A special meeting of the New Orleans City Council on Friday will consider the final adoption of the long-discussed new zoning ordinance. We hope that it is approved, as a further step toward growing a better post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.
After a slew of public meetings, hearings and frequent revisions of the drafts, the final Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance appears to have been put into a shape that will gain general approval. Along with the master plan for city development adopted earlier, the new zoning plan would put into place a better approach to land-use decision-making.
Many of the most desirable neighborhoods of New Orleans date from before World War II and thus have emphasized walkable and transit-friendly streets — a goal many cities across the United States are working toward at great expense and trouble.
Given that the pre-war template is so positive for urban living and in line with the emerging consensus nationally, it’s good news that both the master plan and now the zoning ordinance reflect those trends. If there is any city in America that is better suited to the neighborhood-oriented development, we don’t know of it.
If there are any potential glitches to adoption of the ordinance, it may be in the criticisms offered by the Bureau of Governmental Research, which took issue with Article 5 of the CZO.
The BGR report is available at http://www.bgr.org but we do not agree with the dramatic charge that planned developments authorized by the article are a “Trojan horse” in the larger ordinance.
As BGR noted, though, the option of a planned development is common enough in cities. The New Orleans version allows the city to grant exceptions on issues like building heights and other restrictions if the larger development meets the city’s overall planning goals, including additional amenities from bike paths to public open spaces to other “substantial benefits” to the city.
Can this result in bad decisions? Possibly, but is it this dangerous? “It creates confusion and potentially opens the way for a return to the let’s-make-a-deal approach that has plagued land use decision making in years past,” BGR said.
“It goes far beyond providing flexibility within the density requirements . It would open the way to a wide variety of exceptions. And it would allow them on small sites.”
However, the exceptions allowed in the planning and approval process would be based on development goals the larger ordinance seeks to promote in different sections of the city. The planning commission and City Council would have to approve any deviations for planned developments.
As BGR noted, the article has been refined and improved during the lengthy deliberations that have gone into the development of the CZO provisions. It is late in the process to scrap Article 5 entirely, as BGR suggested; more detailed restrictions on planned developments can be worked out in the future with some experience with them, but it’s very late in the day to suggest that the council rewrite it on the fly at this very last step.
Experience in other cities suggests that overly restrictive zoning can be a straitjacket on growth. Let’s-make-a-deal is not a desirable outcome, but neither is a zoning code based on let’s-never-change-anything.
A major reason for the master plan and the zoning ordinance is the promotion of orderly growth, and the notion that a city code can forecast and forestall any problems in a dynamic economy is wrong-headed. Growth should be orderly, but the code should not stand in the way of growth.
We believe the ordinance strikes a healthy balance and should be adopted. If problems develop later with planned developments, adjustments can be made.