Saturday, August 16, 2008

Demolition by Neglect in New Orleans

Whatever Happened To Baby Shame?
Debbie Lindsey and Phil LaMancusa
It started as a lark; it turned into a can of worms. French Quarter waiters, lounging in front of their job site discussing the demolition by neglect of the building across the street. A once beautiful four-story brick building, windows broken, missing and even a gaping hole where a window once was. Space where balconies had fallen and the precarious evidence of one about to follow its predecessors. Pigeons arrived and departed with the frequency of planes at a busy airport; we likened the decay to Bette Davis in her last major film role.
“How could somebody let this happen?”
“Who owns that thing?”
“Can’t somebody, shouldn’t somebody, do something about it?”
“You know, there should be a way for a person to sue a property owner for possession of their building when they let it fall into such disrepair; I mean, I have a hammer, I’ve got nails, I could do something!”
“Yeah, (almost sarcastically) we could put on a high school pageant and save the building like Judy Garland and whatsisname.”
“Mickey Rooney” I replied, “No really, I don’t see why I shouldn’t be allowed ownership; they take away kids and animals if you don’t treat ‘em right, why not a building?”
“This is a ‘National Historic Monument’ of a French Quarter, isn’t it?” Debbie returned, “but I bet you a nickel you can’t.”
We’re fortunate to live in a city that is large enough to house a well staffed city government while at the same time small enough to be personal about it. It is no chore getting an answer, or answers, concerning matters that we deem important about our living conditions. Unfortuately, we are large enough to have those matters, and their solutions, come under a heading of “not our department”. Case in point: demolition by neglect in the French Quarter.
The French Quarter was deemed a National Historic Monument in 1966, and that makes us special. In a decision of The Historic American Building Survey by the Department of the Interior, Office of National Parks, Buildings and Reservations we were classified as a site that possesses ‘National Interest Concerning the History of the United States of America’. You can’t get more specific than that.
So what did we do? We held my telephone hostage for an hour or so one afternoon and tackled the job of inquiry. In the process, we received a vicarious tour of City Hall’s various agencies that protect The Big Easy from itself.
We first talked to Joyce at the main number who referred me to Environmental Affairs (EA). Cheryl, at EA had us call NORA (the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority and Ingrid (at NORA) directed us to contact Code enforcement, where we asked Ms. Turner about blighted property as defined by her department. “Unfit for human habitation” was her very succinct definition (Ingrid had told us earlier that ‘blighted’ was “not fixin’ on a property that they can”) and forwarded our call to Rene Sterncamp, her supervisor. Mr. Sterncamp, after hearing our story, told us that the matter was out of their jurisdiction because there is a business in operation on the property.
Subsequent inquiries included the City Attorney, City Planning, The Office of Blighted Housing Purchases, Environmental Affairs, Boards and Commissions, Safety and Permits, Councilman Jackie Clark’s office, Environmental Health Code Enforcement and The Historic District Landmarks Commission (whose jurisdiction, we were told, covers everything but The French Quarter!)
Two other names kept popping up: The Williams Research Center (WRC) at 410 Chartres St. and The Vieux Carre Commission (VCC) at 334 Royal St.
We visited the WRC and were shown the records of the property dating back to its builders Claude Gurlie and Joseph Guillot who helped shape New Orleans as architects, builders and developers. They were in business from 1795-1835 and left their mark, with their distinctive style, through the transition of Louisiana from colony to statehood. Some of their buildings of note are at 722 Toulouse St., the Tricou House at 711 Bourbon St., the Cottin House at 534 Royal St., the Vignie House at the corner of Royal and Orleans, Our Lady of Guadalupe church at 411 N. Rampart St., 613 Royal (home of the Court of Two Sisters) and the Gally House at 536-542 Chartres (known today as 540 Chartres). They also designed and built a convent for the Ursulines that was later demolished to make way for the industrial canal. The WRC also suggested that further information be obtained at the Office of property Management at City Hall.
Our visits to the VCC yielded further insights. Our meetings, although informal, with Marc Cooper and Hector Perera were instructive and educational.
Mr. Herrera, Chief Inspector and seventeen year employee, told us that, indeed, anyone could file a complaint against an owner of property in the French Quarter when it appeared to that person that negligence of that property was cause for concern. But, he added, Due Process often could not be completed to affect change. He cited examples at 601 Chartres, 528 N. Rampart and 540 Chartres (the Gally House). Here’s how it works, we register a complaint, the VCC sends out an inspector to verify and if just cause is found, a letter to the landlord, explaining the complaint and asking for compliance to remedies and communication, within fourteen days, to the VCC. If the citation is ignored, which he said in some cases it is, then the matter can be turned over to a court for legal action. This is where Due Process bogs down. To get a landlord to court a subpoena must be served and if that subpoena is not served then the landlord doesn’t go to court.
Mr. Herera explained that the people serving subpoenas, in most cases, had a hand full of them and if, for example, the landlord was ‘out of the office’, the paper was deemed a bad serve. You see, he said, the paper had to be served to the landlord or to the landlord’s home address. In a lot of cases it was either nearly impossible to find the landlord’s address, or the landlord couldn’t be served, for example, by Orleans Parish if they lived in another parish. Unless, he added, you could get ‘a favor’ by the authorities in that parish to deliver the subpoena.
Mr. Cooper (Director and sixth generation native) confirmed that a significant number of buildings were seriously neglected and that bringing a landlord to court was a challenge, but the VCC has only so much authority.
He allowed us to see the file on 540 Chartres and explained with the help of a map the significance of that particular building. We saw that a complaint had been filed on February 19th and it had been addressed to K&L Investments c/o NOLA Restaurant. We also saw at least twenty work permits that were for work that the tenant had taken responsibility for completing, mostly for safety and cosmetic issues. Mr. Cooper went on to say that the binding test of neglect was based basically on if, in fact, unwanted water was being allowed to enter the property. Water, he said was the root of all damage; with water came rot, insects, deterioration. I explained that it was common to see water dripping through the ceiling of the first floor business when it rained and he answered…”I know”. We found the people at the VCC not only helpful, but serious, passionate and dedicated to the work that they are trying to do, we also found that, if you scratched their surface, you could see a lot of frustration too.
While the files were informative they do not appear to reflect the extent of complaints and concern leveled at the VCC. For example: “I have heard you are investigating blighted housing in the French Quarter, especially the building at 540 Chartres. I have lived next door to this building at 534 Chartres since 1995. The building was in terrible shape then with broken windows and frames, collapsed stairs in the rear slave quarters. Since 1995 the condition of the building has rapidly deteriorated. I am acquainted with Marc Cooper and brought this matter to his attention several times. Not only is this a historic disgrace, I believe it is a health hazard and a public danger. I hope you will prevail in your investigation and attempt to remedy this long neglected situation. Sincerely, Robert Vehon.
At City Hall, where the records of all properties in Orleans is available to the public free of charge, it only took minutes to find the names on the document of conveyance -- the names of the landlords.
Architecture drew me to New Orleans. It wasn’t the food, it wasn’t the partying, it wasn’t the fun. Old buildings, any kind of old buildings are my passion. They can range from the mansions of St. Charles to humble shotgun houses; the stately structures of commerce or the funky corner groceries with their Bargs root beer signs. For someone in love with history as it appears in wood, brick and stucco I was weak-in-the-knees for the French Quarter. So, with one more nod to the overwhelming array of architecture throughout the city I will contain my homage to the Vieux Carrie and the one building that for me exemplifies all that once flourished and is now decaying.
There are roughly 2,000 buildings within the Quarter with the majority being of architectural and historic significance, with some more outstanding than others. At various times in history, this neighborhood and her buildings have come under threat of demolition. The building of our focus, our ‘poster child’ if you will, is among these 2,000 buildings; and, it has been for too long in grave danger. During our research into this building’s decline we have found reports of correspondence with the responsible (or irresponsible) party involved (or uninvolved) yet still the place remains in disrepair and decline.
The bottom line is: I have watched for too long this building falling to ruin, with second, third and fourth floors serving as a pidgeon coop. And the current owners, since 1994, seem to my eye, slow to act. Three months ago the second floor balcony fell off (fortunately in the rear of building and not onto a busy sidewalk). Perhaps this didn’t shock the owners into repairs since a similar situation had already occurred when the third floor balcony collapsed two years earlier.
In addition to housing pigeons, rain, rot and termites, this old home is used for ground level leasing. In direct contrast to the vagrancy of disrepair suffered elsewhere throughout this property there is a vibrant neighborhood bar on the first floor. It seems to be the only source of life in this neglected building. There is a common misconception that a building is owned by the business (restaurant, bookstore, bar, etc.) operating within. Public perception has often placed blame, incorrectly, upon tenants rather than the behind-the-scene owner. Ironically the tenants often care more and spend more on maintenance and repair than those bearing the holding title. Judging from the records, this appears to be the case with 540 Chartres. I get the feeling this blighted corner would be truly worse for wear without the occupation of the ground floor tenants. Empty buildings just seem to give up on themselves.

