Framing the Issues on Our Terms

April 3rd, 2007 by Editor B

Last night we had our Mid-City Recovery Action Meeting, as we do on the first Monday of every month. We’d been planning since last week to address the designs that Victory Real Estate Investments, LLC, appears to have on twenty acres of Mid-City.

What we hadn’t anticipated was Saturday’s front page story in the Times-Picayune. That story really alarmed a lot of people. I saw it as a missed opportunity, but in retrospect, it was free publicity.

There were about 300 people at Grace Episcopal last night, more than we’ve ever had. It was standing room only, and the press was there too.

We knew a lot of people were not just concerned. They were upset. We expected the meeting might devolve into a forum for angry venting.

I have to praise Jennifer Weishaupt, Vice-President and chair of Economic Development for MCNO. She did a great job of providing all the background information. She framed the issue properly. She reviewed all the relevant planning efforts which neighbors and government have engaged in and supported.

One specific citation was particularly to the point:

Development of the warehouse area adjacent to the linear park with mixed use opportunities including multi-family housing, retail facilities, art studios and exhibit space… plazas, seats, landscaping and lighting.

The “linear park” is the Lafitte Corridor which runs right smack dab in the middle of the area where Victory want to build. More about that in a bit.

Jennifer asked for a show of hands — who’s in agreement with the principles that are specified in our neighborhood plan? It was virtually unanimous. Then she outlined the developer’s “Plan B,” the sprawling big box complex described in Saturday’s paper. Another show of hands? And all the hands stayed down.

In other words, Jennifer managed to get people informed and to understand that we’re largely in agreement with one another, and this did a lot to foster civil dialog rather than ranting.

She also pointed out that Victory had also presented a “Plan A,” a so-called “lifestyle development” which did not get mention in the paper Saturday. It’s my feeling that Plan B was presented to scare neighbors into embracing Plan A. But it seems we’re smarter than that.

I get the feeling that Victory hasn’t done its homework. Though the development was presented in Saturday’s paper as a fait accompli, in point of fact they own little of the land in question at this point. Furthermore, they seem to be completely ignorant of the planning for this area that’s already in place. That’s unfortunate, because these plans have the support of both the local community and the local government. These plans can’t be ignored if you want to be a player.

City Council member Shelley Midura was there to reassure neighbors that she works for the community, not the developers. “I don’t do deals,” she repeated several times.

I also spoke. I prefaced Jennifer’s presentation with some remarks about the Lafitte Corridor. Thought I’d post my notes here.

My name is Bart Everson, I’m chair of the Friends of Lafitte Corridor (FOLC). Daniel Samuels, president of FOLC, can’t be here because he’s celebrating Passover with his family, so he sends his regrets and asked me to speak on his behalf.

The Lafitte Corridor is a mostly derelict strip of land that used to be a canal, then a railroad. It runs three miles from Armstrong Park to Canal Boulevard, between Conti and Saint Louis streets.

FOLC has been working on a rails-to-trails conversion of this corridor into a greenway with bicycle and pedestrian paths, connecting neighborhoods from the French Quarter to Lakeview.

We’ve had some success in promoting our vision. This concept has made it into the Lambert plans and the Unified New Orleans Plan. It’s attracted study and technical assistance from MIT and the University of Missouri – Kansas City. We’ve had help from the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. We’ve gained the support of city government and the Regional Planning Commission, and it’s on the list of 17 targeted redevelopment zones just released by Dr. Blakely’s office last week.

Furthermore, we’ve gotten three grants totaling about $400,000 to design and build the greenway. Brown+Danos Land Design of Baton Rouge is creating a schematic master plan for the entire greenway, and the City Council is convening a task force to make sure all the players are working in coordination on this.

So things are happening quickly and the project is moving forward.

People often say that neighborhood groups and community-based organizations are anti-development, but of course that’s just not true. FOLC in particular is advocating for trail-oriented development. We believe the greenway is a public, open space amenity which will enhance the overall “livability” of the city. We think the greenway offers unique opportunities for retail development that could be very positive — if done correctly.

