Notes from New Orleans: The State of Historic Preservation

Posted on: January 31st, 2008 by Walter Gallas

Last week, New Orleans played host to the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Board of Trustees. I had an opportunity to talk to them about some of the successes and challenges of our work. I've posted the text of my remarks below.

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Welcome to New Orleans. Whether this is your first visit or a return visit, you will probably agree that this remains a distinctive city—a city apart in so many ways, capable of inspiring a fierce loyalty and determination from those who were born and raised here—but also from those who come here from somewhere else and are pulled into its powerful orbit.

You’ve already seen and heard a lot about the city and our work here, I know, but I want to just quickly fill in a few more details on the advocacy side.

We started out, as Peter Brink, Dick Moe, and Kevin Mercadel told you, essentially working to save one house at a time, figuring if you can show you can save one, you can save many, many more.

Here, after the disaster, when FEMA entered the picture as the agency paying the tab on so much of the recovery, we had another legal hook to try to help us do that—the federally-mandated Section 106 consultation process. Whenever you have federal involvement of any kind (money, licensing, construction) and resources that are listed—or are eligible for listing—in the National Register of Historic Places, Section 106 consultation must take place, according to the National Historic Preservation Act. It grew out of national concern by the 1960’s that federal projects—like the National Defense Highway System and urban renewal projects were tearing the heart out of the older neighborhoods of our cities and towns.

We have had mixed results from this tool here in New Orleans—where Section 106 is being applied probably on the largest scale ever—and probably on a scale and over a time period not even conceived of when it was originally created in 1966.

First, the successes—although modest, to be sure—

  • We can say that, at last count, about a third of properties targeted for FEMA-funded demolition, and which have been determined to be National Register-eligible, have been removed from the demolition lists as a direct result of our efforts. What is this in actual numbers? 258 of 780 NR-eligible properties. This out of a total universe of about 9,000 properties city-wide, targeted for demolition.
  • The demolition process will continue and all of those numbers will adjust upward accordingly, with the estimates that the city will eventually demolish 15,000 structures or more.
  • What Section 106 enabled us to do was two things—to be at the table challenging particular proposed demolitions because of a building’s sound construction; and also to force federal bureaucracy to build in selective salvage of materials when demolition of NR-eligible properties is inevitable. This latter provision has made it possible for the Preservation Resource Center’s warehouse to become a trusted source of historic building materials for the home owner restoring his property in New Orleans.

Now, for the not-so-great things about Section 106—

As the city enters a new phase of its recovery, fueled by the release of federal funds, the scope and scale of our attention must grow. New, large public projects are in the works, and while they may address a need, their mode of execution and their consideration for public input makes many of us here feel like we have entered a time machine and have been whisked back to the bad old days of urban renewal.

25 to 30 blocks—of the Mid-City National Register District just across Claiborne Avenue from the Central Business District lie in the footprint of a new medical complex for the state and the Veterans Administration. At least 200 structures meriting historic eligibility stand there. Numerous homeowners—after surviving four to six feet of flood waters—have returned and repaired their homes. Now they face new decisions, as they begin to hear from the state and the VA that they may need to relocate to make way for the hospitals. Many of us are scratching our heads, wondering why these hospitals must supplant sections of a residential neighborhood, when just across Tulane Avenue there are swaths of open land and warehouses. So far in this scenario, where the Section 106 process ought to be front and center—FEMA (which controls monies that would go to the state for its hospital) and the VA have chosen not to institute this process—yet.

The pattern has been depressingly clear—federal agencies institute Section 106 when it suits them, not when it suits the public.

Two examples here in New Orleans—

1) St. Frances Cabrini Church, a modernist building, was demolished after an “expedited” Section 106 process that was freighted with political pressure at all levels—local, state, and federal.

2) The City Council gave approval to demolish four public housing developments, representing about 4,500 units of housing, after a Section 106 process that foreclosed any serious discussion of alternatives to total demolition—and after the preservation community failed to get the message across that saving and reusing buildings is good public policy. And that saving and reusing the buildings (we never said all of them) doesn’t mean that we want to return to the days of mismanaged, corrupt public housing authorities.

While city leaders will say that the city has a plan for its redevelopment, I disagree. The city may have a plan on the shelf—in fact several plans—which citizens struggled for an entire year to create. Today we get the impression that leadership feels we’ve had enough of letting the citizens plan—now it’s their turn to tell the citizens what’s best for them.

As you can see, we still have much to do—and I could go on forever—but let me leave you with this:

I believe that the fundamental challenge we continue to have in New Orleans is that historic preservation is only just now rising in the consciousness of our City Council as a tactic for city building. It will be our challenge next to convince the mayor and his staff to accept this as well.

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