If this were the New Orleans Museum of Art and someone were to rip apart a canvas or smash a Rodin, immediate action would be taken. Why is there no yellow crime scene tape around this building?
This is not a who-done-it or guess-where. This is simply a matter of public record and anyone walking past the building can see for themselves history and art still in residence at 540 Chartres despite deterioration. And we will save you a trip to room W506 of the Office of Real Estate and Records on the fifth floor of City Hall. In April 1994, 536-42 Chartres (540 Chartres) known as the Gally House, built by renowned French architects Gurley and Guillot and zoned blue for major historical and architectural significance was purchased by K&L Investments L. L. D... represented by Hicham Khodr and Emeril J. Lagasse. Bam!
We called K&L Investments for a statement and we received one within twenty four hours. It was from Emeril Lagasse. The statement reads, and I quote, “When Hicham and I bought the building, we saw that it was in disrepair and had good intentions to renovate it. Then we began to look at the economics of it, and unfortunately it didn’t make sense at the time. I then had to prioritize my holdings and began renovating other properties throughout the city including Emiril’s Delmonico, Emeril’s Restaurant, NOLA Restaurant and our new corporate headquarters, Emeril’s Homebase, located at 829 St. Charles near Lee Circle” End of quote.
K&L Investments bought 540 Chartres St. in 1994 for $665,000.00. Would this be a low priority investment to you? Onward.
We were informed that Hicham Khodr phoned VCC about violations and said that he would begin making improvements. Mr. Cooper informed us, at least twice in our meeting with him on September 3rd, that his response was, and I quote again, “actions speak louder than words”.
In our estimation, seven years is quite a bit of time to recognize a problem and a need -- a four-story need. With this said, we hope, and will applaud Khodr and Lagasse if they begin to take as much pride in this historic building as with the high profile buildings that house Lagasse’s restaurants.
At the Time of this writing no permits for work on 540 Chartres St. have been applied for or issued.

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