In The News › New Orleans City Council approves Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance with late-hour amendments

New Orleans City Council approves Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance with late-hour amendments

By Robert McClendon and Richard A. Webster

NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

May 14, 2015
The New Orleans City Council voted Thursday (May 14) to approve a top-to-bottom overhaul of the city’s comprehensive zoning ordinance that has been in the works for four years. Several major changes were submitted at the last second, leaving the members of the public scrambling for an opportunity to read them before the council put them to a vote.

The changes touched on controversial increases in building heights, loosening of rules for bars and restaurants in the French Quarter and new requirements for affordable housing in the city.

Opponents called the submissions “insulting,” “a mockery,” “a disgrace,” and “a sham.”

“This is not a vetting, this is a sneak attack,” said one neighborhood leader.

The surprise changes enraged many in the crowd and drew a sharp rebuke from Janet Howard, president of the Bureau of Government Research, a watchdog group.

“Are these 11th hour changes good or bad? It’s impossible to know” because nobody’s had a chance to study them, Howard said.

The city was violating its own charter, which requires adequate notice before land-use laws are changed, she said.

“The public is entitled to adequate time to review, digest and comment,” Howard said.

Councilwoman Stacy Head pushed hard to limit voting to those amendments that had been submitted well in advance of the meeting. Pushing them through with little participation from the public erodes the credibility of the council, she said.

“I think we’ve sort of devolved and are losing the moral high ground on the difficult decisions we have to make,” Head said.

Other members of the council briefly considered various procedural measures that would give the public more time to vet the late proposals, but they couldn’t come to an agreement or align their schedules on another time to reconvene.

Over the course of Thursday’s meeting, which lasted more than 10 hours, the council voted on dozens of amendments, many of which focused on how business is conducted in the French Quarter.

One of the most controversial came from Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, who proposed to allow new cigar bars with conditional use permits to open in the VCC-2 commercial district which stretches from Canal to St. Peter streets. It defined a cigar bar as a business that can sell alcohol but one in which the sale of cigars account for at least 35 percent of the revenue.

The amendment was designed specifically to allow La Habana Hemingway cigar bar at 533 Toulouse St. to remain open. The city’s new smoking ban exempts existing cigar bars, allowing them to continue to operate. La Habana, however, was not grandfathered in because it was improperly operating with a restaurant permit and therefore not considered to be a lawful business.

Ramsey said she crafted her amendment so its use was highly restrictive, increasing the required percentage of cigar sales from 10 percent. This would prevent a rash of bars from applying to be cigar bars as a way to circumvent the smoking ban, she said.

Members of several French Quarter residential organizations spoke out forcefully against the proposal, calling it spot zoning and in direct violation of a ban on bars in the French Quarter’s commercial district.

Councilwoman Susan Guidry said she “didn’t know any residents living in the French Quarter in favor of this ordinance. This blows the smoking ban out of the water.”

The majority of the council members didn’t buy the opposition’s arguments and said the revenue restrictions Ramsey inserted appeared to effectively safeguard against an explosion of new cigar bars. The council passed the amendment 6-1 with only Guidry opposed.

French Quarter residential groups scored a big win later when the council voted to reinsert into the zoning ordinance language seen by some as vital to protect the Vieux Carré from creeping commercialism.

The amendment Head proposed preserves what is known as Section 8.1, which states that “the historic character of the Vieux Carré shall not be injuriously affected.”

The residential groups also successfully defeated an amendment Ramsey proposed that would have allowed live music in French Quarter restaurants. They opposed the provision, saying that it would open the doors for restaurants to morph into loud bars. The council voted it down 4-3.

ELSEWHERE IN THE FRENCH QUARTER

Other notable French Quarter amendments to the zoning ordinance passed by the council include:

A prohibition on adult entertainment businesses in the VCE-1 district that includes parts of Decatur Street near the House of Blues.

A prohibition on new bars in the VCC-2 commercial district between Canal and St. Peter streets.

The preservation of language in the current zoning that permits nightclubs on Bourbon Street and on Decatur Street in front of the House of Blues. The draft zoning ordinance would have allowed new nightclubs only with conditional use permits and required that they have live entertainment at least four nights a week.

The elimination of a clause governing Bourbon Street that would have required businesses to operate in a manner that respects their residential neighbors and the historic character of the French Quarter. Chris Young with the French Quarter Business League said that the language was inserted to making it easier for attorneys to file civil lawsuits against bars and nightclubs. The council voted 4-3 to eliminate the clause with Williams, Gray, Ramsey and Brossett voting in favor and Head, Guidry and Cantrell opposed.

HEIGHT ADDITIONS IN THE RIVERFRONT OVERLAY DISTRICT

The council approved a controversial softening of height restrictions in the Riverfront Overlay District along the waterfront in Faubourg Marigny and Bywater. The new rules allow developers to build taller buildings with more, smaller units in exchange for certain design considerations and affordable housing.

The new zoning rules raise the maximum base height in the waterfront area to 55 feet. The maximum height in the overlay district jumps to 80 feet, provided developers:

  • include certain landscaping and amenities accessible to the public or invest heavily in access to the waterfront;
  • use green building standards; and
  • dedicate a minimum of 10 percent of the units to low-income housing.

Developers who comply with the extra requirements can also build 75 percent more densely than they would otherwise, increasing the profitability of waterfront parcels markedly.

AFFORDABLE HOUSING

The council adopted two amendments Mayor Mitch Landrieu requested that require affordable housing in certain developments, but softened one of them in favor of developers.

Landrieu’s proposal for the downtown riverfront district would have required the low income units to be reserved for residents whose income was 50 percent of the median income in the area. An amendment by Councilman Jason Williams loosened the rules to allow income of up to 80 percent of the median and removed a requirement that all the units have the same interior finishes. His amendment also required half of the low-income units to have at least two bedrooms.

In a separate amendment, the council adopted Landrieu’s proposal to require “planned developments,” usually large apartment blocks, to include affordable housing if they pursue density bonuses.

The most sweeping affordability amendment, proposed by Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, would have allowed for density bonuses in smaller apartment buildings wherever they are allowed in the city. Because the proposal was submitted late, Cantrell agreed to withdraw it and submit the amendment to the normal city planning process.

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