yatpundit's blog

Romney's Pilates-avoiding future bait-and-switch developers

Last week's public meeting to discuss the Romney's Pilates project on Magazine Street concludes the neighborhood's opposition as a final settlement has been reached:

The dispute over the height and parking associated with the L-shaped cinderblock building came to an end Monday night as Mayor Mitch Landrieu's office released a final settlement agreement with Romney Pilates, saying the city has done as much as it can to change the design of the building and get the business to contract for additional parking in the area.

UptownMessenger.com has the recording of their live coverage of the meeting available.

Councilwoman Guidry made the point I've been making for some time now, the city isn't going to order Romney to tear the place down. That Ms. Romney and her husband did everything by-the-book is not in dispute. There's no ordinance that said Hunter Cazes couldn't present a two-story illustration to show "perspective" on parking, then build a three-story building. There's no law that said Ms. Romney had to tell the truth when she stated she would only have four students in a pilates class, then set up a website offering classes for ten. These things may make Romney and Cazes bad neighbors and arguably liars, but those things are not sufficient legal justification for the city to pull the building down.

Clearly the Mayor's office as well as Ms. Guidry are not happy about the current procedures for soliciting input on zoning waivers, and will work on changing the law:

...The newly created Office of Neighborhood Engagement, which is now accepting job applications, will ensure that neighborhood voices get their say in debates facing the city. And the city's new master plan and comprehensive zoning ordinance will formalize neighborhood participation in planning issues and the notification of neighborhood associations by the city and developers, Sherman said.

Guidry said she plans to introduce legislation requiring neighborhood associations and more neighbors to be notified about zoning variance applications.

This will be a huge improvement over the "put an ad in the paper" requirement that exists now. Future Magazine Street developments will no doubt be as strongly opposed as Romney's, as this graphic from Da Paper indicates:

This goes back to my thoughts on what a neighborhood is. People in Audubon Place or Carrollton don't mind if Magazine Street gets stacked up with retail development, since they'll just block up the streets surrounding Magazine. A developer can argue that the people living in the immediate vicinity of the developments are merely NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) who don't want to see the city succeed.

This incident should serve as an object lesson to neighborhood groups across the metro area, however. Developers will only do what they are legally required to do, particularly when they know they will run into extended neighborhood opposition.  A coordinated effort by neighborhood associations will be required to supervise future developments on Magazine. Given the property values in the area, it's going to take someone with a bit of personal wealth (like Romney and Cazes) or a large corporation (Walgreens, etc) to develop it. These are people who unaccustomed to losing. They hire the right folks to get the job done. Vigilance is the neighborhood's only defense.

City Government appears to take Romney's Pilates situation seriously...

Got this in the e-mail today:

Dear Interested Citizen,

District “A” Councilmember Susan G. Guidry is hosting a community meeting on the Romney Pilates Studio Magazine Street development on Monday evening January 24th in the cafeteria of Milestone Sabis Academy, 5951 Patton Street between State and Eleonore Streets. The doors will open at 6pm and the meeting will begin at 6:30pm.

Members of Mayor Landrieu’s team will join Councilmember Guidry to explain the negotiations that they have participated in with the developer and the agreements reached in this difficult matter. Improving the processes for neighborhood engagement in BZA and CPC decision-making is a topic for reform – and the councilmember is committed to work with the Mayor to change the broken process under which we currently labor.

We hope to see you there.

Amy Chandler

Deputy Chief of Staff
Councilmember Susan Guidry
New Orleans City Council, District "A"
Office 504.658.1010

Let's hope Councilwoman Guidry and the neighborhood associations can work out a new system so business owners can't pull the sort of bait-and-switch routine Ms. Romney has tried.

UNO-SUNO merger: an old-school idea returns with an important twist (@jmollerTP article)

This idea was being floated back when I graduated from UNO in 1980:

"Our goal is to provide the best service to students," Jindal said. "That is why I have asked the Board of Regents to study whether students can be better served by a merger of SUNO and UNO and facilitating a greater partnership with Delgado. Both UNO and SUNO, which are just blocks apart, are under-enrolled and have empty classrooms, while Delgado is struggling to meet the needs of the community with its limited space.

