I’m quoted in an article in today’s Times-Picayune.
Nagin stills review panel; preservationists cry foul
by Michelle Krupa, The Times-Picayune
Claiming a desire to avoid “unnecessary delays” in removing buildings badly damaged by Hurricane Gustav, Mayor Ray Nagin on Friday suspended the work of a panel that reviews requests for demolition permits in many historic neighborhoods.
The move has drawn howls from preservationists who challenge the justification for the executive order. They pointed out that the mayor already had authority to order properties deemed in “imminent danger of collapse” to be razed without consulting the Neighborhood Conservation District Committee or even notifying the owners.
They note also that the decree, which has no expiration date, effectively has allowed the Nagin administration to fast-track demolition permits for dozens of Katrina-damaged properties by sidestepping a mandated historic review.
“The mayor seems to have opened up the floodgates for the issuance of demolition permits that aren’t appropriate, ” said Walter Gallas, the New Orleans field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
City Councilwoman Stacy Head said she hopes “this is just a clerical snafu and not an attempt by the executive branch to subvert” the review process.
The executive order does not apply to requests to demolish properties overseen by the Historic District Landmarks Commission or the Vieux Carre Commission.
Nagin’s press office did not respond immediately to questions about the executive order.
Created last year to replace a similar oversight board, the Neighborhood Conservation District Committee is charged with protecting from demolition structurally sound buildings that are important to the architectural fabric of older neighborhoods stretching from the Jefferson Parish line to the lakefront to the border with St. Bernard Parish.
The 13-member body reviews requests from private property owners who want to raze houses and commercial buildings, as well as city condemnation orders for properties that aren’t collapsing but nevertheless threaten public health and safety.
If the committee turns down an application, the Safety and Permits Department cannot issue a demolition permit unless the City Council overturns the ruling or the building deteriorates to the edge of collapse.
Of 162 demolition permits issued since last week, 64 percent were assigned to the city contractor hired to tear down properties in imminent danger of collapse, according to a review by Matt McBride, an activist who maintains a database of demolition permits granted since Katrina.
Of the remaining 57 permits that were handed to private contractors or to the city vendor assigned to tear down Katrina-damaged buildings, 52 are located in areas where the committee’s review would have been required. Of those, 24 were slated for review at a meeting scheduled for Sept. 2, the day after Gustav struck, the review shows.
Mid-City homeowner Bart Everson had planned to attend that meeting to object to a request for a city-financed “voluntary demolition” at 211 N. Rendon St., a single shotgun that needs major exterior work but appears sturdy. One in a row of four nearly identical old houses, Everson said tearing it down would break the block’s architectural flow.
“The value of that is gone every time you pull down a house and put up something that has less character, ” he said.
Because of Gustav, though, Everson never got to make his plea. And on Wednesday, with the executive order in place, the city contractor that handles Katrina-related teardowns secured a permit to raze it.
“I’m dumbfounded. I really can’t believe that it’s true, ” Everson said. “It seems like if it was fixed up, you would have a whole block of this classic architecture, and all those properties would enhance one another.”
Here’s a picture of the house in question:
But you really have to see the whole block to appreciate the context. This house is one of four shotgun singles all in a row.
Props to M. Krupa for quoting me accurately, a refreshing approach that more journalists should employ. The scope of the article didn’t allow for my ruminations on irresponsible property owners. I don’t know what’s up at 211 N. Rendon. There are perhaps perfectly legitimate explanations for why this house is still uninhabitable three years after the flood. Immediately after Katrina I was inclined to give property owners the benefit of the doubt. But time and again I’ve found the only explanation for their neglect is lack of responsibility, lack of caring for the neighborhood. I hasten to emphasize that I haven’t investigated this case closely enough to make such a judgment — but I’m skeptical.
I’m not a diehard preservationist. If something really is an “imminent health threat” then it should be torn down. But this administration has proven itself utterly incompetent at administering this process. And now Nagin wants to get rid of a check built in to the process? That ain’t right. This house, for example, doesn’t appear to be any worse after Gustav than before. Gustav shouldn’t be used as an excuse to change the process.