In The News › N.O. considers bypassing historic preservation law

Oct 13, 2005

Source: Times-Picayune

N.O. considers bypassing historic preservation law

N.O. considers bypassing historic preservation law
Mayor’s proposal draws criticism
Thursday, October 13, 2005
By Bruce Eggler and Gordon Russell
Staff writers

An unsigned proclamation by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin that would temporarily suspend the powers of city agencies that normally must sign off before buildings in the city’s older neighborhoods can be torn down has preservationists fearing a spate of hasty demolitions of historic structures.

The precise intent of the declaration, which is undated, is unclear. City officials already have the power to tear down buildings without review if an inspector deems the structure to be in danger of “imminent collapse.”

The order — which applies to the New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission, its Central Business District counterpart and the Housing Conservation District Review Committee, which reviews demolition applications in old neighborhoods not governed by the HDLC — would have to be filed in Civil District Court and with the state to give it the force of law.

The proclamation seems to give the Nagin administration broader latitude to raze buildings in the city’s older neighborhoods, not including the French Quarter. But city officials did not offer any explanation of why they sought the extra authority.

Nagin spokeswoman Sally Forman said the document “speaks for itself.” She said she did not know whether the mayor plans to sign it.

The proclamation says that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, “the application of the rules, regulations and review of those commissions and agencies is logistically impossible and impractical.” It then gives Nagin the authority “to suspend the provisions of any regulatory ordinance prescribing the procedures for conduct of local business or the orders, rules, or regulation of any local agency” in cases where complying with those laws would cause delays.

Greg Meffert, Nagin’s chief technology officer and the mayoral aide who oversees the City Planning Commission and the HDLC, said Tuesday that he’s not sure what the order means in practical terms. But he sought to allay the fears of preservationists and HDLC board members that the administration will ignore the preservation agencies and their concerns.

Meffert said the Landmarks Commission “has an active, vibrant role in what we’re doing. Their input is definitely being heard. They’re helping us preserve whatever historic architecture we can.”

Inspectors from the agency have been in the field, checking buildings in historic areas for structural damage, Meffert said.

He said all of the city’s oversight boards and agencies — including the HDLC, the Planning Commission and the Vieux Carre Commission — will see staff cutbacks as a result of the massive layoffs Nagin announced last week.

But that doesn’t mean the agencies will disappear or become irrelevant and that wholesale demolition of historic buildings will be commonplace — quite the contrary, Meffert said. “We understand we don’t want to be Baton Rouge South,” he said.

The New Orleans HDLC, which regulates buildings in local historic districts outside the CBD and French Quarter, on Tuesday held its first meeting since Katrina.

“The HDLC is open and operating as close as possible to normal procedures,” Chairman Jesse LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc said he was aware that Nagin had been contemplating signing an order suspending the commission’s operations. But until he’s notified that it has been signed, he said, the commission would continue operating as usual.

Representatives of the Louisiana Landmarks Society and Preservation Resource Center expressed concern about the effects of the order, and Meg Lousteau, executive director of the landmarks group, said it might be challenged in court.

Janet Howard, president of the watchdog Bureau of Governmental Research, questioned the wisdom of the proposal.

“Whether the city’s damaged housing stock is something that can be preserved is a major issue that should be debated as part of a planning process,” Howard said. “Eliminating the procedural safeguards for historic neighborhoods would be tantamount to making the decision before the community has had the discussions.”

Howard compared the proposed suspension of the HDLC and other panels to Nagin’s announcement last week — without any public debate or discussion — of a plan to create a casino zone along Canal and Poydras streets.

“These things should be flowing out of a planning process,” she said.

A preliminary survey by the Landmarks Commission’s staff found that 115 buildings in seven local historic districts had been seriously damaged by Katrina and that 56 more were “compromised.” The survey did not include the Holy Cross neighborhood, much of which was flooded.

But LeBlanc said he was hopeful that state and federal officials understand the importance of preserving the city’s old neighborhoods and historic architecture, and that they will not automatically seek to bulldoze every damaged building. “FEMA is committed to the preservation of New Orleans,” he said of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We’ll be actively fighting to preserve every building we can,” said Scott Sewell, vice chairman of the commission and a prominent Republican with ties to the Bush administration.

Oct 13, 2005

Source: Times-Picayune

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