The notion of merging the University of New Orleans with Southern University in New Orleans popped up off-and-on in the late 1970s. There are a number of reasons why a merger made sense back then and it still makes sense now:

  • More black students at UNO than SUNO. Southern's campus in New Orleans doesn't have the same HBC status that the main campus in Baton Rouge does. Even when I was at UNO, we had more black students. What little tradition the school had went under several feet of water on 29-Aug-2005 anyway.
  • "Remedial" classes. State schools have a difficult time of turning away students who have a high school diploma. Even if you hit the NCAA minimum standard for athletes, which is a 12 on the ACT, you've got a student who really isn't ready for college. Yet, they're taxpayers and are entitled to an education. You can filter this at the "flagship" school (LSU), but the city colleges such as UNO and SUNO have always caught the brunt of low-performance. Jindal's notion of bringing Delgado into this as a triad makes this proposal even more appealing than a straight UNO-SUNO combination.
  • Duplication of effort. Some parts of the two universities were already on their way towards merging as it was. Some graduate programs in Education were jointly offered, where students enrolled in one college went to the other for class. I believe the MSW programs at both schools were also going down this road.
  • Athletics. Adding SUNO's raw numbers as well as the talent pool might help UNO keep an athletic status better than Div III.

What's always been the sticking point of a UNO-SUNO merger? Politics. To understand the politics, you have to understand the structure of higher education in Louisiana. The Board of Regents has top-level control of higher education in the state. The state's constitution, supported by lots of legislation, breaks operational responsibilities for the schools into three entities subordinate to the Board of Regents: the Louisiana State University system, the Southern University System, and the University of Louisiana system. Each "system" has its own controlling board (LSU and SU each have their own "Board of Supervisors" while the UL system has its "Board of Trustees"). UNO is part of the LSU system, owing to its roots as Louisiana State University in New Orleans. The "LS" was dropped from the name in 1974, but the school was still subordinate to the LSU board. Same goes for SUNO, it was run by the Southern board. Were the state to take SUNO from the Southern board, that would be a lessening of the patronage, contracts, etc., that the Southern board is able to dole out. SU board positions have always been a great way for a governor to reward important black allies.

In our post-K world, some of these considerations aren't as significant as they used to be. For starters, the population drop in Orleans Parish put a hurt on both schools, but SUNO has felt it worse. UNO draws from the entire metro area while SUNO's students were mostly black kids from the city. Their numbers are significantly less than pre-storm. Additionally, our current governor is a Republican who doesn't really give a crap about black people. It's not like he's got an overwhelming number of black political allies he has to take care of. In a sense, this is one of those "only Nixon could go to China" tasks.

This is where the second part of the current merger proposal looks very interesting. Rather than just having UNO absorb SUNO, leaving the now-larger UNO in the LSU system, this proposal moves UNO under the control of the UL Board of Trustees.

That, gentle readers, is huge.

UNO has been part of LSU since its inception. It was the pefrect way for then-Governor Earl Long to piss off deLesseps Story "Chep" Morrison, who was mayor of New Orleans in the 1950s. Long got the US Navy to turn over federal land on the lakefront (the old NAS New Orleans), where he set up a branch of LSU, an entity totally controlled by him.

As a undergrad who was very active in Student Government, now an alum who keeps up with things, as well as the son of a long-time member of UNO staff (my late father worked for over 30 years as manager of the Electronics Shop in the Physics Department of the College of Science), I don't see where being part of the LSU system means all that much to UNO. I remember, in 1978 or 1979, we were lobbying for a new computer building as well as for the Lakefront Arena. When going through the items the state legislature was considering for the LSU campuses, I noticed that the capital outlay expenditure for a new building in Baton Rouge (the Center for Education and Business Administration, CEBA) was cost out at $1.6million. One building at LSU. The entire list of bond-financed pprojects for UNO was $1.2million. For LSU, the state senate wrote checks; for UNO, they grudgingly sold bonds. UNO was very much the ugly step-sister of the "flagship" campus and has continued that way in the decades since I was in SGA's student congress.

