By: Keith Hardie
The Master Plan tells us what every New Orleanian already knows: we are a city of neighborhoods, many of them so completely unique that they could not be mistaken for any other place on earth. And, in its very first pages, the Master Plan promises to keep it that way, guaranteeing that land uses will be "tailored to [the] character, conditions and needs of specific neighborhoods."
Unfortunately, the proposed new Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance ("CZO"), though it is supposed to implement the promises of the Master Plan, breaks those promises in more ways than can be addressed in this column, but most of all by allowing live music in every restaurant from Lake Catherine to the Jefferson Parish line, and allowing restaurants city-wide to continue operations to as late as 2 AM. Instead of recognizing the differences between neighborhoods, the proposed CZO, if approved by the Council, will impose a one-size-fits-all template, threatening to add quiet neighborhood restaurants to the growing list of late-night tourist traps.
The proposed CZO is the last piece in the City's overhaul of its land use regulations, which began with the Master Plan, and ends with the CZO, which puts the concepts of the Master Plan into concrete rules. The final draft of the proposed CZO was released in July and is well over 600 pages long. Because of the immensity of the document, and because changes were still being inserted between its release and the Planning Commission vote on September 9, 2014 - making it a moving target - many speakers at that meeting urged the Commission to delay approval and hold additional hearings. The Commisson nonetheless approved the document, and it is now in the hands of the Council.
The most extreme change is a new rule - unveiled for the first time in the July 2014 draft - allowing non-amplified live music in every restaurant in town. The rule sweeps in not only standard restaurants but also fast food and "specialty restaurants," which include coffee houses, bakeries and ice cream parlors. By comparison, restaurants on Frenchmen Street, which have long been permitted to have live music, amplified or unamplified, are subject to a number of restrictions. For instance, in a Frenchmen Street restaurant, a musical group is limited to three pieces, a permit is required, the full menu must be available during performances, and performances must end by 1:00 AM on weekends. In addition, restaurants on Frenchmen are subject to a closed doors and windows policy. However, the proposed new rule, which applies cookie-cutter fashion throughout the city, has no similar limitations.
The second big change is the expansion of hours of restaurant operation in neighborhoods which have not historically catered to tourists. The proposed CZO will allow restaurants Around the Corner city-wide - from Algiers to Mid-City to New Orleans East - to have customers on the premises as late as 2 AM on weekends. It's unclear what people will be doing in these neighborhood restaurants between 10 PM and 2 AM, but it will almost certainly involve more liquids than solids.
The combination of late-night hours and live entertainment - amplified or not - will further blur the troublesome line between restaurants and bars, which the City has a never effectively enforced. In my neighborhood's business district, Maple Street, there is a long history of establishments getting permits as restaurants but operating more as bars, staying open late and serving alcohol to patrons who aren't eating. These "barstaurants" can generate noise, trash, and vandalism in the area. If neighborhood restaurants are allowed to host live music and to serve customers until the wee hours, it will be much easier for them to morph into bars.
For the record, I like Frenchmen Street and I support live music, which is part of our culture. But culture is an encompassing concept, and includes the contemplative as much as the celebratory. The one-size-fits-all approach of the proposed CZO fails to make allowances for the differing "character, conditions and needs of specific neighborhoods." Letting every neighborhood restaurant operate like those on Frenchmen Street or - considering the complete lack of limitations in the new rule - allowing them even more latitude than the restaurants on Frenchmen Street, does a disservice to the diversity of our neighborhoods, turning them into just more fodder for the top-heavy tourism industry. Every street can't be Frenchmen Street, and every restaurant in the City shouldn't be allowed to have live music and operate until 2 AM.
The City Council will have the last opportunity to remove these (and other) neighborhood-unfriendly provisions. Once allowed to go into law, these changes will work their mischief, and it will be next to impossible to repeal them. Ordinary New Orleanians spent a tremendous amount of time working on the Master Plan and CZO. Allowing last minute changes to the regulation of alcoholic beverage outlets to sneak into the final draft betrays the process. If these provisions can't be removed, then the CZO should be sent back to the Planning Commission. The planning process has drifted too far from the post-Katrina revolution when our neighborhoods pulled the City back from the brink and demanded participatory land use reform, rejecting the top down "Bring Back New Orleans" approach. Yet this draft CZO looks more like the product of a greed-fest sponsored by the alcohol and tourism cartels than a document intended to insure healthy neighborhoods.
City leadership needs only to think back to those dark days after Katrina to know that, while tourism plays an important role in the economy, the neighborhoods are the beating heart of the City, and that their health and survival is what matters most.