If you haven’t heard the term “trail-oriented development” before that’s because it’s a relatively new concept. So there’s not a lot of research on the topic, but there are two recent studies focusing on urban greenways in Austin, Texas, and Indianapolis, Indiana. Both studies indicate that property values in the immediate vicinity of a properly developed greenway can increase substantially. Just something to keep in mind.

FOLC’s website is at folc-nola.org

We’re posting relevant media from last night’s meeting mcno.org so check there if you’re interested in more. We should have video up soon.

It seems we have to follow Jello Biafra’s admonition to “become the media,” because frankly I’ve been disappointed in the media coverage so far. Fox 8 led with a clip of Jimmy Fahrenholtz outside the meeting talking about retail development in the context of violent crime, how a shopping center won’t do much good if you get shot on your way to the store. I’ll grant you violent crime is on all of our minds, especially since yesterday was another bloody day in New Orleans — but still, that seemed like a goofy way to start the story. They chose an awkward soundbite from Shelley and didn’t use anything from Jennifer.

WWL radio this morning ran with story that amounted to “big inevitable development is being fought by neighbors.” What a sad caricature of the truth.

Update, April 4th: The Times-Picayune ran a story on the meeting, and it falls prey to the same simplistic spin: residents versus developers. I don’t have the patience for a detailed analysis, so I’ll stick to this simple fact. The reporter muffed the quote from Jennifer Weishaupt:

“I told them (Victory), ‘If I can shop at it in Metairie or the West Bank, I don’t want it here,'” said Weishaupt, drawing a roar of approval from the audience.

This misquote makes MCNO sound parochial and anti-development. In fact, what Jennifer actually was talking about was chain restaurants, not retail. One thing we certainly do have in Mid-City is plenty of locally-owned restaurants.

12 Responses to “Framing the Issues on Our Terms”

  1. Puddinhead Says:

    I’m not trying to be a smart-ass with this, but the surest way to keep the most people happy here in this town would be to just leave all the metal warehouses standing.

    Any outside investment will as a rule come from entities that will expect a more-than-even likelihood of profit. I don’t condemn investors or developers for that–it is, after all, the incentive that drives investment in the first place.

    Nor do I condemn any proposed development’s neighbors for seeking what is best for them in particular, with what may be of more value to the community as a whole being somewhat secondary. No one wants to be told they’re going to have to “take one for the team” and just put up with something they may find undesirable because it may benefit others a bit more distant from the immediate site. (Incidentally, I know this feeling personally every time I hear it intimated that it’s foolish to spend any money or effort on Gentilly or Mid-City or any of the other “flooded” areas of the city and instead the resources should be focused on the “functioning” areas of Uptown….”C’mon, you in the FEMA trailer…get behind the effort to fix that pothole on State St. like a REAL New Orleanian should!)

    The outcome? Who knows…depends on how many of the profit-generating aspects of the project as currently envisioned by Victory have to be scrapped because they’re not the desire of the immediate neighbors. And I’m not taking sides…if someone were going to redevelop a large tract of land a block or two from my house, what I’d REALLY like would be if they’d make it a really nicely landscaped park, maybe with stocked lagoons for fishing in and ball fields and maybe a golf course or something….essentially, a well-kept up City Park two blocks from my house instead of a mile-and-two-blocks from my house, like it is now. That ain’t happening, of course…short of charging everyone a pretty hefty fee to step over the curb, no developer is going to make a profit by creating a “City Park”. I guess whether or not Victory goes ahead with any investment at all depends on where on the spectrum between a “park” and a “suburban-big-box-and-acres-of-concrete-shopping-center” the final plan falls. To be fair, I really haven’t seen anything that says just what Victory’s “initial” plan would be…so I have no knowledge whether the fears of the “suburban” big box park are well founded or not. Certainly the neighbors probably have better access to details than I do. I would only point out that there are ways for large scale retail outlets to be successfully designed such that they fit a more urban setting; Best Buy doesn’t absolutely HAVE to be the Best Buy of Veterans Blvd., even though they (the developers) will certainly take a shot at getting the cheaper “big box” version accepted first because its, well….cheaper.

