Friday, June 23, 2006

Plan A: The Devil You Know; Plan B: A World Class CZO

Joseph Campbell once said,” We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” So too should the City of New Orleans be ready to scrap its land use planning and zoning regime so that 21st Century development does not have to be shoehorned into a mid 20th Century ordinance just to prove that the voluntarily difficult is not not impossible.

The present land use planning process for the City of New Orleans is a function of the current CZO (Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance) which dates to the late 1940's. It has been amended piecemeal over the years, and the oft discussed plans for a new, comprehensive CZO have floundered for decades. Obviously, the recovery brings the topic to the forefront.

At a meeting of the local chapter of the ULI in April of 2004, one prominent local developer made the point that the scale of commercial development permitted by the current law was not the scale that was economic for modern usage. He pointed out that some recent controversies of the time: the Astor Hotel and the Wal-Mart on Tchoupitoulas were proposed at the scale that international companies knew were required in order to project successful operations.

However, he noted, our 'unique' ordinance and process required them to seek variances to operate in this manner. A variance required at least one trip through the City Planning Commission and then, at least one trip through the Council. The process led to delays and costs. In the end, a brick facade on the Wal-Mart or a change in the set backs of the hotel were not as expensive as the year to two of time that was added to the process.

It is worth noting that many World Class Cities do not have the unwritten rule that the district Councilman can veto any proposal in his district. Also, World Class Cities do not require nearly every new commercial development to be approved by the City Council.

By sending nearly all new commercial development to the Council, new development becomes politicized. Hidden agendas (such as rival development plans, petty and personal politics, etc.) can be cloaked in quasi-architectural criticisms, or simply shut down.

For instance, in the case of both the Wal-Mart and the Astor, academic criticisms that the developments proposed were 'out of scale' were red herrings, as it was obvious that the buildings were both within easy visual reference of other massively out of scale buildings; e.g. the Convention Center and the Sheraton/Marriott. The Gottesman family discovered that an undesignated historic happening was sufficient to prevent the conversion of the Sanlin store from T-Shirt shops to a Marriott hotel. Today, ten years later, that same ugly building sits there as a shrine to the bizarre processes.

The CZO regime made little sense then, its continuation has served to disproportionately empower a few individuals at the expense of attracting out of town investment. In the future, without a zoning ordinance/system that makes it possible to attract outside buyers/builders/commercial tenants the City will miss opportunities to attract jobs and investment.

Revisions of the CZO will be difficult, even Post-K, because it is going to affect every property in the city to some degree. A revised CZO will always require compromises and trade offs. Because of this, it is not going to happen on the NYT's schedule, but having a less than perfect system is not the same as having nothing. For now, it would be wasteful to bog down our re-development opportunities by over-indulging in the tangentially distracting utopian brainstorms of passionate residents and heavily credentialed architects/planners.

So, in the Post-K era, it may be better to deal with projects on a case by case basis for the next couple of years. In these instances, an actual application for consideration implies that there is a developer, some financing, a business/development proposal on which a decision may result in action. Sure, the old demons are not exercised, but there is a greater good to be had by continuing with the 'devil-that-you-know' for now. Keeping the lousy old system on temporary life support is not the perfect solution, doing it right will require a better functioning Council than we have ever had. The imperfect, ad hoc solution is still to be preferred over paralysis.

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