Historic preservation, while sometimes criticized as anti-development, is in a very real sense good “economic development.” In a city like New Orleans, with its numerous historic neighborhoods and distinctive culture, preservation represents genuine progress. It encourages contemporary uses of our historic buildings — and the tourism and tax dollars that follow.
Preservation recognizes that the physical fabric of New Orleans is the stage for our distinctive culture — a lifestyle that separates us from other cities in America. Visitors from all over the world see our city as unique, as special, as historic. Our guests want to experience the authentic. They want to eat genuine Creole food, to hear music where it was rooted, to experience our architecture, to visit our cemeteries and to learn more about the past as reflected in everything they see around them. Most visitors become enchanted; many return over and over again.
What if we had high-rises on Royal Street, big-box stores on Chartres Street, or even an elevated freeway in front of Jackson Square? Where would we be as a city if the buildings in the Vieux Carré and our other historic neighborhoods were not protected by federal, state or local laws? Thanks to responsible legislation and the continuing efforts of the preservation community, the world continues to travel to New Orleans. We spend so much time and energy trying to attract industry, and we should — yet preservation is the largest and most consistent economic driver our city has. It provides the draw — the reason we have such a booming tourist industry. And it is the reason that New Orleans is known all over the world.
What happens in the future at the foot of Canal Street at Tchoupitoulas Street can either enhance our city or harm us. What good urban planning says ought to be a cohesive transition from the “quaint and distinctive character” of the French Quarter to the Central Business District was recently threatened by a hotel proposal that was clearly in violation of the city’s Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance as well as its Master Plan. Both the City Planning Commission and Historic District Landmarks Commission voted unanimously to deny the application.
This misguided development called for retaining only the façades of three historic buildings on Tchoupitoulas, and total demolition of a fourth historic building on Canal Street. These four buildings have much in common in age and scale with their neighbors across Canal Street. The demolished historic buildings were scheduled to be replaced by a 21-story, 250-foot generic tower that could be built anywhere in the country. The tower would be over three times the allowable height limit of 70 feet.
In the public debate surrounding projects such as this, citizens who challenge controversial proposals are often accused by some of being “obstructionists” — of being opposed to “progress” for their community. But wiser minds recognize that good design and good urban planning are at the very heart of any progressive city.
Being opposed to out-of-scale, inappropriate development in one of our historic districts does not make anyone an obstructionist. Rather, it makes developers willing to ignore our history, dismiss our culture and demolish our historic buildings for structures that could be built anywhere “destructionists.”
Preservationists are not saying hold everything frozen in time. What they are saying is that what you build in a historic district should be appropriate for that district. If it is not, build it somewhere else. It’s really a simple concept — there is a place in our city for everything.
Why should developers be permitted to ignore our ordinances to create questionable projects whose principal justification is that it represents new development, or “progress” for the city? And what message does that send to the many local investors who brought their projects to fruition in historic districts while carefully adhering to our zoning and planning laws? New Orleans should not accept less in quality or design, nor break its basic rules and ignore its tradition for the lure of a “quick buck,” or what a destructionist might call “progress.”
Although the out-of-scale, out-of-place proposal for Canal and Tchoupitoulas was recently withdrawn, the discussion needs to continue to ensure that what is ultimately developed for that site embraces our historic buildings and is built in harmony with the existing physical landscape.
I applaud Mayor Mitch Landrieu for opposing the destructive plan proposed for these four historic buildings and stand with him in insisting on development at the foot of Canal Street that is fitting for our city and that reflects its distinctive character. We are New Orleans, for goodness’ sake. We deserve better.
Sandra Stokes is second vice president and chairwoman of advocacy of the Louisiana Landmarks Society, a preservation advocacy group.