Sitting up on the dais in Council Chambers is a very surreal experience since Karen and I sat in the audience for so many months together. I sit in Stacy Head’s chair as I am the appointee for Dist. B., channeling her strength of public speaking. I am rather meek by comparison.
I promised Stacy and Carla, her legislative aide, that I’d do my best not to accidentally use the ‘F’ word. I did my homework to help get the committee rolling with Robert’s Rules of Order as best I could. I believe in the need to publicly and transparently address the issues that have plagued the committee in the past, since I know them so well already. Matt McBride, Karen and Michelle Kimball (PRC) have all been helpful in bringing things to our attention, since there are so many things that can slip through the cracks and either fail to end up before the NCDC for review or items that come to us that are under special moratoriums, like the LSU/VA area in Mid City.
I was terrified at the first meeting and got there an hour early. I got busy helping Nelson, the Chair, making sure that we got enough agendas printed for the public on the table, shaking Bruce Eggler’s hand and meeting my fellow committee members. Eric, the contractor rep from Beck, who is in charge of managing the Federally funded demos, now attends our meetings. This alone has been a huge improvement to the process. Eric answers all my questions via email, even late on Friday and sometimes on Saturday. He’s very responsive.
Also, having community level representatives from each council district has created much more of a team atmosphere in general, it’s not so much the public v. ‘the City’ anymore. We have a lot more help and we respect our individual votes. The street-level of expertise contributing to the meeting is refreshing.
Hosting the meetings in the Chambers has also been a huge improvement because there is room for all the homeowners as well as the audience and everyone has a chance to get on the record. Although, we do have to be ready to go fast toward the end of the meeting, when Hillary Carrere, the Housing & Neighborhood Development rep starts his ‘speed round’. He starts putting out motions before Nelson even announces the next property on the agenda. This is the sort of process issues we hope to correct. Thanks to my previous work with Karen Gadbois, this is old hat for me. I am very prepared for the meetings, going through some 70+ packets and checking Karen’s photos on Squandered Heritage and then heading out into the field myself for particular properties I am very unsure about.
The main factors we consider under the new ordinance are:
1) Current Condition fo the structure.
2) Architectural Signifigance of the structure.
3) Historical Signifigance of the subject structure.
4) Urban Design Signifigance as it relates to the pedestrian perception and movement and the height, area and bulk of the structure and how it relates to the street scene traffic.
5) Neighborhood context of the structure.
6) Overall effect on the blockface.
7) Proposed time/length the subject site is anticipated to remain undeveloped.
8) Proposed plan for redevelopment.
9) Stated position of adjacent neighbors, neighborhood associations or other interested individuals or organizations, either in writing(email) or during public comment at the hearing.(If you send me an email, I promise to read it into the record for you.)
This criteria is more holistic than the previous ordinance for the HCDRC. It’s still hard because I can’t help but wonder that if some people were offered the equivalent cash money being offered for ‘free’ demolition, they could use it to fix their house. But this is not the case. We’re all assigned this ‘do or die’ decision and once the houses are gone, an empty lot is all that is left.
Part of our purpose is also to ‘discourage underutilization of property in an urban environment’. We also have to be sensitive to the need to remove dangerous structures before hurricane season is upon us again. It’s not an easy task at all. Evaluating the possible eternal loss of the legacy of our unique architectural heritage along with the aspect of rewarding slumlords for years of neglect, and also the need to remove properties that are thwarting the ability for a neighborhood to thrive.
Another issue is that some properties are being quickly reclassified as Imminent Danger of Collapse (IDC). This maneuver exempts them from review of our committee and we are looking to be sure it’s not being abused. The problem with this is that the definition is vague in the ordinance under Article VI, Division V, Sec. 26-166: Minimum Housing Standards Code, there is no technical requirement here at all which needs to be fixed. While I am not one to distrust our Civil Service staff, this is so vague it’s useless. Basically, Johnny Odom decides. The only comfort I have to offer is that he’s better than Mike Centenio:
Sec. 26-166. Imminent danger of collapse.
The code official and the department of safety and permits shall determine as a matter of fact whether or not a public nuisance is in imminent danger of collapse and constitutes a menace to public safety. If the determination is made that a public nuisance is in imminent danger of collapse and constitutes a menace, then the code official is authorized to cause the demolition of the nuisance without previous notice to the owner, executor, administrator, agent, lessee, or any person who may have a vested or contingent interest in the public nuisance.
I know this is already far too long but one last thing I should tell you is that those chairs in Chambers are very large. After a couple hours your back hurts, because of this I sometimes sink back in the chair for a few minutes. I have taken to sitting on the large packet of applications given to us at the beginning of the meeting for the next meeting so I can sit high enough in the chair to get my face up to my mike for a clear smackdown when I have a point to make. It helps me feel a little less tiny while defending my well researched and sometimes big decisions.
If it weren’t for my work with Karen G. and Squandered Heritage, I don’t think I’d feel so good about taking on this duty. I take our collective knowledge up there with me when I hear the double-speak coming from the podium. I know I have a full arsenal of knowledge to do the best job possible for New Orleans. It’s a great honor, but it is still depressing work.
Someone gave me this quote of encouragement upon my appointment which is also useful.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in the worthy cause . . .”
Teddy Roosevelt. The Man in the Arena, Paris France, 1910.