11.01.2009

A Live Blog - Frozen in Time

“...put all their crap - all their nasty, dirty t-shirts on the wall...and all of the other things, we’re going to start issuing citations to them on a daily basis.  Each violation is $100 or 90 days in jail or both. Each piece of printed material...or t-shirt...shall constitute a separate violation.”

On October 20, I attended a meeting of the Vieux Carre Commission, the body that overseas the maintenance of the architectural integrity of the French Quarter here in New Orleans.  The Vieux Carre is specially protected by the Louisiana Constitution. 

I was supposed to do a one-page report for a seminar.  Instead...it turned into a five page stream of consciousness dispatch from a high-ceilinged upper room...available after the break.



Vieux Carre Commission

10/20/09

At 1:40 p.m., the meeting of the Vieux Carre Commission had yet to begin. A low hum of chatter filed the high-ceilinged room. The nearest Commission talked with someone in the audience about the politics of Turin and Savoy in a film he’d seen. They argued about the meaning of the film. “You have to be pragmatic if you’re a politician,” said Mr. Lawson, the Commissioner.

The occupants of the room are, on the whole, old. There are a few scattered people under thirty, perhaps five of us total. The lights are down. Professor Shields, apparently also a French Quarter property owner, is here, looking dapper as usual in a gray suit and neat glasses. He leans over Carol and me - “We’re going to move to postpone - it would be suicide to proceed as the favorable commissioners are not here today.”

A change of use for his property at 1237 Decatur is the first item on the agenda today. He’s looking to change use from an antique shop to a “personal service shop” - i.e., a massage parlor. Vieux Carre Commission staff, the report shows us, recommends denial. Ms. Li Yu Jun, sitting next to me in black, is the actual applicant for the change. [Incorrect - Li Yu Jun is a man.  And the Professor is not here for the massage parlor.]

It’s now 1:45. The meeting still has not been called to order.

Now it is. The chairman glares at Carol, who continued talking. She stops talking. He continues to glare through the half light under the chandeliers and the incongruous 1970s-style ceiling panels.
A lady with a heavy New Orleans accent calls the roll.

Apparently, not enough commissioners are present for action. Therefore, all actions taken today must be unanimous.

“Good afternoon, my name is Sonny Shields...” The professor requests a deferral.

“The action is deferred.”

Oops - I was confused. Professor Shields is not the property owner - he’s merely counsel for the applicant for the first item, the Bienville property.

Jim Shields - his brother, perhaps? - is applying for the massage parlor.  A personal service shop is a permitted use.

An additional commissioner has arrived.  One of our classmates, also supposed to be present for purposes of compiling a report, leaves suddenly, having been in the room for approximately 5 minutes.  Hmmm.

The chairman, in eloquent language, berates street barkers. The potential store owner, Mr. Li Yu Jun, does not speak English. The chairman is concerned he does not understand our laws. An interpreter steps forward.
The 1237 Decatur massage parlor project is approved.

A gourmet dog treats business is now up for consideration. The applicants, a lady in bright pumpkin orange and a bald man in a large tan suit, hand out packages of treats. A joke is made. Voila - passage. “These are adorable,” exclaims the lately arrived commissioner.

Another change of use is now up. Nobody is here to represent a change of use on Chartres from art gallery to retail of shoes. No exterior installation except for the installation of a sign.

“Everything conforms to the zoning requirement,”
“What’s the name of the establishment?”
“Shoebydoo.”
“Oh, that’s cute!” [The lately arrived commissioner in designer glasses, again].
Approved.

N. Peters and Clinton, the staffer in brown drones on about “fabric” and “openings between buildings respectively...” The sharp-dressed commissioner speaks up, noting the lack of the architect. There’s a typographical error in the report, he says.

I can hear the calliope from the steamboat Natchez playing off in the distance.

The commissioner, Mr. Farnet (?), is still talking. The buildings were used for warehousing over the years. The applicant wants to avoid having to put in extra stairways. Zoning says this is one unit per parcel of ground. Mr. Farnet now outlines some complicated possible steps on how to treat the project given the “penetrations” between the two buildings in the interior masonry wall.

“Well, we’re fine with making exceptions.” The Italian political commentator, Mr. Lawson, speaks up. He thinks we’re doing too much single lot of record stuff.

Apparently, there was a Subway in the base of one of the buildngs and a souvenir/t-shirt shop in the base of the other. Whatever went in would have to comply with zoning.

Another commissioner, this one a crisp-talking man with trendy, circular black glasses makes a move to approve...with qualifications. He wants to get rid of the vinyl windows. He gets a second.

Mr. Lawson says we’re mostly reactive. He wants the commission to do some proactive work. Clinton Street is getting trashed. “But it would potentially be a wonderful pedestrian mall - outdoor dining, coffeeshops, etc.” He complains of loading docks, illegal air conditioners. “It’s a mess back there! And it’s gotten worse in the last five years.”

Black glasses chimes in to clarify that all of that would be moved to the roof (I don’t know what he’s talking about).

There’s a man off in the corner of the room, back by the giant bookshelf that runs along the back of the room, who looks a lot like the columnist Tom Friedman.