  2. HammHawk Says:

    Nice post, B, and interesting comment, PH. I think part of the media’s failure to “get it” is the result of a perception that people are against any development in their backyards, and some of us may have invited that by picking battles over little issues, crying wolf so that they don’t hear us on these big ones. It’s understandable (I’ve been known to freak a bit about insufficient parking regulation enforcement, etc), but in post-K there are a lot of entities who just want to take advantage of cheaper development, and scared authorities who will grant a permit to anyone who wants one because they’re worried it’ll be the last offer or flattered that someone still wants to come here (again, guilty as charged, re Brangelina).

    What galls me is the tendency for big developers to just come in and assert plans without, as B puts it, doing their homework. More than ever, NOLA needs corporate citizens, and many developers are anything but.

  3. Carmen Says:
  4. celcus Says:

    It is nice to hear something level-headed on the whole issue.

    I would absolutely say that “plan B” is to “scare” the neighborhood, but “plan A” is a sort of trail balloon as well. At this point, from what I understand, the property is far from being completely secured by the developer. Any “plan” at this point is simply a tool. The real plan at this stage is nothing but numbers: lease-able area, required parking, expected rents, etc…exactly what the physical structures, layout and integration to the neighborhood will be has yet to even reach the conceptual stage. Sure they can gin up some flashy renderings, but at this stage this is a game of measuring reactions, feeling out the climate, and what the reactions might be, even by feigning ignorance.

    But this is not bad. This means there is time. While the fact that this is going to largely involve private land, land and zoned light industrial, the neighborhood does not have very many levers, might limit things, all is not lost. It appears there is actually a pretty responsive councilperson involved. There is a physical, however flawed it might be, plan on the table, which can be pointed to. And the value of the land, the expense incurred in acquiring it, makes the wost case pretty unlikely. And the fact that they are talking, is a very good thing.

  5. bayoustjohndavid Says:

    Puddinhead’s right about his last point, but New Orleans has a lousy track record at forcing big box retailers into a more appropriate design.

    I’m not so much worried about acquiring new green space as keeping what we have. Getting the Lafitte bike corridor would be nice, but I’d be worried about keeping the Jeff Davis path. Since I wasn’t at the meeting, I don’t know what was discussed. I can say that I tend to roll my eyes at parking concerns, but take traffic concerns very seriously. I’m afraid that the Jeff Davis neutral ground would go the way of the Carrollton Ave. neutral ground if this went through — one added traffic lane at a time. Before Katrina, there were occasional efforts to narrow the one remaining mile of S. Carrollton Ave. neutral ground. On Jeff Davis we’d get the same pressure without the streetcar to end all arguments.

  6. Puddinhead Says:

    “…New Orleans has a lousy track record at forcing big box retailers into a more appropriate design.”

    This has been true in the past. But other cities have shown that if forced (and if profitable enough for them) developers will make an effort to adapt to the urban environment. And some retailers are seemingly more willing to do so than others…one being the rumored Target:
    http://www.newurbannews.com/TargetInsideOct05.html

  7. Agitcorp Says:

    Reading the comments, I am concerned that many folks have subtly bought into the big-box PR that this type of development actually produces the tax revenues, community benefits, etc. that the developers and the retail corporations espouse.

    No one seems to question the “fact” that we need these things. The only question seems to be where to locate them and how aesthetically attractive or compliant to the urban grid we can make them. Unfortunately, if we accept the PR that we “need” them as a part of our economy, we are already on the slippery slope and the developers can then begin to divide us and play us off against each other.

    There is a tremendous body of evidence all across the country suggesting that the rumored tax gains, employment, improved quality of life, etc. fail to materialize. See for example http://www.ilsr.org/mm5/merchant.mvc or the many reports at http://staylocal.org/info/. A recent national study indicated a *net decrease* in retail jobs in counties across the country that embraced big-box retail. Yes, less jobs — not more.

