If a proposed overhaul of the city’s zoning code clears the New Orleans City Council this year, it would devastate billboard companies like Lamar Advertising, an attorney for the company told the City Planning Commission this month. It also would limit the earnings potential of local musicians and hinder growth on university campuses, live music advocates and school representatives said.
Those assertions are among the dozens of issues the council will have to grapple with beginning Tuesday as it considers the proposed new comprehensive zoning ordinance, or CZO, the document intended to give legal force to the guidelines and principles set forth in the city’s master plan for long-term development.
The Planning Commission, after four years of meetings and multiple drafts, finally approved the document earlier this month. The City Council is expected to make it law, perhaps with some changes, by the end of the year.
Before that happens, many residents and businesses are gearing up to make a last-ditch pitch for revisions to the voluminous, long-awaited document.
Lamar Advertising, for instance, is requesting that a provision in the code banning the conversion of nonconforming billboards into electronic ones be deleted. Lamar attorney Jill Gautreaux, reading a statement from the company to the Planning Commission this month, said about 95 percent of billboards in Orleans Parish are nonconforming.
“The insertion of this new regulation would essentially make the conversion of static to digital faces impossible in our industry,” Gautreaux said. “The digital conversion is the only means available to grow without any increase in number or density” of the giant signs.
The CZO governs development on all private property in New Orleans and includes lists of permitted land uses for each zoning classification, as well as height limits, building sizes, setback requirements, urban design standards, operational rules and other regulations.
The current zoning law is more than four decades old and has been amended hundreds of times. It was called “incoherent, over-amended, outdated and vague” in a 2003 study by the Bureau of Governmental Research. “Interpreting the zoning ordinance is well beyond the reach of the typical developer, not to mention the average citizen,” the report said.
The process of crafting the new plan has drawn more than 1,000 public comments and ignited numerous separate controversies, many of which are likely to be brought before the council when it convenes for a special hearing Tuesday. The council will not vote on the CZO at the conclusion of that meeting, whose purpose will be only to allow residents to air their grievances.
There are many of those, some of them disputes that the commission and the council have heard previously, including when those bodies were considering the master plan before it was finally adopted in 2010. Since then, of course, both panels have seen considerable turnover in their membership.
Dispute over height
The most contentious dispute arguably is about the proposed “riverfront design overlay district.” That section of the new law, which has sharply divided the Bywater neighborhood, is intended to “preserve, create and enhance public views of the Mississippi River.”
The overlay district would include much of the land along the Mississippi River from Jackson Avenue to the Pontchartrain Expressway, from Esplanade Avenue to the Industrial Canal, excluding the Marigny neighborhood, and in Algiers from Powder Street to Alix Street.
The ordinance proposes to let structures built in those areas qualify for a 25-foot “height bonus,” bringing the total allowable height of a building in areas now limited to 50 feet to 75 feet if the proposal incorporates “superior design elements” — such as public open space, sidewalk cafes and “sustainable design” — and encourages pedestrian access from surrounding neighborhoods.
The zoning change would essentially allow for higher-density living in Bywater, a neighborhood of mostly one-story houses. Supporters say that change is essential to efforts to build a thriving neighborhood with enough residents to attract grocery stores and other services and amenities. Opponents say it would lead only to more traffic and congestion and would result in a wall of tall buildings along the riverfront that would limit other residents’ view of, and access to, the river
The Planning Commission said the ordinance’s purpose is just the opposite. At present, Planning Director Robert Rivers said, “industrial property, floodwalls, levees” and other structures discourage access to the riverfront. The proposed overlay district would incentivize development that creates more access to the river for the public, something that is otherwise difficult to require, he said.
“With standard zoning, you’re talking about height, setbacks. You’re not getting those public amenities,” he said. “So the idea is to incentivize them through a height bonus.”
Rivers conceded that there would be negative effects for neighbors under the proposed ordinance, but he told the commission that he believed the potential benefits of allowing the taller buildings outweigh them.
“It is land that is going to be developed and, really, the question is how to do that in the best way and the most advantageous way,” Rivers said.
Opposition to the proposal was so strong in Marigny, however, that planners agreed to remove that neighborhood from the proposed overlay district.
Live music in the Quarter
The riverfront district is one of more than a dozen areas of the city where the new CZO would establish specific controls for neighborhoods that have “special characteristics or special development issues.”
The rules for proposed “entertainment districts” in the French Quarter and those areas that fall just outside them also have stood out as a point of contention as planners have crafted the new ordinance.
Many musicians and their supporters say the ordinance goes too far in restricting where live music can be played in the French Quarter. Instead of regulating land use, they say, the document is dictating behavior and also cutting into musicians’ earnings.
Ethan Ellestad, coordinator of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, said the ordinance’s proposal to allow live music only in entertainment districts on Bourbon Street and parts of Decatur and North Peters streets and not in other commercial areas of the French Quarter gives an unfair advantage to businesses in those districts and also limits opportunities for musicians to play around town.
