City Planning: project approval process

The city planning process, especially applied to the controversial high-rise at 1031 Canal Street, is much in the news these days. The outcome is uncertain as I write this article, but the debate has highlighted – mostly unfavorably – the often confusing and seemingly overlapping city planning and project approval process. This article will hopefully shed some light on the process and discuss why it’s important.

The key is the Master Plan, which now has the force of law and sets out a vision. It provides a rational, consistent and transparent plan for considering projects and modifications. The Master Plan grew out of public disgust with the traditional New Orleans “kiss the ring” process, especially for important projects, that was highly subjective and politicized. Developers would make an arrangement with the sitting Councilmember, who would engineer Council approval. Laws and legal criteria meant little or nothing. By contrast, the Master Plan prohibits changes inconsistent with the Plan and provides for a rational, once-a-year process for making changes. This process is currently underway, as is the re-writing of the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance.

But even before the Master Plan with the force of law, New Orleans has defined in law the zoning and land use criteria to be applied to guide development and created bodies to review and apply the law. Most of us are familiar with the Vieux CarrE Commission (VCC), which governs exterior modifications and land use in the Louisiana-defined French Quarter. Other bodies also have a say in project approval:

  • The Vieux Carr√© Commission (VCC), legally a State body, rigorously administers regulations governing uses and exterior building modifications to protect our historic built environment. It is assisted by a professional staff, and advised by an Architecture Committee. Most Quarter residents and property owners are generally familiar with its operations and mandate.
  • The City Planning Commission (CPC), aided by professional city planners, determines whether projects conform to the legal requirements for height, bulk, and other specific dimensions set out in the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance. The CPC has important zoning and land use responsibilities in the French Quarter itself, but plays an even greater role in adjacent areas. In the downriver 100 block of Canal Street (the CBD-3 District), the law mandates the CPC to maintain the scale and height of existing development, foster a sense of historic continuity and protect the adjacent Vieux CarrE from tall buildings on its boundaries. Decision-making criteria more generally require consistency with the Master Plan, compatibility with existing and planned adjoining uses, and the character and integrity of the neighborhood.
  • The Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA) reviews projects for consistency with the specific provisions of the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance and decides whether or not to permit specific exceptions according to established criteria. By law, each request to waive some aspect of the ordinance must meet nine criteria, including several aimed denying exceptions constituting a special favor to one applicant not readily available to others. Provisions also provide that waivers must not be granted to only serve the convenience or profit of the owner, but must address a demonstrable hardship (not just convenience) nor alter the essential character of a locality, be detrimental to the public interest, or injure other affected property owners.
  • The Historic District Landmarks Commission (HDLC) is divided into the CBD HDLC and the NO HDLC. Each commission is aided by an Architectural Review Committee which evaluates projects in the fourteen historic districts outside of the French Quarter. Their new, award winning, Design Guidelines contain the standards adopted by the Commission to ensure that work under their jurisdiction such as new construction, exterior alteration, signage and demolition achieves the broader goals of the Code of Ordinancs for Historic Preservation in New Orleans.
  • The City Council must approve CPC decisions, and the decisions of other boards and commissions may be challenged in court and/or overruled by the Council. The Council has no separate expert staff and no specific criteria for evaluating projects.

Rigorously and professionally applied, the separate mandates of the various boards and commissions ensure that the major elements of a project are each reviewed for consistency with the law. This process becomes arbitrary and capricious only when the boards and commissions, and individual commissioners, fail to respect the mandates established by law. This is signally the situation in the 1031 Canal Street case. Can anyone rationally argue that a 205 foot building “protect(s) the adjacent Vieux CarrE from tall buildings on its boundaries,” the test established by law? Or that the “general design, scale, gross volume, arrangement of the site plan, texture, material, and exterior architectural features” is “in harmony with its surroundings”? The issue, thus, is not that the process is fundamentally flawed but that appointed commissioners and board members fail to respect and apply the scope and limits defined in law.

It’s important. French Quarter Citizens and community advocates across the city look to application and enforcement of the laws to help protect our neighborhoods. We lack the deep pockets and political connections of developers, and their access to legal resources and paid staffs. Law and rational city planning criteria are thus our shield, and often our only resort. The laws and process are basically good, but too often we have been failed by the people appointed and elected to represent and safeguard our interests and our quality of life. French Quarter Citizens is deeply engaged in zoning and land use within the Quarter and on our borders because we have to * no one else is going to do it.

The French Quarter is listed on the National Register of Historic Places to include the 100 block downriver of Canal Street. Louisiana law excludes this block from VCC jurisdiction.