Beer brewers and Bywater residents dominated the first day of hearings before the City Planning Commission on the city’s proposed new zoning law.
Brewers are concerned that language in the new comprehensive zoning ordinance would restrict the growth of breweries in New Orleans. Bywater residents, meanwhile, appear split on how development should move forward in that neighborhood, with some applauding a proposal to allow developers to build taller buildings in exchange for providing public amenities and others urging that the ordinance be revised to keep building heights the same.
Tuesday’s hearing was the first of three the planning commission will hold to receive public input on the ordinance before it goes to the City Council for final approval. The commission will also hold hearings Sept. 2 and Sept. 9.
The commission will make a recommendation on the ordinance to the City Council at the conclusion of the final meeting. The council then will hold its own series of hearings.
The comprehensive zoning ordinance, or CZO, is intended to give legal force to the guidelines and principles set forth in the city’s master plan for long-term development. It 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 law governing zoning 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 It was called “incoherent, over-amended, outdated and vague” in a 2003 study by the Bureau of Governmental Research.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.
To arrive at this point, the planning commission held 20 planning district meetings across the city in 2011 and 2013, a process that drew more than 1,000 comments. The new CZO has gone through three public drafts.
“This has been a long walk, and this commission is very committed to getting this process done during the next three public meetings,” Commissioner Kyle Wedberg said. “We very much intend to have this process closed and to have a recommendation from this body on Sept. 9.”
Residents who attended Tuesday’s hearing mostly applauded the commission’s staff for their work in taking on the monumental task, but they still recommended a few tweaks to the ordinance.
Scott Wood, who owns Courtyard Brewery, asked that breweries be listed as permitted uses in more business and commercial zones, instead of being restricted largely to industrial areas. The wide range of brewing techniques doesn’t restrict the process to an industrial setting, Wood said.
Before moving forward with a plan for a brewery on Erato Street, Wood said, he had to go through the long process of requesting a conditional use from the commission and the council.
He said he hopes the zoning ordinance will permit breweries in more areas so the industry’s growth isn’t stifled.
One of the more controversial elements of the ordinance, the proposed creation of a “riverfront overlay district” to provide guidance on how riverfront development should happen, also drew several speakers to the meeting.
The ordinance proposes allowing buildings as tall as 75 feet to be built along the riverfront in Bywater. Buildings there are currently restricted to 50 feet. The so-called height bonus would be given to developers who include amenities such as coffee shops in their plans.
Mary Ann Hammett, of the Bywater Neighborhood Association, favored such a change.
“I, for one, would like to be able to go to a roof deck on a 75-foot building and have a glass of wine and watch the traffic on the river,” Hammett said. “You can’t do that now.”
But Julie Jones, president of Neighbors First for Bywater, said the change would damage the community.
“We don’t want to lose sky,” she said. “We don’t want our views restricted. We don’t like it.”
Meanwhile groups representing some Uptown neighborhoods called for changes to the building guidelines for St. Charles Avenue. The ordinance divides the avenue into several zones, each of which has different rules.
“That makes for some awkward juxtapositions, particularly with regard to height and setbacks,” said John Bendernagel. The avenue needs some “mechanism of broad oversight” that will consider it in totality, he said.
Should the planning commission and council hearings proceed as planned, the new law will be in place sometime late this year or early next year, City Planning Commission Executive Director Robert Rivers said.