This story appeared in the September issue of PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!
Jesse E. LeBlanc II
Recently retired chairman of the New Orleans Historic Districts Landmarks Commission
LeBlanc represented the Lower Garden District as an HDLC Commissioner for 22 years, serving as chairman for about 20 of those years.
First, thank you so much for your service on the HDLC. For readers who are not as familiar with the Commission’s day-to-day work, can you give us an overview of a commissioner’s duties? What do you think is the HDLC’s most important duty?
The New Orleans HDLC has 15 commissioners, each represents a designated historic district. All are volunteers appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council. We meet once a month in the Council Chambers at City Hall. Our meetings are televised and streamed. Each commissioner participates in an agenda that covers all our districts. However, each individual commissioner pays special attention to the items in his or her district. Our meetings can be as long as five hours, and they require preparation. In advance of the meeting, the staff sends the commissioners the agenda, the reports on each item and the public letters received. We read all this information in advance to be prepared for our meetings. The chair spends additional time with the staff in reviewing the agenda as well as other tasks as required. The HDLC’s most important task is trying to maintain the historic fabric of New Orleans.
You served on the Commission in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Tell us about that time.
After Hurricane Katrina, we were reduced to myself as chair, the executive director and deputy director of the HDLC and a few staff members. We drove through all the historic neighborhoods to try to inventory the damage. We relaxed our guidelines so that people could get back in their homes or stay in their homes. It was very challenging to the HDLC, but, of course, it was challenging to everyone affected.
In April 2017, the HDLC added four new historic districts to its oversight: Mid-City, Uptown, Carrollton and Parkview. How did that change the Commissioners’ work?
To be added as a district requires the people living in that area to want it. The HDLC recognized the pressures on these areas by demolition. Many of these properties have large lots which makes them attractive to developers but at the same time changes the character of the historic districts. The real pressure in the future is to prevent total demolition of the historic housing stock to make way for more intense development. It is a real challenge. Of course, our workload increased but thankfully we were able to increase our staff.
You have represented the Lower Garden District neighborhood on the commission. What do you love most about your neighborhood?
The Lower Garden District is historic, quirky, diverse, fun and has a great location. You can get anywhere in New Orleans in 20 minutes. I truly love Magazine Street. It is an example of a mixed-use street that works, and it dates back over 100 years.
What are the biggest threats to the city’s historic districts today?
Developers who do not understand why our historic districts work and work within our guidelines. Instead, they try to ask for exceptions. The good ones operate within the guidelines. We spent years with a professional consultant to draft the guidelines. It was all done with public input. The HDLC needs public support and City Council support to continue our mission. Finally, I would like to thank our highly professional staff and my fellow hard-working commissioners.
New Orleans City Council Members JP Morrell, Eugene Green, Lesli Harris and Freddie King join HDLC Executive Director Bryan Block, HDLC Deputy Director Eleanor Burke and other city officials in thanking Jesse LeBlanc for his years of service on the Commission.