In June, shortly after taking office, Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey hinted at her position on one of the most important topics facing her district. In a move considered highly unusual for a City Council member representing many of New Orleans’ oldest neighborhoods, she overruled a recommendation from the Historic District Landmarks Commission and approved the demolition of a property in Algiers Point.
The action stunned the Algiers Point Association, which had grown used to its council members siding almost exclusively with the HDLC and on the side of preservation.
If it wasn’t clear then that Ramsey is unlike some of her predecessors in the District C seat, notably former councilwomen Jackie Clarkson and Kristin Gisleson Palmer — who often fought to save even very rundown buildings — there should be no doubt after the last council meeting.
“Preservation is important but not at the expense of forcing people without means or of limited means to take their property away from them,” Ramsey said during Thursday’s meeting. “We need to remember that people are more important than property.”
Though Ramsey’s attitude is not unique — the preservation vs. people debate is a topic of conversation throughout the country — it is notable given her position as the council’s voice for the French Quarter, Bywater, Marigny, Treme and other historic neighborhoods. Those districts are filled with 19th-century and even older buildings, some derelict and some immaculately maintained.
The city began taking measures to protect and preserve such structures in the 1930s, establishing the Vieux Carre Commission and following several decades later with the creation of various historic districts throughout the city. Preservationist measures also are enshrined in the state constitution.
With few exceptions, council members have largely minded the principles set out in those laws.
Ramsey’s view has put her at odds with council President Stacy Head, who on Thursday described herself as “firmly and staunchly a preservationist” and who described Ramsey as having views similar to members of the Libertarian Party or tea party.
“I understand that philosophy. I don’t subscribe to it,” Head said. “I firmly believe that the actions of the individual that harm the whole are a negative and that when you’re balancing the two, you do have to look at the rights of the individual, but the obligation to preserve our historic architecture supersedes that of the individual, particularly when there is not a plan to rebuild, when there is not a homeowner trying to get home.”
Ramsey’s comments also did not go over well among preservationist leaders, including in the French Quarter.
“Once an old building is gone, it’s gone forever. The craftsmanship and materials cannot be replicated,” Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates President Carol Allen and French Quarter Citizens President CoCo Garrett said in a joint statement. “For decades, we as New Orleanians have taken seriously our responsibility to be good stewards of these irreplaceable resources.”
Louisiana Landmarks Society Executive Director Walter Gallas said the city has a responsibility, based on current law, to push for protection of historic properties.
“I worry when people say people are more important than property,” Gallas said. “Government has a right to tell people what to do with their property. What do you call zoning? Zoning is telling people what you can and can’t do with your property. So it isn’t a free-for-all.”
The debate was brought to the fore during a routine appeal to the council of a Neighborhood Conservation District Committee decision to deny the demolition of a home on Joliet Street, in Councilwoman Susan Guidry’s district.
Doris Tuckson, who owns the property with relatives, wants to tear down the structure. She said it is not structurally sound and that the family’s attempts to shore up the home’s foundation have twice failed. The family wants to demolish the 1920s-era building and leave the lot vacant.
“Is it better to have a blighted property in the neighborhood than a property that is cleared?” Tuckson asked the council.
Head suggested that Tuckson and her family sell the property. She said it could fetch $200,000 based on sales of other structures in the area.
“I know people who live in that neighborhood,” Head said. “They are so committed to historic preservation. They are so committed to making sure that their neighborhood maintains its appearance as a community built in the 1920s.”
‘A piece of history’
Head said she considers people who live in historic properties to be stewards of their buildings, tasked with protecting and preserving them for future generations.
She said she might have had a different view if Tuckson’s plan included rebuilding the property into something complementary to the neighborhood and then living in it.
“To say that demolition is the option because you don’t yet have a plan for what you’re going to do with a piece of property you inherited with multiple family members, to even consider that as a solution, is frightening, frankly,” Head said. “Because what you’ll have is a lot. What we’ll have lost is a piece of history as well as we would be committing a negative action for our environment.”
But Ramsey said the individual property owner’s wishes should trump any overall goals of preservation, particularly in cases where making repairs would prove a financial hardship.
“We hear a lot about the value of the property and neighborhoods and neighbors. But this is a case where this individual and her family have a right to their property. And to do what they will with it,” she said.
Head called Thursday’s debate a “cathartic conversation” that may become the first step in a new discussion about New Orleanians’ views on preservation.
The topic is likely to be a recurring one for the council. Also at Thursday’s meeting, the council voted to give itself the duty to authorize or prohibit demolitions in many old neighborhoods of New Orleans. That power had been held by the NCDC, with the council hearing only occasional appeals of its decisions.
The shift was made in response to an argument from property owners who had turned to the courts to appeal the NCDC’s decisions. Those owners said the committee was improperly housed in the executive branch and its decisions therefore were not legally binding.
With the change, all of the demolition requests will be considered by the council, providing greater opportunity for debate.
Can’t save them all
Some of the other council members, so far, appear to hold views that are less rigid than Ramsey’s and Head’s.
LaToya Cantrell, for instance, appeared sympathetic to Tuckson’s plight. She said she didn’t want Tuckson to feel forced to sell her home because it is “part of your family history.” But Cantrell urged her to come up with a plan for the site that possibly wouldn’t require demolition.
James Gray said he agrees that too many buildings have been torn down in the city but said he doesn’t buy the notion that all old buildings should be saved.
“If we probably all wrote down what our values are, they would probably look very similar in the abstract. We would probably all say we value historic property. We value the history of the neighborhood. We probably would also say we attach a certain value to the rights of the property owner to deal with their property as they see fit,” Gray said. “Where we may start seeing differences is in the significance of this particular house to the historic character of the city of New Orleans. It is a house that was built a long time ago. I don’t know that that makes it a historic house.”
If age is the only requirement for historic value, then “virtually every house in this city” would be considered historic, Gray said, adding that he doesn’t believe that is or should be the case.
Gray and Ramsey voted to allow the demolition. Guidry, Head, Cantrell, Jared Brossett and Jason Williams voted in favor of upholding the NCDC’s denial.