    And if we think about it for just a moment it makes sense: Never has economy grown through *retail* spending. You can’t do it. The money has to come from somewhere. Increased retail development just shifts existing money around. And in the case of corporate-owned out-of-state retail, it shifts that money our of our community and back to headquarters.

    As we debate the specifics of this or that proposal, lets not forget to question the fundamentals upon which the edifice is erected.

  8. Carmen Says:

    You’re skewering a reading with very little basis in fact. The people in New Orleans at present who have the time and energy to spend online are not your bleating sheep. Framing any argument this way or that *as focus* is spin, an artificial edifice.

    It’s better to have sales tax revenue go to Orleans Parish than Jefferson Parish. And it’s hard to get things done if you have to drive out for all your needs (I am thinking back to October 2005, when Jeff Parish was up and running and our mayor was still ‘deciding’ whom to invite back, by zip code). That being said, I don’t personally see why we’d need a Target *and* a Bed, Bath and Beyond in the same strip. I don’t think a Dick’s Sporting Goods (whatever its name is) is as important as an IKEA (cheap furniture, good for college students and other temporary transplants; also, destination retail, inspiring those outside the parish to shop inside it).

    A cursory overview of Victory’s other outlets, though, doesn’t show one Target as anchor. As I recall Target was once scouting out the shuttered Lord & Taylor, pre-K, and Victory’s rolodex strip mall building seems pretty basic in concept, it looks to me like someone else behind the scenes is doing the negotiating. Ergo, it’s not the developers who are dividing you, it’s the businessmen behind the politicos. Know your enemy if you’re going to fight him, hey?

    So, to move forward, to frame as you ought: for the moment, yes, we are accepting that money is being shifted about from an existing pool. We just want that pool to benefit our city, and that means first benefitting its citizens. No local outlet is going to create a Target-like store, and people do need some convenience of restocking while they navigate all the other minefields of recovery. (I speak as one who’s made a point of supporting the local boutiques instead of hitting the sales at Dillard’s like I used to do.) But these are the concessions we want from you, landscaping, investment in elderly housing/rent control alongside the linear park (if property values are going to go up, you need to ensure fairness in who can afford to live near your ‘Corridor’), investment in local upstarts, etc.

    Stay flexible. Use Solomonic wisdom.

  9. People Get Ready » Blog Archive » Recovery czar cited for fast talking Says:

    […] stores in an area ill-equipped to handle the traffic, the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization called residents to a meeting to collect their thoughts and came out against the proposal. It would save us […]

  10. Jim Says:

    What would be an effective anarchist response to the Victory Development idea?

  11. Ray M Says:

    >A recent national study indicated a *net decrease* in retail jobs in counties >across the country that embraced big-box retail. Yes, less jobs — not more.

    How’s that a relevant fact (supposing the stats are valid) in this case? The number of retail jobs that exist in Mid-City at the moment is zero, unless you count the jobs funded a smidgen by the selling of mugs and the occasional coffee grinder or something at PJ’s.

  12. Puddinhead Says:

    So, Agitcorp….how does it help us out to resist national retailers and the evil developers when all of our citizens are shopping en masse at the national retailers who are in business one parish over? Sure, go ahead and support Mom and Pop with your business…..No, don’t subsidize them and act in a protectionist manner to make up for their inability to hold on to enough of a customer base in the face of competition to survive. If they’re desirable in terms of their products and service such that they have a successful business now, why would competition from a chain selling cheap goods upset that? If they’re providing products and service such that their hold on their customers is so tenuous that they’re open to an alternative…should we be in the business of removing opportunity of choice from the consumer to favor one retailer (no matter how small) over another (no matter how large) through government intervention?

    Pressure them, and your elected representatives. Force them to spend the extra bucks to design something to fit in an urban setting if they want access to the market.

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