[Incoherent cross talk].

The chairman moves to cut off one of the staff memories.

“The pediment of the Customs House is an architectural treasure.” That’s Mr. Lawson.

And then there’s approval. Moving on to St. Ann Street. We’re talking about Old Time Photos, a photography studio.

The staff member talking just now likes to say “Fo-TOES.”

Uh oh - the Chairman has a problem. He passed by the property on Sunday. There are tons of old time photos on the windows...but it’s on the inside of the glass.

“It’s a very gray area.”

“...There are rather audacious photographs on Bourbon Street...” the Chairman notes. Wouldn’t it be inconsistent to regulate on this one?

[I sneeze, rather noticeably].

A pink lady shows up, sort of wavers in and out of the door. The staff girl in yellow with a jean skirt...and black tights...gets up and goes to her, half hunched over.

We’re now talking jurisdictional authority. There’s a need for more specific rules...since City ordinance does not apply directly to the Vieux Carre Commission. It’s been found to be unwise for staff people to exercise authority in which they haven’t been given that authority.

We now talk about the text of the ordinance. The chairman opines.
“We control anything inside 36 inches into the property.”

“But if it’s inside a fixed enclosure...it is questionable whether it gives us the authority fully...”

Textual debate ensues about the word “open.” Now, open verus openable.

The chairman says the commission will seek legal counsel. He, personally, finds the photos distasteful. They were not nasty, they were just ugly.

“Would it be simple enough to take the photos down?” A man in the back row yells out.

It appears the photo owner is here!
AWKWARD.

“It’s only attached by Scotch tape.” The owner continues to talk away.

“This borders on the realm...of where we as a commission who control architectural elements...this goes into marketing and that’s not the responsibility of the commission.” The sharp dressed commissioner, somebody M.D., continues to speak.

“First time venture...I’m just learning as I go along. I learned a lot here today.” Owner. Passage ensues. “Gracias.”

312 Royal, an art gallery, is on the docket. This one seems simple. It’s always been an art gallery. Passed.

1218 Decatur. A proposed change of use for candle sales. Staff talks.
Somebody’s phone goes off.

There’s laughter and confusion in the room about the image on the sign.

Candles will be made on site. Approved. “Looks like a nice product.”

And now we move on to 308-10 Royal, the final item on the agenda - which is an appeal.

An aluminum gutter, it seems, was added onto a balcony without a permit. We see a large photo of the heinous act up on the wall via the projector. Owner wants to appeal. He wants to paint the gutter to match the existing balcony. The owner lives in Baton Rouge.

“What was the reason for the architectural committee’s action?” Chairman.

“Well, it’s in a strange location...” The staffer lady trails off.

The chairman’s phone goes off and he steps out. He, apparently, was the culprit earlier, too.

“So we should just defer this?”

Black glasses uses a laser pointer to show the commission how this gutter is different, etc.

It appears that there was a gutter there previously...and he just put it up to replace what was there...without a permit, using a non-permitted material.

The commission tries to figure out if the owner was going to attend.

“While we wouldn’t want to foster the idea of anyone installing anything without a permit...this isn’t one of the most horrible things we’ve ever dealt with.”

The crowd is talking - I can’t hear the chairman.

Chairman: he installed an item that we wouldn’t have approved if he had actually asked us for one.

Chairman’s report. The city prevailed in the matter of 711 Bourbon Street. An appeal relating to some ATMs is discussed - administrative law proceedings.
The Chairman threatens to shut the guy down.

[This is no free use of property place. This is the Vieux Carre.]

Chairman: who knows who is going to return to this commission with the new mayor. We must aggressively enforce. He’s going after T-Shirt shop - “put all their crap - all their nasty, dirty t-shirts on the wall...and all of the other things, we’re going to start issuing citations to them on a daily basis.”
“Each violation is $100 or 90 days in jail or both. Each piece of printed material...or t-shirt...shall constitute a separate violation.”

[How in the world can they crack down like this when Bourbon’s had this stuff out for years? What about reliance.]

“It looks a mess. That’s not what the French Quarter is all about. T-shirt shops is not what the French Quarter is all about.”

“We will issue. We are going to be aggressive. We’ll have to have one of us in the courthouse every day. We are going to make these people pay the price for trashing the French Quarter.”

Another problem - posters put up on signs with staples on facades. 1200 block of Decatur. With staples, it stays forever.

The display of things on buildings not by merchants is an issue of clutter in the French Quarter.

An audience member speaks up: “What if it has to do with religious or charitable group?” The commission says they don’t see that. She says she does see that on her building.

“So, shall I call Patty O’Flanders...or will you?” Some of the commissioners look aghast - Ms. Betty H. Norris drops her jaw down into her leopard-skin kerchief and blue shirt.

Now we’re talking commercial leafleting. Boring, really - no seeming end to this.

A few things finally emerge:
Dr. Lupin - Chairman
Sharp-dressed man = Director

Criminal or civil action on the 711 Bourbon property? Director says the prospect of criminal sanctions was “music to his ears.”

3:02 - Motion to adjourn approved.