Monday, February 17, 2014

Whose streets? Their streets

It was a busy KDV weekend but I didn't want to let it go by without flagging this Lens report on some of Uptown's ambiguously private streets.
“Rosa Park Private Street Do Not Enter” reads the sign near St. Charles Avenue, marking the entrance to a block-long street of $1 million-plus mansions near Tulane and Loyola universities.

At a distance, the sign looks officially sanctioned. It’s bolted to a metal pole directly below a “no parking” sign marked “DPW,”  the New Orleans Department of Public Works. It’s similar in appearance to the Public Works sign, too, printed in municipal red-on-white.

Examine them up close, however, and you notice the private-street sign’s background is bright white — several shades lighter than the Public Works sign — and its red font is slightly different. Nothing on it points to a city department or recognized neighborhood group. It looks cheaper and flimsier, as if it were a quick custom job ordered from a make-your-own sign website.

Nearby, similar signs warn outsiders from entering equally well-to-do Dunleith Court and Richmond Place.

But it’s not at all clear whether the streets are indeed private, Orleans Parish Assessor Erroll Williams said in response to questions from The Lens and Fox 8 News.
This turns out to be a more difficult question to answer than you might expect at first. Even the Google Street View car  was confused.  I tried to take a virtual ride down each of these streets (because, of course, the first thing that happens when you make your street private is all the riff-raff suddenly want to go there) and found mixed results.

Here the sign warning you not to enter Rosa Park was clearly ignored.

View Larger Map

Click here to enjoy a sunny trip around the cul-de-sac

The sign at Broadway and Trianon Place appears to warn of something called a "To Away Zone"

View Larger Map

What does that mean?  Well, try entering the street and watch as you are whisked though some sort of black hole to the other end of Trianon at Walmsley Avenue.   Congratulations, you've just completed a trip through the To Away Zone; an exclusive sort of surveillance obscuring technology afforded only to the residents of Trianon Place and, of course, former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Better than asking if these streets are open to the public, maybe we should ask why not.  Because if they are private property then someone should be paying taxes.  But if you don't know who pays the taxes....
(Assessor Errol) Williams said he would have to identify the last recorded owners of the land under the street. Their heirs would be responsible for the taxes, he said.

“If it’s taxable, I’m going to create one parcel, and whoever the last known owner was, that’s the name we’re going to put it in,” Williams said.

Property Management records show the last owner of Rosa Park was Durant da Ponte, a former Confederate soldier turned journalist and editor of the Daily Picayune, according to a history of Uptown residential parks. Dunleith Court was owned by the widow of Samuel Wiggins, who is identified in public records only as “Widow Samuel M. Wiggins.” At its dedication as a private street, Richmond Place was jointly owned by eight developers.

Williams is not optimistic about collecting from the da Ponte heirs or any of the others, though. In that case, the parish could seize the property and put it up for tax sale.
Maybe it's time to put an end to this Gilded Age relic of quasi feudal fiefdoms carved out of the  municipal grid.  Or maybe that's not such an anachronism after all. Either way, it probably ought to be rolled back somehow.  Here's a fun way to do it.
Under state law, all roads “kept up, maintained, or worked for a period of three years” with the knowledge of residents “shall be public roads or streets.” A 1992 City Attorney’s opinion says that when the city has maintained a street for three years with the knowledge and consent of adjoining property owners, it tacitly becomes a public street.
I'm thinking someone from public works shows up periodically with a jackhammer and accidentally knocks a hole in Audubon Place. "Whoops! Let's gets someone out here to fix that for you."  Three years later, open street.

Meanwhile, our favorite neighborhood sinkhole will be turning four years old in a few months.   If this street maintenance property works in reverse, I might actually own that thing by now.


No comments: