- Associated Press - Friday, May 15, 2015

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - City leaders have approved a blueprint for future growth that spurs development along the Mississippi River, encourages live music in residential neighborhoods and requires better management of the heavy rains dumped every year on this below-sea-level city.

At a heated meeting ending late Thursday, the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed new zoning laws governing future land use that developers, urban planners, neighborhoods and residents will have to adhere to, and live with, for years to come. They replace 1970s-era zoning laws considered outdated.

The highlights included an expansion of live music at restaurants, requirements for new construction to divert rainwater out of the city’s overburdened drainage system and a move to open the industrial riverfront in historic areas along the Mississippi River near the French Quarter to condominium development.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu called them “a crucial step” for future development and he argued that they will help “preserve the unique character of our neighborhoods.” He added they will “ensure greater transparency and consistency” in planning and development.

But passage of the sweeping ordinance drew mixed reactions, with neighborhood groups and preservationists expressing outrage at changes they say will hurt old quaint neighborhoods.

“I think they want to turn all of old New Orleans into Disneyland,” said Eugene Cizek, a professor of architecture at Tulane University and a long-time neighborhood preservationist in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, a historic district next to the French Quarter.

Cizek said there was a feeling of “disbelief and disgust” on Friday morning among preservationists. He said his neighborhood group, the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association, was considering a court challenge to the new zoning laws.

He said the addition of several last-minute amendments violated the spirit of the city’s recent adoption of a master plan for land use, which requires public participation in land use issues.

Urban planning in the wake of the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago has become a particularly sensitive matter in New Orleans, a city with a long history of bitter fights between preservationists and city leaders seeking to spur economic activity.

Cizek called Thursday’s actions by the City Council “the low point” in his 50-year history of neighborhood preservation, which included a fight to stop a highway expressway to be built along the Mississippi River in front of the French Quarter in the 1960s.

He was aghast at allowing high-rise development along the river and at the prospect of more restaurants playing live music. He said the city’s hunger to expand tourism threatened to drown out the unique character of New Orleans.

Not everyone saw it the same way.

“What we replaced was a thoroughly outdated document,” said Keith Twitchell, president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans, a community group that represents neighborhoods, businesses and nonprofits.

Twitchell said expanding live music would hardly spell ruin for neighborhoods. He said many venues find it very difficult now to get permission to offer live music.

“It’s not supposed to be heard outside the walls of the restaurant,” he said. “If my restaurant wants to have a jazz brunch or a coffee shop to have an acoustic folk duo, that’s New Orleans, that’s our culture.”

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