Presented with a property owner’s request to add a dormer window to a French Quarter building to accommodate the installation of an elevator, City Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey on Thursday rejected a denial by the Vieux Carre Commission and the protests of French Quarter residents and urged the council to grant the request.
In doing so, she demonstrated again that although she represents the city’s oldest and most historic neighborhoods, she will not be bound by the recommendations of agencies charged with preserving them.
The council voted 4-3 to support her position.
Appearing to stick with the declaration she made in September that “people are more important than property,” Ramsey sided with Edmond Wolff’s argument that his need for easier access to his fourth-floor walk-up trumped concerns about preserving the look of a 184-year-old building.
“I certainly respect VCC’s decision of denial and their basis for it. Respecting and preserving the integrity of the building is important. Maintaining the symmetrical look is important,” Ramsey said. “However, in this particular instance, I think a compromise which allows the dormer, which would not significantly affect the significance of the building ... that we should grant that.”
Wolff intends to install an elevator in the back corner of a four-story building at 510 Wilkinson Row, a half-block from Jackson Square. Because the top floor once was an attic, the ceiling is so low that there is not enough room for an elevator. The dormer window would allow the elevator to go to the fourth floor.
The addition would mean the building would have two dormers on its rear side and one on its front side, and the new dormer would be asymmetrical to the windows beneath it. The change also would mean the building would no longer match the one next to it, which was constructed at the same time.
The VCC ruled, as it did in 2011 when the same request was made, that the proposed alterations would damage the architectural and historic integrity of the early 19th century building. VCC decisions can be appealed to the City Council.
Ramsey’s decision again highlights the shift the District C council seat has taken from what had been a reliably pro-preservation point of view in recent years to more of a toss-up situation under Ramsey.
She has said that while she supports historic preservation, she doesn’t believe it should always outweigh the interests or wishes of property owners. Since taking office she has pushed for the partial demolition of a building in Algiers and the demolition of a home outside her district, over the objections of neighborhood associations and the Historic District Landmarks Commission.
In the latter case, Ramsey said she believed the property owner should be able to demolish a home if she and her family could no longer afford to maintain it.
In an editorial column appearing on the website nola.com on Friday, Ramsey said there has been “increased public debate surrounding the tension between historical preservation and economic development.” She wrote that she thinks it would do the city good to have an “informed and honest debate” about the merits of each.
“Our task, all of us, is to preserve our priceless history without stifling our future. For that to happen, each discussion must include an analysis of what’s best for the whole city,” Ramsey wrote. “Both sides, preservation and development, need to understand how dependent they are on each other. We must not allow the process to become an ‘either or’ choice between two hardened opponents. We must always work to find common ground if we are to reap the benefits that come from a ‘both and’ partnership.”
Ramsey presented her decision Thursday as such a compromise.
Wolff, who lives in Metairie, bought his fourth-floor unit on Wilkinson Row as a second home 12 years ago, according to his son, David Wolff. At age 78, his father can no longer easily climb the four flights required to get to his condominium, David Wolff said.
“At the age of 66, four flights of stairs were something he was willing to put up with to spend time in the Quarter,” David Wolff said. “Now at 78, it’s becoming more difficult for him.”
Wolff said he has tried to sell the property but hasn’t been able to find a buyer at his listed price.
French Quarter residents, who spoke in opposition to Wolff’s request, offered a solution to that dilemma: Lower the price.
They urged the council to uphold the VCC’s denial of the request.
“This appeal, if approved, would mean the standards of historic preservation are being judged and determined by individual convenience and the human condition,” French Quarter Citizens Executive Director Carol Gniady said. “When these standards are overturned for convenience when they present a difficulty to an individual, then there is no integrity to the standards.”
Explaining her decision, Ramsey said there was no less obtrusive way to install the elevator. She added that roof lines on higher-rated buildings — those considered more architecturally significant — have been altered in the past.
Voting with Ramsey to overturn the VCC’s decision were council members LaToya Cantrell, James Gray and Jared Brossett. Stacy Head, Jason Williams and Susan Guidry were opposed.