Notes from the Field: New Orleans

Posted on: December 28th, 2007 by Walter Gallas 1 Comment


Last week I was summoned to appear in Federal District Court on behalf of the plaintiffs in a suit against the city seeking damages as well as a halt to demolitions of properties under the city’s beleaguered imminent health threat ordinance. I was being asked to testify about the recommendations made by Bob Brown of the PRC and me in an August op-ed piece in the Times-Picayune regarding the demolition program.

I did not testify, because the case was continued. The city convinced the judge that it had a solution to the problem—it would create a system whereby a citizen could appeal to an independent hearing officer. By January 25, the city and the plaintiffs must come up with the system and an ordinance for City Council consideration. Between now and then anyone who wishes to appeal a threatened demolition can do so, and the demolition will be set aside, according to the attorneys. It’s not clear what one needs to do to file an appeal.

Under the current ordinance the city can threaten demolition of a property if the home owner does not clean out and seal up their property, if it is still vacant. They must also tend to the yard. Thirty days notice in the newspaper and a written mailed notice are required. The ordinance, though well-intentioned, is poorly conceived and poorly executed. A number of property owners in the suit have seen their houses demolished by the city, when they intended to repair them. It is noteworthy that the ordinance contemplates demolition as the only way to eliminate the problem of unremediated property.

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Notes from the Field: New Orleans

Posted on: December 26th, 2007 by Walter Gallas


I have been spending considerable time reflecting on what happened last week with that vote of the New Orleans City Council to demolish about 4,500 units of 1930s/1940s-era public housing. Any arguments I tried to make for the retention and continued long-term use of any of the buildings on the basis of historic preservation, architectural merit, structural soundness or sustainability were fruitless in a public arena filled with rhetoric about the evil nature of the buildings, their dilapidated appearance, the alleged high cost to remediate and repair, and the success of national developers at showing examples of their work in other communities.

Council members were eager to state that they had visited redeveloped communities in Atlanta and St. Louis—all based on new construction. We never succeeded in getting enough information on anyone’s radar screen about the redevelopment and continued use of buildings of the same era by the Chicago Housing Authority, and so rehabilitation was never a consideration by the Council or the local media.

The Times-Picayune discounted any claims that the loss of the buildings now would create a shortage of affordable housing, pointing to the hundreds of apartments HUD and HANO say are available but unoccupied. I had joined a number of anti-demolition advocates earlier in the week in a meeting with the Times-Picayune editorial board trying to get them to understand some of the reasons against wholesale demolition, but it was clearly impossible. Sunday’s paper carried an editorial headlined “A vote for a better life.”

It continues to intrigue me that taking a position in favor of rehabilitation and modernization of these old structures—even a position that includes calls for selective demolition to reconnect buildings with neighborhoods by restoring street grids—is automatically seen as favoring a return to the bad old days of public housing mismanagement.

There is clearly a visceral reaction to these inanimate structures, which is so strong that people want them eliminated. A leader of the local Unitarian congregation put his finger on it, when at the Council meeting he observed that the passion to destroy the buildings seemed to emerge out of bad theology and a mystical belief in atonement—that the buildings’ destruction would somehow wash away the sins of the past.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Notes from the Field: New Orleans

Posted on: December 21st, 2007 by Walter Gallas


I wanted to take a moment to share the comments I made before the City Council yesterday, which reflect both my and the National Trust for Historic Preservation's position on the planned demolitions in New Orleans.


A few years ago Bill Borah, local preservationist and planner, coined the term “planning by surprise.” It referred to the practice in New Orleans of keeping plans out of the public eye until they are revealed full-blown in the local paper, where citizens learn about the plans for the first time.

Today, I would like to add a new term to the local dialogue in post-Katrina New Orleans—“planning by demolition.”

  • We see “planning by demolition” in the city’s response to homeowners whose buildings are cited as imminent health threats. Buildings, many of which are structurally sound, are threatened with demolition.
  • We see “planning by demolition” in the state’s and Veterans Administration’s plans to build a new medical complex in a National Register historic district that has been repopulated by homeowners and local institutions like Deutsches Haus.
  • We see it in the Recovery School District’s application to demolish Lockett elementary school in the Upper 9th Ward, a community anchor which local neighborhood association members desperately want to retain.
  • And now, of course, we see “planning by demolition” in the plans which bring us here again today—the redevelopment of the B. W. Cooper, Lafitte, C. J. Peete, and St. Bernard housing developments.

... Read More →

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Ohio Town Saves 1880 House

Posted on: December 20th, 2007 by Margaret Foster 1 Comment


Oxford’s Township HouseTwo years ago, a one-room house built in Oxford, Ohio, in 1880 was on its way to being bulldozed to make way for apartments. Instead, residents of the college town rallied to save the Italianate building, and today the Township House was moved four miles to the safety of a state park.

The two-hour move, delayed twice because of bad weather, was "quite an adventure," says Laura Henderson, member of the town's historic and architectural preservation commission and co-chair of the moving committee.

"Everyone was out cheering and clapping. It was a really uplifting experience," Henderson says. "It will go down in history as being one of the major community efforts in a long time." ... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Today in the Field: From the New Orleans City Council Chambers

Posted on: December 20th, 2007 by Walter Gallas


I am in council chambers, where there are police standing between the audience and the council. A fight broke out as they were trying to begin, and people were hauled off. Outside, officers on horseback are blocking entry to the chamber. We heard that tear gas and tasers were being used against the crowd outside. In the meantime, HUD and the Lafitte developers were able to calmly make their presentations ... It's all very surreal.

In my presentation to the council, my points were:

  • There was a limited amount of serious consideration that was given by HUD and HANO to alternatives to demolition during the Section 106 consultation process, and
  • The city is going down a "planning by demolition" path in not just this but other aspects of redevelopment.

I called on the Council to demand that the City Planning Commission (as required by the City Charter) step up to the plate to prepare and recommend to the Council plans for the public housing developments. City planning has been notably absent in the whole process.

I also urged the Council to find a middle ground that incorporates retention, remediation, rehabilitation and re-use of the old, with the best of the new. Five buildings of the same vintage from the old St. Thomas developments were rehabbed in 11 months and opened last month.

(Editors note: The New Orleans Times-Picayune is liveblogging the Council hearings, and the information they are posting is fascinating. Please check it out.)

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.