This story appeared in the April issue of PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door nine times a year? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!

The New Orleans City Council’s Governmental Affairs and Community Development committees recently approved a new definition for “demolition” as it pertains to properties in the city’s historic districts. The new definition, which was then placed on the full City Council’s March 25 agenda, is needed to close “loopholes that property owners have used to avoid triggering review by the (Historic District Landmarks Commission),” according to a presentation before the committees.

“The proposed ordinance would redefine ‘demolition’ to close those loopholes and prevent historic buildings from being altered beyond recognition,” Eleanor Burke, deputy director of the New Orleans and Central Business District Historic District Landmarks Commission, said during the presentation.

“Since its adoption in 2018, the HDLC staff has reviewed hundreds of extreme renovations that are in reality de facto demolitions,” Burke said. “The HDLC has fielded extensive complaints, confusion and concerns of New Orleans citizens regarding the extent of demolition that is currently allowed by the existing definition. The proposed new definition reflects the experience the HDLC has gained over the past three years through interpretation and application of the existing demolition in hundreds of cases. Weaknesses and loopholes in the existing demolition definition should be eliminated.”

PRC was one of the stakeholders that met with the HDLC to give input on the new definition. “When applicants exploit loopholes in the present code definitions to avoid appearing before the HDLC, it undermines confidence in the system,” said PRC Policy Research Director and Advocacy Coordinator Nathan Lott. “This fix will ensure that all projects involving the irreversible loss of historic fabric will receive the same level of review. This fix will impact a relatively small number of projects; the vast majority of projects involving demolition are already subject to HDLC oversight. Closing these unintended loopholes is not going to stall projects. The commission does permit full and partial demolition in accordance with guidelines approved by the Council.”

The current definition is: “Demolition: An act or process that results in one or more of the following at any time over a five-year period:
• structural removal of more than 50 percent of the exterior wall area;
• removal of more than 50 percent of the roof structure as measured in plain view;
• structural removal of more than 25 percent of the primary façade.”

The proposed new definition would be: “Demolition means any of the following actions occurring within a five-year period to a building in a historic district:
• the structural removal, obscuration, or increase in height of any exterior wall altering more than 50 percent of the total exterior structure, or the restructuring of more than 50 percent of the structure’s exterior wall area;
• the removal, alteration, or obscuration of more than 50 percent of the existing roof structure measured in plain view;
• the removal, alteration or obscuration of more than 25 percent of the historic materials, as determined by HDLC staff, on the primary façade; or
• the raising of an existing building to create habitable space that complies with the ceiling height requirements set forth in Sec. 26-196.

The proposed change needs full City Council approval to go into effect.