(Something just did occur to me, though--there's always esoteric policies and procedures when it comes to tenured university faculty. It's not something I've studied up on, so maybe there are reasons why the faculty would rather stay with LSU. If there are, please e-mail me and enlighten me.)

Take UNO away from the LSU board, it's no longer the red-headed stepchild. Take SUNO anywhere, and I'm not sure all that many people care one way or another these days. Put the merged entity under the Board of Trustees where Delgado Junior College already resides. Give the UL system the freedom to make adjustments between the merged "senior college" entity and the existing JC and you've got a much more solid academic development path for high school graduates. An under-achieving high school grad can start at Delgado. If s/he advances academically, the student can move up to UNO or go to one of the out-of-town schools. If a student's path is more vocational than academic, Delgado has the support for training up productive employees in a number of fields.

A UNO-SUNO merger, along with closer structural ties with Delgado makes for a solid future for higher education in New Orleans.

Did Erin Romney lie to the city about her building?

This whole thing smacks of sneakiness.

That's a quote from one of the people attending a meeting last week with Councilwoman Susan Guidry and neighbors near that 5600 block of Magazine Street, where Erin Romney, owner of Romney's Pilates, is building a new location for her studio.

This story made the front page of Da Paper today, with Rebecca Mowbray picking it up now that the noise of Magazine Street residents is reverberating beyond the 5600 block. You'll find my take on the situation here, and some additional thoughts on neighborhoods in Council District "A" as well.

Mowbray's article answers some questions that ran through my mind, and I'm glad someone other than a blogger with a day gig picked the story up. When I was reading documentation submitted to the city by Romney, some of the letters of support caught my eye. Brittany Brees sort of made sense-she's got name recognition that any business would kill for. Then I noticed a letter from Boysie Bollinger, shipyard owner and local GOP kingmaker. Ms. Mowbray made the connection:

But construction resumed Tuesday after the owners, Erin Romney, a distant cousin of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and her husband, Hunter Cazes, stepson of shipbuilding magnate Boysie Bollinger, agreed to make some design changes and contract for more parking with other businesses off-hours.

Now this is making sense, particularly the zoning variances obtained prior to the installation of a new mayor and a Democrat in the District A Council seat. Susan Guidry sent incumbent council member Jay Batt, a Republican packing, but it's not surprising that Batt kow-towed to Bollinger's stepson.

The rest is the usual sort of shell game you see with contractors and developers-present the bare minimum of specifications to the authorities, start construction, hope nobody notices what you're up to, then do what you really want once the project is so far along it's impossible to stop it. Even better if you've got a pretty fitness-instructor out front as the business owner:

"We've done all the right things and have gone through all the right channels," she [Romney] said. "It's probably been the toughest three weeks of our lives."

She promises neighbors that the building will be beautiful, with a smooth white exterior, cream awnings, gentle wall-wash lights and elegant landscaping.

Hmmm..."all the right things?" Let's have a look at what they said the building would be:

At the Board of Zoning Adjustments meeting, Romney testified that her business was a private, appointment-only facility averaging four clients at a time, mostly at non-business hours...

Those in the neighborhood say such statements are blatant misrepresentation, and the board was duped. The class schedule and list of teachers on the Romney website prove that more than four people at a time will be in the building, elevating the need for more parking, they say. And the picture that was shown to the board depicts a much lower-profile two-story building than what has sprouted on Magazine Street.

Two things here, design of the building and parking requirements. On design, the sketch shown in Da Paper and in our first article on the building, clearly shows a two-story building. What's going up is three stories. Romney's husband says the sketch is to show how the parking works. But one picture is worth a thousand words, and a smart developer knows that. Show people a drawing of a 2-story building, they think they're getting a 2-story building. Add another story and say "oops?" Is that evolution or deliberate misrepresentation?

Now, as to parking. Two things here. Romney testified to the city that her classes were only four students at a time. Opponents say her anticipated schedule is for a much larger student group. When four becomes ten, that's a lot of cars that are going to end up in the neighborhood behind the facility. Did Romney lie to the BZA, or is the expanded schedule another "oops?"

Then there's this graf in Mowbray's story:

When neighborhood concern boiled over in December, the city sent out inspectors to check whether the project was being built in accordance with its permits. After measuring, they discovered that the building had grown enough that it actually needed 15 spaces instead of 14, so even with the 10-space waiver, it still required five spaces instead of four, necessitating the shutdown.

Now, I'll admit that I got my degree in Secondary Education, not engineering, physics, or architecture. Can someone explain to me one basic question:

How does a building on Magazine Street grow?

Is this some sort of organic process, like when I eat too many cheeseburgers in a week? Is this growth something that is outside the control of a property owner like Romney? I mean, people often grow enough that they need to buy a bigger size in pants, but when a building grows to the point where building code says it needs more parking, I'm not sure it's the same thing.

Did Romney and her developer lie to the city, or was there some sort of mistake in the plans? Oops!

Let's give Romney the benefit of the doubt that she's told the truth, and what appear to be misrepresentations are really just "oops" incidents, at what point do all these "oops" equal a permanent stop-work order? Are we dealing with a businesspeson and a developer who are part of the Keystone Cops? Should ineptitude be rewarded? Certainly lying to city officials and the district's Council member ought to be enough to force absolute compliance, but there's a lot of grey here.

Either way, it's going to be very difficult for the neighbors to take Romney's word that the new building is going to look good.  What if all her design statements are just another "oops?" 

Is Giffords shooting really an Arizona "Pelican Brief" scenario?

Maybe the judge was the target. After all, Giffords may have been a Dem, but she was hardly a liberal. She was in Palin's "crosshairs" mainly because GOP knew they had a shot at reclaiming the seat. Giffords won election in 2006, ousting a retiring Republican. She's pro-gun and voted against the Pelosi-led majority regularly. There are bigger, more interesting liberal fish to assassinate.

Federal judges, on the other hand, hear cases ranging from civil rights to murder. Organized crime, drugs, corporate liability, you name it, a federal district judge is involved. This could be more about Judge Roll than Rep. Giffords.

But the shooter was a crazed 22-year old, you say! Is that all he was? Local law enforcement isn't totally convinced yet:

[Pima County, Ariz. Sheriff Clarence] Dupnik declined to name the suspect, but said he "has kind of a troubled past -- I can tell you that -- and we are not convinced he acted alone."

Officials have a photograph of a second "person of interest," a 50-year-old white male, Dupnik said. "We have an individual we are actively in pursuit of, but I cannot tell you who he is at this point," the sheriff said.

No doubt one or more people with cases befoe Judge Roll got a bit of a reprieve yesterday, thanks to this shooter. There may be more to this than meets the eye.

Overnight - Young Fellaz Brass Band

The Young Fellaz Brass Band (link is to their facebook page), playing in front of Walgreens on Canal. You've gotta hear their new CD, The Assassination of American Pop (LMF link).

It doesn't have to be Carnival Time to hear a brass band on the streets of New Orleans, but brass bands sure make Carnival sweeter...

and be sure to check out the new Hubig's King Cake!

King's Day!

Wishing everyone a fun-filled and celebratory Twelfth Day of Christmas and a blessed Epiphany for all you New Orleans catlicks out there.  It's King's day, the feast of the Magi.

Oh yeah, and that means it's Carnival Time:

What a fantastic bal masque invitation! This is an invite to the ball of the Twelfth Night Revelers, the second-oldest Carnival krewe. (Comus is first, with the School of Design one year younger.) This invitation is in the @LAStateMuseum collection.  Click here for a larger view of the image.

For more on Twelfth Night, check out my NOLA History article for GoNOLA.com today.

More on king cakes later in the season, of course.

Most importantly, my self-imposed ban on Mardi Gras music most of the year is lifted from today until Ash Wednesday!

Romney's Pilates: What defines a New Orleans neighborhood?

The pilates studio brouhaha continues. This week, a flyer was circulated in the residential areas behind the Magazine Street of the building now under construction:

This flyer entreats the reader to "Protect The Neighborhood" - which begs the question, What is the "neighborhood" and its boundaries?

The pin is pushed in at Whole Foods, 5600 Magazine.  The supermarket is on the river side of the block, the old Arabella Station streetcar/bus barn.  Romney's Pilates is under construction at 5601 Magazine, across the street on the lake side.  Residents in the area bounded by Nashville, Chestnut, Octavia, and Patton, are already significantly impacted by the lack of off-street parking at WFM and other businesses.  A business with 10 simultaneous customers and 5-10 employees will further strain the parking situation and the patience of those living in the general vicinity of the 5600 block of Magazine.

Still, many who live Uptown say this business will be good "for the neighborhood."  Clearly they define "the neighborhood" as something larger than the boundaries above.

If you ask someone who lives in Metairie or on the West Bank to define the "Uptown" neighborhood, you'll get boundaries that range from River Road to the Crescent City connection, with the River as the lower boundary, then maybe S. Claiborne Ave (or even blocks further towards the lake) as the upper boundary.  Someone living in Carrollton will define things more narrowly, as will someone who lives in the Lower Garden District.

The GNOCDC breaks this part of the city down thusly:

Notice that Magazine Street is the boundary between "neighborhoods."  It's the "tracks" in the old saying "wrong side of the tracks," originally separating the wealthy folks of the Garden District from those less fortunate who lived in the Irish Channel, as the city expanded westward, so did this boundary. Romney is building on the "rich" side (towards the lake), one of the reasons the facility is arousing so much ire. Nobody likes a lot of cars parking up their street, blocking their driveways, and generally creating disturbances, and people who paid a premium for their homes like it even less.

Here's the comment from the Uptown Messenger discussion that hits this home:

What is also galling is that the people she had sign papers vouching for her bunker are mostly her relatives or those who don’t live within a mile of the site.

The "she" above is Romney. Is a one mile radius from this site a reasonable definition of its neighborhood? That depends. If you're the neighbors, the four blocks by four blocks I outlined above is the "neighborhood." If you're the business, you want to attract customers from the "Uptown," "Audubon" and "East Carrollton" sections of the GNOCDC map above.

Here's the catch: While the person living on Audubon Place, or maybe even Webster, considers themselves "part of the neighborhood," therefore entitled to an opinion on the disposition of this property, anybody outside that four block by four block area is likely driving their car to the pilates studio. At that point, it doesn't matter if you're coming from Kenner or LaPlace, you're looking for a place to park the vehicle. The Audubon Place patron of the pilates studio is just as much the problem now, obstructing the immediate neighborhood.

Customers who park on-the-street versus residents who don't want their homes to become part of a retail parking lot. Surely there's room for compromise. In this case, however, the retail property owner and her developers have pre-empted the discussion by going ahead with construction. Now the Mayor's office and the City Council will be forced with issuing not merely a "stop work" order, but essentially a tear-down of the oversized facility. Telling Romney to tear her building down is a move so anti-business that it's not likely it will happen.

It may be too late for those living near the 5600 block of Magazine to stop this development, but its tale should be a cautionary one to nearby residents.

"Preservation" isn't always the right reason to oppose development

There's a brouhaha over an exercise studio being built on Magazine Street:

Romney Pilates, currently located on Magazine near Amelia, is planning to move farther uptown to a new site across from the Whole Foods supermarket. Construction has already begun, but the design of the new building has drawn the interest of several neighborhood groups.