The proposed zoning ordinance calls for two Vieux Carre entertainment districts where “entertainment venues and restricted retail stores” would be automatically permitted uses. In other areas, zoned both residential and nonresidential, live entertainment and performances would be banned, not allowed even as conditional uses.
“This creates a situation where Channing Tatum’s Saints and Sinners on Bourbon Street can have live entertainment for their patrons at a restaurant. However, Antoine’s a few blocks away can’t have a live jazz brunch,” Ellestad told the Planning Commission this month. “So you’ve created an unfair advantage for certain businesses at the expense of others by arbitrarily saying that parts of the French Quarter can’t actually have live entertainment.”
Some French Quarter residents, however, support that plan because they say it would prevent standard restaurants from morphing into clubs or bars.
Rivers said carving out certain areas of the French Quarter and beyond where restrictions could be looser was an attempt at a compromise between the two sides.
“There is certainly a valid argument that we have this wonderful (music) industry that really grew organically in the city. ... And you also have another side to it, where there is arguably an impact. And a lot of it is tied to the combination of live entertainment, combined with alcohol use, combined with clubs,” Rivers said. “We’re trying to kind of thread the needle between the legitimate concerns of the music industry and the legitimate concerns of the neighborhood groups that are impacted.”
How much parking?
Elsewhere in the city, some residents say their needs have been overlooked. People who live in the Warehouse District and Lafayette Square neighborhoods, for instance, say their streets already have little available parking and the new CZO would put greater pressure on the limited spaces they do have by not requiring that developers provide off-street parking for projects.
“Parking is already at a crisis level in the Warehouse District and is becoming a crisis in Lafayette Square,” said Kimberly Meng, whose dental practice is on Tchoupitoulas Street.
Those complaints have not been enough so far to sway the commission. Deputy Planning Director Leslie Alley said concerns about a parking shortage in the two neighborhoods are overstated. Any “perceived curbside problems” are due to construction, she said.
The Planning Commission’s studies of the area, she said, found that many parking spots were being taken up by vehicles that should be using loading docks and other off-street spaces. The new ordinance, based on that research and best practices in other cities, makes more sense than the laws currently on the books, which require many more parking spaces for new commercial or residential projects, but which are based on suburban standards and outdated information, Alley said.
“I would not be comfortable with taking the old parking standards because I know that they’re not any good. I know that they are based on somebody else’s standards that we got in the ’70s that we never checked to see what was correct, and the situation has changed,” she said. “I’m confident in the standards that we have in the code. I would not be confident in just keeping the status quo, because what we have seen is that it doesn’t work very well, and it just results in a significant number of waiver requests (to allow fewer spaces than required), among other things.”
Residents are not alone in objecting to some of the proposed changes. A coalition that includes Dillard, Loyola, Tulane and Xavier universities opposes some of the suggested requirements for a proposed new zoning category of “institutional campus district.”
Under the city’s master plan, universities must create their own master plans, which then become the zoning code for those sites. Anything included in those plans, which would be approved only after input is sought from surrounding neighbors, could be carried out by right and would not need to get approval from the Planning Commission or the City Council.
“The concept really is recognizing that how campuses develop — especially in a densely populated, densely built-out urban setting — and expand may have effects on the surrounding neighborhoods, especially if those neighborhoods are residential in character,” Rivers said.
But members of the universities coalition object to some of the height and setback limits in the new law, saying they would hinder development or still require that projects receive conditional-use permits — requiring commission and council approval — before they could be carried out.
Marion Bracy, vice president of facilities planning and management for Xavier University, said the school is concerned that the new CZO would prevent it from acquiring new property because the institutional master plan would include only a pre-identified footprint.
Tommy Screen, director of government relations at Loyola, said the level of specificity the schools are asked to provide in their individual master plans might not be attainable and might have the unintended consequence of upsetting neighbors about development ideas that might not come to pass.
Limiting the VCC?
Meanwhile, French Quarter residents are lobbying to have language from the current zoning law granting broad powers to the Vieux Carre Commission added to the draft CZO.
Section 8.1 of the current law, often cited by the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates organization and others in arguments against proposed new developments in the city’s most historic district, is not included in the document the council will consider. It prohibits the Department of Safety and Permits from issuing permits for any change in the use of an existing building in the French Quarter without permission of the Vieux Carre Commission, unless the change in use would involve no change in a building’s exterior appearance.
The current law also establishes four broad standards by which the VCC should evaluate projects, including that new structures and designs not “injuriously” affect the historic character of the French Quarter and that they “be in harmony” with the traditional architecture of the neighborhood.
VCPORA has cited that section repeatedly in arguing against a proposal to build a Cuban restaurant at Esplanade Avenue and North Rampart Street, saying it would be out of scale and not in keeping with the character of the neighborhood.
Rivers said that language could be included in the Vieux Carre Commission’s rules and regulations.
The City Council will meet at noon Tuesday as a committee of the whole to hear public comment on the draft ordinance.