The New Orleans City Council on Thursday unanimously approved a measure allowing taller and denser projects along the riverfront in the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods after stripping out a provision that would have required developers to include affordable housing in the largest of those developments.
The new rules, known as the Riverfront Overlay District, would allow buildings of up to six stories on some of the best-located properties in two of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods. The previous cap was four stories.
The original Riverfront Overlay plan would have required those developments to set aside 10 percent of their units for low-income residents in order to take full advantage of the new height limits — a key provision aimed at bringing housing advocates on board with the plan.
But without advance notice, the council took up an amendment removing those requirements on Thursday.
The measure drew a sharp rebuke from advocates who had worked on getting affordability included in the proposal. They said it would lead to the development of only luxury units at a time when average residents are suffering from an affordability crisis.
“We can no longer afford development for the sake of development — that’s how we have gotten to this place,” said Andreanecia Morris, with the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance and HousingNOLA. “We can no longer put the needs of individual developers above the needs of the community.”
Council members defended their votes by arguing that the affordability provisions would have done little on their own to solve the housing problem and that a more citywide approach was needed.
The new rules cover the properties between the Mississippi River and Chartres or Decatur streets. Buildings will be able to rise up to 75 feet, 20 feet to 25 feet higher than current zoning allows, though the portions of the property closest to the street would be limited to avoid having large buildings looming over neighborhood.
The more permissive zoning has been debated for years, and the City Council originally added it into the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance in 2015. But a lawsuit by the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association forced it to go back through the approval process a second time.
That second attempt included provisions aimed at calming neighborhood concerns while bringing housing advocates on board, including a ban on year-round short-term rentals in the developments within the overlay.
The removed affordability provision was another element initially aimed at getting buy-in. Known as an “affordability bonus,” it would have limited buildings to four stories unless they set aside 10 percent of their units for low-income families. If they met that requirement, they would have been able to go to six stories.
Developer Sean Cummings said the removal of the affordability bonus was needed to “see these properties actually develop over the next 10 years or so.”
Cummings has been the driving force behind several complexes in recent years that tower over the riverfront and over Crescent Park, an amenity he spearheaded for former Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration after Hurricane Katrina.
Those projects have frequently resulted in clashes with residents and neighborhood groups about the scale of the development — something that he would be able to largely avoid under the new overlay rules.
Cummings is also a prolific contributor to the members of the City Council, giving about $77,000 over the past decade to the sitting council members either personally or through his firm, Ekistics Inc.
Maxwell Ciardullo, with the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, noted that no developments would have been required to have affordable units under the original plan. And he said that without the bonus, nothing would prevent the city from “continuing to make bad deals” with developers.
“This affordability incentive is your only leverage here, and I ask you don’t give it away,” Ciardullo told council members.
Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, who represents the neighborhoods and co-sponsored the overlay and amendment, called the decision to remove the affordability requirement a “very difficult” one, but one that was justified by a lack of citywide policy.
Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who supported the Riverfront Overlay plan during her successful mayoral campaign last year, said the city needs to re-examine its entire incentive structure for affordable housing, while calling the units that would have been created by the bonus “minimal.”
She also said a more comprehensive approach could be provided by a study currently underway looking at how to incentivize affordable housing.
“What’s needed is a re-examination of our incentive structure," Cantrell said. "A carrot has to be created.”
Councilman James Gray, saying he was generally in favor of taller and denser developments, said the problem was not whether affordable housing was included in the Riverfront Overlay but whether poorer neighborhoods were getting the amenities that richer and more desirable neighborhoods were. But, he argued, low-income residents would likely not want to live in a development along the river anyway.
“I’m not sure I would want to be one of the few poor people in an upscale development," he said. "I’m not sure that’s a favor to me or my children who would be raised as the poorest children in a development.”