In Mary Ann Hammett’s vision of a future Bywater, there’s a mid-rise condominium building within walking distance of her home with a rooftop from which she can watch container ships pass by on the Mississippi River.
Julie Jones sees the future a little differently. In her version, she would no longer have trouble finding a parking spot in front of her house, and one- and two-family residences would continue to dominate blocks where more and more businesses now are popping up.
Those contrasting visions — mirroring a growing national discussion around the sometimes competing goals of density and preservation — have become cause for a neighborhood feud.
The Bywater Neighborhood Association, the established voice of the community’s residents, has become fractured, the result of the defection of some members who disagree with the organization’s relatively new position in favor of higher-density living.
Those who left, many of them longtime members like former BNA President Jones, say the organization has lost its way. It is focusing, Jones said, on the interests of developers, who have a financial stake in the growth of condominiums along the riverfront, at the expense of residents.
Jones is now president of the upstart Neighbors First for Bywater.
Those who still support the BNA say the defectors are stuck in the past and unwilling to embrace the change necessary to improve the neighborhood.
“I don’t mean to denigrate the other groups,” Hammett said. “But I think our position is sounder than theirs.”
Both sides say they are operating with the quality of life for Bywater residents in mind.
No issue more clearly illustrates their divergent philosophies on just how to improve the neighborhood’s quality of life than the city’s proposed new comprehensive zoning ordinance.
The long-awaited new zoning ordinance, a version of which is expected to be approved by the City Council later this year, creates 15 “overlay districts” setting up special controls on areas of the city that have “special characteristics or special development issues.”
One of those is a “riverfront design overlay district” intended to “preserve, create and enhance public views of the Mississippi River,” particularly in areas like Bywater and Algiers Point. The overlay district would include lots along the Mississippi River uptown from Jackson Avenue to the Pontchartrain Expressway, in Algiers from Powder Street to Alix Street, and downtown from Esplanade Avenue to the Industrial Canal, excluding the Marigny neighborhood.
The ordinance allows for structures built within those limits to qualify for a 25-foot “height bonus,” bringing a building’s total height to 75 feet if it incorporates “superior design elements” — such as public open space, sidewalk cafes and “sustainable design” — and encourages pedestrian access from surrounding neighborhoods.
Hammett said such an allowance is necessary for “smart growth” in Bywater. The taller buildings would allow for higher density, which would mean more residents, who would make Bywater more attractive to the operators of grocery stores and other amenities. Disallowing the bonus would stifle development, Hammett said, because the parcels abutting the riverfront would remain undeveloped.
“It would be cost-prohibitive for a developer to build lower” than 75 feet, Hammett said. “There has to be something in it for them. They’re not doing it out of the goodness of their heart.”
But Jones said 75-foot buildings on the riverfront would overwhelm Bywater’s one- and two-story 19th-century buildings. The higher density would just lead to more congestion and noise, she said.
“I don’t know what trade-off you could provide that would make it good for neighbors,” Jones said. “We want development. We just don’t want development that will have a heavily negative impact on residents.”
This debate is not a new one for residents living in neighborhoods adjacent to the riverfront.
In June, the City Council approved a proposal to build two 60-foot-high riverfront residential buildings in the Lower 9th Ward as part of a mixed-use development on the former Holy Cross School site, despite vehement opposition from neighbors who said the project would overwhelm their community of mostly one-story houses.
Supporters said the mixed-use development would spark investment in the community.
The plan had the support of Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the district City Council member, James Gray.
Conversely, in 2012, Bywater and Marigny residents fought a successful battle against a proposed 75-foot-tall development near the riverfront.
Their “Size Matters” campaign led then-Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, whose district included Faubourg Marigny and Bywater, to persuade the City Council to reject a 25-foot height waiver for the Elisio Lofts, a proposed six-story apartment building at Elysian Fields Avenue and Decatur Street. The project had been approved by the Planning Commission as an example of the 25-foot “bonuses.”
The opposition was not surprising from residents of two of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, where historic preservation often is favored over new development.
While the topic isn’t new, the position of the Bywater Neighborhood Association has changed.
“Some of us became more aware of what was going on in other cities,” Hammett said. “We decided we needed to be more progressive. We decided we needed smart growth.”
“Smart growth” is a buzz phrase in urban planning circles nationwide. The movement encourages, among other things, high-density neighborhoods on the idea that they create more walkable, affordable and safer communities.
Hammett said she was inspired to adopt the new position after thinking back on the 20 years she spent living in Washington, D.C., where a number of goods and services were within walking distance of her Dupont Circle neighborhood.
“I did not expect that here because this neighborhood can’t sustain the same density,” she said. “We can’t have all that, but we can have some of it. The more we can bring into the neighborhood, the better the quality of life will be.”
Feeling left out
The shift in attitude rankled some longtime members of the BNA, who said they began to feel left out of the association’s decision-making process, particularly on zoning issues.
“Vacant lots need to be developed, but they need to be developed with sensitivity to what already exists,” said Lisa Suarez, a past president of the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association, which has joined Neighbors First for Bywater in opposing the height bonus in the riverfront outlay district. “We’re threatened (in Marigny) if there’s a precedent set in Bywater. We stand in solidarity because it sets a terrible precedent and is clearly contrary to what the neighborhood wants.”
Suarez said she has collected 219 signatures from residents of Bywater and Marigny in opposition to the proposed height bonuses in Bywater. Marigny was originally included in the riverfront outlay district, but it was taken out following strong opposition from residents.
Suarez said the 50-foot limit in the comprehensive zoning ordinance itself represents a compromise. Residents who oppose the height bonus, she said, would prefer it if buildings were no more than 35 feet to 40 feet.
“There are plenty of neighborhoods that can tolerate 75 feet,” Suarez said. “Bywater is not one of them.”