Tuesday, September 16, 2014

You can pretty much demolish anything you want to

This came up last week in Uptown Messenger and hasn't gotten a tremendous amount of attention since.

The story, initially, was about an application to demolish a property on General Pershing street.  The demolition was reviewed and rejected twice by a panel known as the Neighborhood Conservation District Committee.
Created in 2008, the Neighborhood Conservation District Committee (NCDC) governs the demolition of significant buildings outside the city’s official historic districts. The NCDC is made up of 13 members — one appointed by each of the seven City Council members, one appointed by the mayor, and the five representatives from various city departments such as Safety and Permits or the City Planning Commission. Anyone attempting to tear down a building within the NCDC area must make their case before that panel first, though if they are rejected, they can appeal the decision to the City Council.
In this case, the appeal went to City Council where District B councilwoman Latoya Cantrell  flipped her position. Cantrell voted for the demolition after having proclaimed it "essential to the the residential fabric of the community.”  What made her change her mind?  Uptown Messenger tried to find out and came upon something interesting.
Several residents who attended the meeting, however, said that Cantrell explained her position on the General Pershing property as related to ongoing questions about the validity of the NCDC process.

She says the NCDC process is not legal,” said Faye Lieder, a neighbor who has spearheaded efforts to preserve the General Pershing property.

The concern among city officials, according to the residents’ account of Cantrell’s explanation, is that a flaw in the structure of the NCDC process leaves decisions made by the panel so open to legal challenge that they cannot be defended in court.

“Right now, anybody can demolish anything,” Lieder said.
The specific reason for this isn't made entirely clear but the article does say that Stacy Head has proposed an ordinance which she believes will close whatever this legal loophole might be... even as she sort of denies it exists. 
A draft of a new ordinance would rename it the Neighborhood Conservation District Advisory Committee, and its function “shall be limited to counsel and advice.” All of the mayor’s appointees to the panel would be removed, leaving only seven members appointed by each City Council member.

The goal of the new legislation, Head said, is to “remove an argument” that developers use in court against demolition denials, placing the board that reviews them under the purview of the legislative branch instead of the executive branch. The existing process is sound, she said, but her ordinance will strengthen it.
So is the problem they're trying to fix related to the make-up of the committee or its function?  If I understand the process correctly as it stands, any denial or approval it issues now is still pretty much just "advisory" given that property owners can appeal to the City Council.   As to whose "purview"  the thing belongs, I'll have to assume that must involve the charter somehow.

Someone will have to go back and review the process by which NCDC came about.  Back during 2008, Karen Gadbois was closely tracking the demolitions appeal process at Squandered Heritage. That site has been pulled down but you can still browse its archive at The Lens.  I went looking through there because I was hoping there would be some record of the reasoning behind NCDC's creation.

I didn't find what I was looking for.  Although there is the occasional complaint against dysfunction at NCDC's predecessor entity (HCDRC). What I did find, though, is probably even more relevant in the larger sense.

Remember 2008 was the year of the Gustav freak-out. While that storm didn't re-flood the city as many feared it might, it did cause significant coastal flooding and knock everyone's power out for several days.  More importantly, it inflicted a certain quantity of structural damage to properties around town.  The demo-happy Nagin administration moved quickly to take advantage of this.
For those of you not familiar with the story, here’s the nickel version. Four days after Gustav hit on Labor Day, Mayor Nagin issued an executive order – claiming powers under a state of emergency – suspending the operations of the Neighborhood Conservation District Committee (NCDC). This is the committee tasked with reviewing demolitions from individuals and the city to ensure that the city’s historic fabric will not be negatively impacted. The Committee also often catches errors in the city’s applications for demolitons, such as incorrect addresses or lack of notice to homeowners or the fact that the property is already demolished.

In issuing the order, Mayor Nagin claimed he was attempting to speed demolitions of properties damaged by Gustav. He claimed the extra step of Committee review would slow the recovery from Gustav.

There’s two problems with that though: 1) His Safety & Permits department was already in the process of issuing over 100 “imminent danger of collapse” (IDC) permits on properties severely damaged by Gustav; and 2) Those IDC permits are specifically exempted – by law – from review by the Committee.

Nonetheless, Safety & Permits started handing out additional “executive order” permits. Those other permits that got issued specifically under this executive order were on properties that related to Katrina – or perhaps to nothing at all (some appear to not be candidates for demolition for any reason). They had nothing to do with Gustav. The mayor’s real justification for the executive order appears to simply be impatience, not any actual emergency.

Anyway, why is this important?  Well, if you've got this process set up to limit what people can do with their property but can be easily submarined by anyone with the resources to hire the right lawyer, you've got a seriously inequitable situation on your hands.  But a review of the Gustav scenario should be sufficient to demonstrate that this isn't anything new. If someone wants to knock a building down, and has the money and/or connections to put to the task, they're going to get permission to do it one way or the other. 

In the meantime, though, the various conservation boards like NCDC, HDLC, and the like retain power sufficient to intimidate anyone besides wealthy individuals or developers.  The cumulative effect of this is an inflated cost of housing in New Orelans's "historically significant" neighborhoods. 

And as interesting as the minutiae of these boards' function might be, it's important to remember that the most siginificant problem facing New Orleans and its housing stock is not, "Who will save these precious buildings?" It's "Can we afford to live in them?" And if we can't, why should we care?

No comments: