New Orleans and its riverfront: A city debates its future

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans is at a crucial junction with the pending adoption of new zoning rules — the first since the 1970s — that could allow condominiums and commercial properties to be built along the iconic Mississippi River.

The rules will guide the city’s future, and tinker with an array of aspects of public life in this city still rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina. The proposed code also hits the reset button on development of large slices of highly valuable but under-utilized commercial land adjacent to the Mississippi River in prime downtown real estate spots.

The new ordinance would redefine zoning on 34 acres along roughly 2 miles of the Mississippi River. These slices of land lie next to the historic neighborhoods of Faubourg Marigny, Bywater and Algiers Point on the river’s east and west banks.

As drafted, the new code would permit property owners to construct condominiums and commercial buildings ranging in height from 75 feet (and over 100 feet along the river in Algiers). But such heights would be allowed only as long as the new developments are in keeping with a bigger plan to create a public promenade along the river. Heights would be restricted for developments that do not fit into this riverfront project.

“How do we bring the public to the river’s edge?” said Robert Rivers, the executive director of the City Planning Commission. “You look at cities all over the country and they take advantage of the wonderful water assets they have.”

Founded where it is because of the Mississippi River, New Orleans is strangely disconnected from the river.

Residents rarely see the mighty river because their homes and streets are cut off by high floodwalls and levees girding the waterway — and then there is a slew of industrial infrastructure between them and the river, things such as railroad tracks, wharfs, old mills, warehouses and dock yards.

Yet much of this tangle of infrastructure sits unused and large areas of land along the river sit empty — remnants of a bygone era when the Mississippi River bustled with steamships and stevedores. Port modernization has made a lot of riverfront infrastructure obsolete. For more than a decade the city has been crafting a riverfront revitalization plan.

“It’s terrific (real estate) and very under-utilized,” said John Koerner, a New Orleans investment banker in favor of new development. “The truth is we don’t have enough land to go around in New Orleans.”

The City Council is expected to take up the zoning code in March. Council members declined to discuss their views about the issue or did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

The proposed changes over the riverfront look to be a major source of acrimony.

In January, a cross-section of neighborhoods banded together as the Riverfront Alliance to fight a proposed riverfront development district. The groups have accused the City Planning Commission of being co-opted by developers and went so far as to pay for a billboard outside City Hall to get their points across.

They warn the draft code would encourage the growth of over-sized condos for the rich — and change the nature of coveted but still funky old neighborhoods sitting along the river.

“It’s a recipe for luxury housing,” said Brian Luckett, treasurer of Neighbors First For Bywater. “The concern is that the surrounding areas will become more expensive, it will drive up market prices and drive out even more of the long-time residents.”

These neighborhoods are made up of one- and two-story wooden historic homes — the famous brightly painted “shotgun” houses and Creole cottages of New Orleans.

Others in Bywater see it differently: Some view high-rise condos and shopping spaces that help connect the river to the neighborhood as a way to boost population and bring business in. Population in Bywater has declined by about half since the 1960s.

“We want it to be a real neighborhood, like it was,” said John Guarnieri, chairman of the Bywater Neighborhood Association. “But some people are opposed to that and want it to be like a suburb.”

Guarnieri challenged the notion that developing the riverfront would mean drastic changes. “You’re talking about a small amount of land,” he said. “I’m not concerned about the whole river front looking like Miami Beach.”

The proposals are not sitting well with developers either.

“It’s terrible,” said Sean Cummings, a hotelier and developer who owns prime lots along the riverfront. He’s known for his modernist structures as well as retrofitting historic buildings to appeal to urbane millennials who are becoming a growing force in post-Katrina New Orleans.

He said the riverfront proposals give too much weight to city planners and are too restrictive, a “wet blanket on commerce.”

“The city has a chance to have a world-class waterfront as it celebrates its 300th anniversary,” he said. New Orleans turns 300 in 2018.

Cummings argued that developers should be given more freedom and be allowed to build up to a height of 75 feet without conditions. Intense development of the riverfront would be a benefit for the city, he said.

“More people will walk,” he said. “They’ll use more bikes. It’s cheaper for the city in terms of city services.”

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