In The News › Proposed charter changes pull council’s planning power

Jun 18, 2008

Source: New Orleans CityBusiness

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Planning Issues

Proposed charter changes pull council’s planning power

Proposed charter changes pull council’s planning power
by Ariella Cohen

Attorney William Borah can tell war stories about the trials, tribulations and plain old shocks he has experienced while attempting to navigate New Orleans’ notoriously fickle land-use process.

“We don’t call it planning by surprise here for nothing,” said Borah, president of Smart Growth for Louisiana, a national organization that fights urban sprawl.

During his decades as a lawyer in the city, Borah has fought everything from the neighborhood-flattening Interstate 10 expressway to city council decisions that allowed big-box retailers to be built even though they were not permitted under zoning law.

“There are sites in this city that look like they’ve been hit by bombs,” Borah said. “That’s what happens when you have dysfunctional zoning and developers are given permission to build things that shouldn’t be built (and then the projects don’t work).”

But now, the lawyer’s days in the combat zone could be coming to an end.

Last week, the first blows to the troubled system were delivered in the form of amendments to the city’s charter and a long-awaited move forward for the city’s still-unwritten master plan. If approved, the amendments, introduced Thursday by Council President Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, would change who makes land-use decisions and what laws they use.

Instead of relying on the city council to vote on projects based on zoning laws written decades ago, the amendments restructure the approval process and put the force of law behind a comprehensive 20-year land-use master plan consultants started crafting last week.

Leading the effort is Goody Clancy of Boston, an urban planning firm that took a lead role in the privately funded Unified New Orleans Plan process. Good Clancy is being paid $2 million for its work that is expected to be finished in one year and then go to City Council for review and adoption, lead planner David Dixon said.

UNOP got the city ready to make this plan,” Dixon said. “Now we need to go back to those inventions and turn them into a more formal process. … I don’t think we start with a beautiful picture; we start with the serious policy decisions that will unlock the future of this city.”

The master plan and the proposed charter amendments are intended to de-politicize land use decisions. By taking requests for land-use variances and other potentially contentious issues out of the hands of the city council and putting them under the jurisdiction of an expanded, plan-equipped City Planning Commission, the amendments will add accountability to a process that has been tainted by corruption and scandal, said Clarkson, who worked with Borah on the amendments.

“There will be no guesswork anymore about what can be built and what can’t be,” Clarkson said. “This will free up our time to tackle the city’s real problems instead of getting in the middle of zoning conflicts, which we never should have been (deciding) in the first place.”

The amendments also include a provision that would establish a “system for organized and effective neighborhood participation in land use decisions.” Within that structure, city residents will be given the “opportunity for meaningful neighborhood review of and comment” on developments proposed for their neighborhood, according to a draft of the amendments.

“The focus has been on giving the master plan the force of law,” said Janet Howard, president of the Bureau of Governmental Research, which hosted a presentation by Dixon last Tuesday. “While this is critically important, it is only one leg of the stool. In order to have a (master plan that achieves its goals), you have to make sure you have a formalized system for citizen participation and a strong planning commission.”

In a 2006 report, “Runaway Discretion,” BGR recommended the charter be changed to remedy an irrational land-use process that gives the City Council “unbridled discretion.”

The master plan — a city map that will define what kind of building is allowed and preferred — is intended to encourage development that will benefit the city as a whole, Dixon said. As part of that broad-reaching vision, new affordability requirements for housing could be built into the zoning in some parts of the city, he said.

“We have to pay careful attention to creating a range of affordable housing options in parts of the city that are gentrifying,” he said, citing the increasingly desirable Bywater neighborhood and the Central Business District as areas that may be suitable for affordability requirements.

One goal of the master plan is to map areas where the zoning could be tweaked to encourage higher-density development without encroaching on the city’s historic areas. Dixon said planners are exploring creating a “tax increment financing-like mechanism” to spur private development on South Rampart Street, one of the areas previously identified by the Downtown Development District as a prime setting for development of medium to high-density housing.

“Downtown’s development should be double,” Dixon said. “South Rampart Street is a place where public investment would pay itself off and at the end of the day, (help create) a valuable asset for the city.”

Real estate developers and city planning officials — often on opposing sides of the fence when it comes to zoning law — agree land use reform will benefit those enforcing the rules and those subject to them.

“The politics come to the surface much more here than anywhere else,” said Marcel Wisznia, an architect and developer with four high-end apartment developments downtown. “It’s a significant negative because when the process isn’t clear and transparent, it is only the insiders who will make it through. And God knows we need help from more than just (them).”•

Jun 18, 2008

Source: New Orleans CityBusiness

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Planning Issues

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