Uptown Messenger praises the design of the building, shown here in the company's request for a zoning adjustment:

The design isn't all that much to write home about.  It reminds me of a public school building-institutional architecture gone awry.   It's also HUGE for the lake side of Magazine.  It's also missing a very important element: off-street parking.  It's the parking situation that's got the project jammed up with a stop-work order.  The city calculated that this facility needs 14 parking spots, and the owners are willing to provide four.  Of course, at least one, if not two, of those off-street spots will have to be desingated handicappped, for ADA compliance.  That leaves a reality of only two or three spots for an exercise studio.  From a comment in the Uptown Messenger post:

Alternately, let’s discuss this from a logical standpoint, relocating a business that requires 20 parking spaces where there were already NONE available to current home owners or retail costumers, is beyond reason.

Romney KNOWS her mat classes have 10 spaces, her reformer classes up to 6, plus 7-8 employees.

So, 10 customers and 7 employees in three spots? Don't think so.

But here's the problem with the attitude of the opposition. From another commenter:

The construction of this new pilates studio destroys the integrity & charm of this neighborhood and would actually become an eyesore. While there is something to be said for rebuilding New Orleans, the “rebuilding” should respect the historical charm of such a cultural place. Parking is at best minimal in this neighborhood. The construction of such a monstrosity will make the parking situation even worse.

The "charm" of that particular block of Magazine is a bit dubious. We're talking right across from Arabella Station, which was an open-air streetcar barn for decades and is now a supermarket. Invoking "historical charm" after you've let Whole Foods on the block is a stretch nobody's going to buy.

That said, the parking is still a serious problem. Serious enough for the city to order Romney to stop work on the project:

Uptown Messenger photo

Let's face it, this is one ugly-ass building, but it's in an ugly-ass block. The almost-total lack of off-street parking is a legitimate issue.

Another legitimate issue is Romney's flouting of the law. Surely her developers knew that four parking spaces would be way under code requirements, yet look at how far along the project is. This is typical of law-breakers, asking for forgiveness rather than permission. And who is asking for forgiveness? People who will profit from the developpment. Who opposes? Neighbors who will be directly impacted by having to look at this ugly-ass building from their homes.

I don't know if Whole Foods has sufficient parking in the back of the old Arabella Station property for themselves, but, if they do, it seems to me that a business like this exercise studio could've leased spaces from them. They're complementary businesses-no doubt exercise customers and WFM shoppers overlap. With assurance that Romney's customers could park off-street at WFM, perhaps this could have been avoided.

Romney opted for a different path-start construction, then cry foul in the zoning adjustment process because the building is a fait accompli. The project's opposition plays right into this strategy. From yet another Uptown Messenger commenter:

The Romney Pilates Center is going up on a formerly empty, rubbish-filled lot next to a house that should have been a tear-down. How charming is this area?

The same commenter cites perceived positive impact from other controversial Uptown developments in recent years as well.

Not all in opposition are off-focus, however:

What is also galling is that the people she had sign papers vouching for her bunker are mostly her relatives or those who don’t live within a mile of the site.

No polite words for the Audubon Place resident who thought it would be an asset to OUR area, but certainly not her own. Pure selfishness run amuck.

I highly recommended Safire Pilates studio, they don’t disparage the neighbors. I received an email from Romney herself, whereby several times, she insulted the neighbors who expressed concern. Concern for the area in which I was born and raised does not make me or my neighbors” disgruntled” or “sulky”.

This pretty much sums it up. People who don't live near a building better suited for Veterans Blvd. near Lakeside Mall support developing it on Magazine Street.

If those in opposition to this project want to derail it, their best bet is to use the practical arguments, not the block's "charm" or lack thereof.

Mr. Bingle says Merry Christmas!

Mr. Bingle is always happy to spread Christmas cheer, even if he's been relegated from his lofty perch on Canal Street to hawking cookbooks in #themetrys.

Two great stories in Da Paper this morning- @JeffDuncanTP's about Saints players getting the chance after games to let their kids run around on the floor of Da Dome is adorable.  For those of you who can't go a day without something more substantive, @MikeScottTP talks about Oscars and Hollywood South.  Yes, it's entertainment writing, but it's also an important biz for the city these days.

Happy Christmas and a blessed Yuletide to everyone!