Neighborhood groups representing the French Quarter, Marigny, Bywater, Holy Cross and Algiers have banded together to urge the City Council to “fix” the city’s proposed new comprehensive zoning ordinance to exclude provisions that they say would damage the character of their neighborhoods and other areas of the city.
The newly formed Riverfront Alliance wants stricter limits on the height of buildings along some sections of the riverfront and the return of language granting certain powers to the Vieux Carre Commission. It also wants the removal of provisions that would allow various exceptions to building restrictions and later hours and more live entertainment at restaurants.
In a billboard unveiled Monday on Loyola Avenue across from City Hall, the groups call on the City Council to “Fix the CZO!” and to “Respect, Protect, Save New Orleans’ Neighborhoods.”
The council is expected to vote on the document sometime early this year.
The alliance is made up of six associations: the Algiers Point Association, Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association, French Quarter Citizens, Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, Neighbors First for Bywater and Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates.
French Quarter Citizens Executive Director Carol Gniady said that while the group wants to have its specific requests met, it also was formed to express disappointment over the years-long process that produced the new zoning ordinance and concern that residents’ requests have gone ignored.
The City Council accepted the final draft of the new zoning ordinance late last year to replace a more than 40-year-old law that has been amended hundreds of times.
The 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 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 City Planning Commission held 20 meetings across the city in 2011 and 2013 on the proposed new rules, which drew more than 1,000 comments. The measure went through three public drafts.
The council still can make changes to the new rules. The issues being raised by the Riverfront Alliance were raised repeatedly to the Planning Commission during the drafting process and have been presented to members of the council in both public and private meetings.
Perhaps the most contentious issue is the new ordinance’s creation of an “overlay district” along the riverfront — one of 15 districts in the CZO that establish special controls on areas of the city that have “special characteristics or special development issues.”
The Riverfront Design Overlay District would allow structures to qualify for a 25-foot “height bonus.” The district includes lots along the Mississippi River uptown from Jackson Avenue to the Pontchartrain Expressway, in Algiers from Powder Street to Alix Street and downtown from Esplanade Avenue to the Industrial Canal, excluding the Marigny neighborhood.
The 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.
Proponents say the taller heights are necessary for higher density living and growth in the Bywater neighborhood in particular, but opponents say the buildings would overwhelm the riverfront neighborhoods and damage their character.
Beyond the riverfront, the new alliance is calling on the council to reinstate language granting certain powers to the Vieux Carre Commission.
Section 8.1 of the current zoning law 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 commission, unless the change in use would involve no change in the building’s exterior appearance. It 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 VCPORA and others in arguments against proposed new developments in the city’s most historic district, but the language is not included in the new zoning ordinance.
The ordinance does, however, include provisions that would allow standard restaurants to stay open later and allow them, except in the French Quarter, to provide unamplified music. The alliance said those changes have the potential to turn any restaurant into a nightclub without input from the neighborhood.
The Riverfront Alliance also is asking the council to eliminate a section of the zoning ordinance that would allow developers to receive exceptions to many regulations in exchange for providing certain benefits to the city. The council could grant exceptions for “planned developments” on large tracts of land if it believes they would provide a “substantial benefit” to the city. The exceptions could include waivers on the rules regarding height, density, parking, signage and other basic zoning regulations.
The alliance said the provision amounts to a “luxury bonus” for developers and would allow them to circumvent the Neighborhood Participation Process, which calls for meetings with residents.
The Bureau of Governmental Research also has objected to that provision, saying in a report last year that it has the “potential for undermining the rest of the CZO.”