Published: Sunday, February 28, 1993
The City Planning Commission's vote ratifying developer Christopher Hemmeter's sprawling downtown gambling complex ranks as a major civic disappointment. New Orleanians must wonder what moves this public body, whose prime function is to balance the exigencies of growth with the preservation of the city's fragile physical heritage.
Mr. Hemmeter was obviously pleased, for he got essentially what he wanted. To wit, approval with no downsizing of the giant casino on the site of the to-be-demolished Rivergate; no reprieve for the five 1850s buildings at South Peters and Poydras streets; and a go-ahead, with some modifications, for the huge parking garage that will take the old buildings' place and then some.
Casino critics had said that Mr. Hemmeter never intended to build the 13-acre park and lagoon he proposed for the foot of Canal Street. And in fact, when the commission denied him these items, Mr. Hemmeter seemed less than crestfallen.
"We do not see it as a massive loss," he said.
Adding to the sorry spectacle of this process was the haste of it all. The commission's vote was taken a mere 15 hours after public hearings ended. The commission staff's report was given to the commissioners only Thursday, leaving little time to read, much less digest, it. Commission Chairwoman Jane Schwartzman said the commission had to act quickly, because the City Council had asked for the report by March 4, but on Friday she could not recall the source of this deadline. Clearly the date was arbitrary. Far lesser land use matters routinely take weeks to be decided.
Some may think these concerns frivolous, given the city's poverty and justified hunger for economic development and jobs. Commission member Allison Randolph III, for example, reasoned at Friday's meeting that since the casino requires parking, a 3,000-car garage on Poydras, as proposed by Mr. Hemmeter, is necessary. Such a garage may be in the casino's best interest, but is it in the city's? What about its impact on downtown and the Warehouse District? And why is it necessary that a fragment of history be eradicated? The urging of Commissioner Renna Godchaux to consider peripheral parking was ignored.
The city is ill-served by this kind of myopia, as our history attests. Consider the North Claiborne elevated expressway and its accompanying blight, the halving of City Park for an interstate and the narrowly avoided riverfront highway, to name a few examples.
The City Planning Commission is unworthy of its name when it can do no better than react, as though vision, creativity and, indeed, planning were unaffordable luxuries. The landscape of New Orleans is our greatest physical treasure, the source not only of our pride but of our tourism industry.
Last week, a coalition of nine neighborhood associations criticized the casino plans and made strong recommendations of their own. Two dozen local architects weighed in with an eight-point critique and recommendations. Daniel Robinowitz, Mr. Hemmeter's partner, has pledged to modify the developer's plan if the public demands it. We hope he will listen to these expressions of the public will. And we pray that the City Council, which reviews the plans next, will awaken before the city's treasures are squandered.
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