With the New Orleans City Council inching closer toward approving the first overhaul of the city’s zoning law in four decades, more than 60 residents made last-minute appeals to the council Friday for revisions to the lengthy, long-awaited document.
No decisions were made at the public hearing. The council is expected to vote on the proposed new comprehensive zoning ordinance next week.
Most of the issues raised at Friday’s meeting were familiar, such as opposition to allowing taller buildings in parts of some riverfront neighborhoods and letting developers citywide receive exceptions to some regulations in exchange for providing certain benefits to the city.
Among the new issues to crop up at the meeting was an amendment proposed by Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey that would add a definition for cigar bar to the zoning law and, critics say, allow a French Quarter cocktail lounge to operate where it previously was prohibited.
The proposed CZO is 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 document has been shaped through four years of meetings and multiple drafts.
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.
Each council member, with the exception of James Gray, introduced amendments to the document at Friday’s hearing.
Changes proposed by council President Stacy Head and Councilwoman Susan Guidry would address persistent complaints from some residents.
Head’s amendment would reinstate Section 8.1 of the current zoning law into the CZO. That section prohibits the Department of Safety and Permits from issuing permits for any change in use of a building in the French Quarter without permission of the Vieux Carre Commission, unless the change in use would involve no change in the building’s exterior appearance.
The section 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 neighborhood’s traditional architecture.
That language often is cited by French Quarter residents and preservation organizations in opposing proposed new developments in the city’s most historic district. Those groups had appealed to the City Planning Commission and the council to reinsert the language into the new zoning ordinance.
An amendment offered by Guidry would remove the entirety of Appendix B from the CZO. That appendix provides guidelines for elevating homes in New Orleans.
Guidry said the attitude toward elevating homes has changed in the years since Hurricane Katrina as concerns have been raised about maintaining the historic significance of properties and as policymakers and residents have learned more about storm management and building more resilient structures.
Residents who spoke at Friday’s hearing applauded both of those proposed changes.
There was still plenty of criticism, however.
The Bureau of Governmental Research is still not satisfied with a portion of the proposed law that would allow exemptions to some normal rules for “planned developments” that include “enhanced amenities,” such as open space and bike-sharing facilities, in their plans. Peter Reichard, the nonprofit agency’s director of research, told the council that the current draft would “work against clarity and predictability in the development process” — two things residents have said they want the new zoning rules to provide.
The largest contingent still in opposition to the draft CZO remains residents who want stricter limits on the height of buildings along some sections of the riverfront in Bywater, Holy Cross and Algiers.
The proposed law would create an “overlay district” along the riverfront — one of 15 districts that would establish special controls on areas of the city that have “special characteristics or special development issues.”
The Riverfront Design Overlay District would allow some structures on lots along the river in three areas — 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 — to qualify for a 25-foot “height bonus.”
The height bonus would bring a residential building’s maximum 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.
Supporters said Friday that the taller heights are necessary for higher-density living, growth and affordable housing in the Bywater neighborhood in particular, but opponents said the buildings would overwhelm the riverfront neighborhoods and damage their character.