The New Orleans City Council could not agree Thursday on whether to better align a provision in the city’s zoning ordinance with the city’s master plan. The result was to kill a Bayou St. John neighborhood group’s effort to curb high-density development in their area and certain other neighborhoods.
The proposal, which failed on a 3-3 vote, would have introduced a zoning category into the ordinance that calls for the same number of housing units per acre that the master plan authorizes.
It was a defeat for the Neighbors of McDonogh 31, the neighborhood group that requested the change last year in response to a developer’s plan to convert the closed Morris F.X. Jeff Elementary School on North Rendon Street into apartments.
The plan from that developer, McDonogh 31 LLC, was tailored to a separate zoning category the neighbors took issue with.
The council’s split showcased long-standing tensions over how to reconcile the city’s master plan for long-term development, a 16-chapter document voters authorized in 2008, with the year-old comprehensive zoning ordinance intended to set the rules for implementing the master plan’s guidelines.
That ordinance has been controversial from Day One, and the argument over which document should trump the other has pitted preservationists against developers and some council members against their colleagues.
The fault lines were drawn again Thursday, but this time, the pro-master plan camp had a little help. Councilman Jason Williams joined ardent master plan supporters Susan Guidry and Stacy Head in supporting the proposed zoning amendment, a swing that led to the evenly split vote.
“I think when we are talking about density, we have to address the where and the how,” Williams said. “Density for the sake of density will not necessarily resolve our housing crisis.”
His comment came in response to Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance Chairwoman Andreanecia Morris, who had said that limiting density, or the number of housing units allowed in a given space, would further exacerbate the city’s shortage of affordable housing.
The Neighbors of McDonogh 31 group, on the other hand, has argued that jamming more residents into a small area can lead to more noise, less parking space and more traffic — problems that might also force people out of neighborhoods. Williams echoed those sentiments.
Council members Jared Brossett, James Gray and LaToya Cantrell voted against eliminating the zoning category, citing the city’s housing needs. Nadine Ramsey, perhaps the council’s most dogged development champion, was absent.
“I do not believe we should be making efforts to change the CZO to reflect bad policy in the master plan,” Cantrell said.
Cantrell also asked why Neighbors of McDonogh 31 was even pushing the issue, which she said would not stop McDonogh 31 LLC’s development at the site. Because the group is rehabbing a former school, it could potentially ask the City Planning Commission to approve more units at that site through a separate process, she said.
She also noted that the Planning Commission in July will begin a yearlong review of the master plan and possible amendments. That review is expected to be completed by July 2017.
Neighbors of McDonogh 31 organizer Shana Sassoon said in a later interview that her group had hoped to resolve the inconsistency before the master plan review process ends.
“We know that this will be a question in so many other neighborhoods,” she said. “This would have solved that.”
With the defeat of the proposed amendment, the zoning ordinance will continue to contain a “multifamily residential” designation that allows up to 35 housing units per acre in the Bayou St. John neighborhood and others like it — in conflict with a separate “residential pre-war low-density” designation for those areas in the master plan, which calls for no more than 24 units per acre.
The neighbors wanted a new multifamily designation that also limited housing to 24 units.
Master plan debate aside, there hasn’t been much activity at the Morris Jeff site, formerly the McDonogh 31 School site.
Developers had been in talks with the Faubourg St. John Neighborhood Association, a separate community group, and had deferred the project while those conversations progressed.
That association’s president, Steve Mardon, said his group has not heard from the developer in months.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that the defeated proposal would have eliminated a present category from the ordinance rather than introduced a new one.
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.