Playing by the rules on Frenchmen Street


In writing about noise pollution and quality-of-life issues that are plaguing key residential neighborhoods across New Orleans, one thing I’ve been clear and consistent about is this: The city would be in pretty good shape if police and code officers simply enforced the laws already on the books. But nowhere is that more true than the Marigny, the trendy zone just downriver from the French Quarter. Nearly 10 years ago, in order to preserve the quality of life in this historic neighborhood, the city approved an “historic overlay zone.” What that meant is that while some existing entertainment venues were “grandfathered in” as existing uses, new establishments would be bound by strict rules – only three musicians, no amps, doors closed at all times, et cetera.

Those sensible rules were ignored from almost the day they went on the books. Until the other night, when police showed up on Frenchmen Street, the main drag, and did something that truly shocked people. They simply enforced the law.

Two New Orleans police officers walked Frenchmen Street on a recent Friday night wielding unusual weapons: highlighted copies of a city ordinance.

Moving from club to club, the officers asked proprietors to close their doors, remove tables from the sidewalks and take down barricades used to block off street space. Most critically, the cops also reminded them of 9-year-old music restrictions that would be a shock to most Frenchmen Street regulars: In most venues, bands may have no more than three musicians, and they may not be amplified in any way.

The NOPD says the sweep was routine, and not a harbinger of a crackdown.

“Quality-of-life officers normally head out to such areas prior to big-crowd events. In this case, it was conducted before Bayou Classic crowds come to town,” said department spokeswoman Remi Braden. “The check puts businesses on notice that NOPD is making sure they’re following the rules and providing a safe setting for residents and visitors. When officers make periodic checks, it’s more likely that owners will continue to abide by safety rules when thousands descend on city streets for events like the Classic.”

Well, if you know how things work here in New Orleans, you can guess the reaction. The usual suspects of venue owners and their patrons took to their blogs, to Facebook and to other social media to condemn what they called “a crackdown,” the latest move by City Hall which they believe, falsely, will destroy live music and the cultural heritage of the Crescent City. Predictable, and yet silly. First of all, this should not be confused with a noise crackdown. This is enforcement of a zoning code that was agreed upon after a lengthy process, and making sure that the rules are applied fairly. You can complain on Facebook all you want, but your argument has no leg to stand on.

Let’s be honest. This isn’t a matter of “fairness” – it’s a matter of greed. There complaints are driven by greedy developers who want to get wealthy by breaking the rules. Any fines or other penalties that they suffer as a result of their lawbreaking are completely justified. The journalist who broke the story of the Frenchmen Street enforcement activities, Alex Rawls, had a good blog post the other day. He wrote:

I understand the frustration and anger of those venues that are restaurants more in name than practice because they’ve built business models based on the premise of operating very much like a live music venue. They shouldn’t have since they knew their zoning going in, but the years of occasional, haphazard enforcement gave them reason to believe that the rules only exist on paper – that they’re acknowledged with a wink but don’t really apply. Still, like someone driving for years with an expired brake tag, the owners can’t feel like they’ve been unfairly treated when they’re finally stopped.

“Enforcement has been inconsistent at best,” says District C Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer. “It’s reactionary. There’s no good answer except that all laws need to be enforced equitably and fairly.” The lack of consistent enforcement is a theme that has emerged in other cases when music and zoning have been in conflict recently, just as it has in noise-related controversies.

I have no idea whether this police enforcement action on Frenchmen Street was a one-off, or whether it’s the signal for a more expansive code enforcement push. But in addition to going “by the book,”  I would urge the Planning Commission , the Council and the Landrieu administration need to freeze alcohol permits and live entertainment permits until an effective enforcement mechanism is fully in place, not just in the Marigny but citywide. What’s happened on Frenchmen Street recently should be just the start.

No doubt, music and late nights are a rich part of New Orleans. But so are the principles of equality and fairness, and it’s been that way for many, many years. When the city can’t play fairly, with the same set of rules for all, it loses a part of its soul,

Read about the law-enforcement push on Frenchmen Street from the Advocate:

Check out what journalist Alex Rawls has to say about the code enforcement here:

Read my Oct. 17 blog post attacking the Landrieu administration’s handling of noise, rowdyism and blight at:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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