alignment? I’d say it was heaven…..if it were only New Orleans.

  14. Owen,

    The Fix My Street NOLA group has lots of grass roots support. The most important thing that this group wants first is a computerized street and maintenance system that the SW&B doesn’t have. Post It notes, scattered excel spread sheets, white board.. very disorganized even if in the same building or same floor.

    Many agencies in Orleans Parish don’t have a functional day-to-day computerized tracking and time keeping system. Next, don’t be surprised that many in these agencies will deliberately stonewall, sabotage, you name it, to avoid a computer system in becoming a day-to-day operational reality. This way some can do side jobs (e.g. side hustles), bill for overtime, etc. without fear of financial audit. Also notice how the Orleans Parish City Hall cars don’t have a ID Number or DECALS on the rear of the vehicle that show who they are, but only city decals on the side of vehicle. This makes it harder for the public to report misuse, or rude operation of city cars since there are no ID #’s or DECALS on the rear of the cars. (Notice how even the police and corporate vehicles have NUMBER and ID’s # of the car.)

    Maybe you can ask around and see if Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes have a computerized street maintenance program? Do these other parishes have ID # and parish decals on the rear of the car as opposed to just the side of the car?

  15. Shall we also bring up the continually escalating water and sewerage rates that went into place a few years ago? Essentially they will triple bills by 2016 if memory serves.

    • Anzelm,

      We certainly should. The increases are excessive and weren’t properly vetted. Nevertheless, even with that money the S&WB can’t seem to do competent work.

  16. Well you’re commingling 2 separate issues. The first, poor infrastructure, exists because, well it is government and there isn’t enough money to do everything. The second is pure politics..these “neighborhood groups” have massive undue influence in this city and it has suffocated economic growth for decades. Heck 10 homeowners, one loudmouth who lived nowhere near Tulane’s stadium, plus Susan Guidry really caused Tulane to rework their plans (stadium would have been much better building up the Audubon Blvd side). (and some blame goes to weak-kneed Tulane).

  17. Hey Owen! I meant to send a big thanks because your piece obviously kicked into gear a quick and pretty thorough repair on Coliseum Street! Well done. I noticed shortly thereafter that a 6-8″ hole on S. Rampart in the CBD was fixed as well, after months of not even an orange cone to mark it. Write more please….

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