If I had to write a motto for the Historic District Landmarks Commission (HDLC), it would be: “Making you kiss the ring to replace your roof.”
There are few examples of useless bureaucratic slime worse than the HDLC. This gaggle of architectural fetishists has crafted a Byzantine set of design guidelines, many of which have nothing whatsoever to do with preservation and appear specifically designed to render any renovation prohibitively expensive.
The only saving grace of the HDLC is that their authority is limited to a small number of core neighborhoods. This is kind of like saying that the saving grace of buck moth caterpillars is that they only come out in the Spring – it’s a restraint, but not exactly what I’d call a redeeming quality.
Alas, that limitation may be changing.
This past week, the city council voted on a proposal to create a “Historic Preservation Review Committee” to study whether to expand HDLC jurisdiction to Carrollton, Uptown, and Broadmoor. Not long after, the Landrieu Administration finally sent appointments to the council for a similar committee created in 2011 to explore expanding HDLC jurisdiction to Mid-City.
Cumulatively, these proposals would roughly double the HDLC’s reach. These are not incremental expansions; they’re part of a concerted effort to put most properties under the HDLC’s control. At this point, there is arguably inertia building.
A secondary question is what degree of control the HDLC will have over any new local historic districts. A “partial control” designation would only require HDLC approval for demolitions and new construction – in other words, for all infill development. A “full control” designation would require HDLC approval for everything, including routine maintenance, so the HDLC would be crammed so far up everyone’s keister that it could check for polyps.
The latter designation is obviously the most worrisome, but any expansion of HDLC jurisdiction may be viewed as a slippery slope. Once control is given, it is difficult to take it away and a cinch to push it further.
Consequently, prior to expanding the HDLC’s jurisdiction, we would be well-advised to consider reforming the HDLC itself. Presently, the HDLC’s guidelines require approval for even the most basic maintenance in local historic districts with a “full control” designation. Approval may be given at the staff level or require the assent of the whole committee.
This is excessive. First of all, routine maintenance that involves replacement-in-kind should not require any kind of rubber stamp from the HDLC. It is a grand waste of everybody’s time when a homeowner has to schedule an appointment and pay a fee for the privilege of replacing a roof or some missing siding. The work is de minimus – too inconsequential to merit regulation.
Secondly, virtually all other small projects or maintenance issues should be dealt with at the staff level, even for architecturally significant properties. If the project involves a minimal aesthetic change, or is actually an improvement, staff should be competent to make that determination on-the-spot and issue a certificate of appropriateness. Only when the property owner is proposing major changes should the full committee be consulted.
Thirdly, the HDLC needs more reasonable guidelines. Some of their standards seem to originate more from prejudice than reason. For example, I’ve noted in the past that the HDLC tries to push half-round guttering on all properties, even though it’s much more expensive and is not original to most homes in the city. In fact, there is little reason for the HDLC to be regulating guttering at all.
Likewise, the HDLC should be more receptive to allowing wood to be replaced with other materials in applications that are exposed to the elements (especially porches). It’s already commonplace and can dramatically reduce maintenance costs, thus ensuring that homes won’t fall back into blighted condition.
Finally, the HDLC needs to exercise more discretion in enforcement. The fact that somebody, somewhere, is making improvements without their stamp of approval should not, in itself, justify stopping work on a historic property. If the work being performed is something that the HDLC would have approved anyway, and there has generally been an effort to cooperate with the city, there is no need for the HDLC to march in like Eric Cartman, crowing: “Respect mah authoritah!”
If these reforms were integrated, I would have far fewer reservations about expanded HDLC jurisdiction.
Alas, we are putting the cart before the horse. We are proposing to grant more power to an agency that’s as capable and coherent as Ray Nagin in a crisis. While preservation has noble goals, the nuts and bolts of achieving it need to be reasonable and mindful of the costs facing local homeowners. Until then, let’s keep the HDLC’s jurisdiction as limited as possible.
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.