Quarter Life Challenges
During the month French Quarter Fest was scheduled to return for its 37th year, area business owners weigh in on the issues they face year-round.
More than $“8.5 million is spent each year on public safety in the French Quarter on top of the policing budget for the New Orleans Police Department’s 8th District, which includes the historic neighborhood.
M.S. Rau has sold fine art, jewelry and antiques from its headquarters gallery on Royal Street in the French Quarter for more than a century — long enough to have a healthy dose of perspective on the constant push and pull of preservation and progress that marks business and life in the 300-year-old neighborhood.
“It’s a balancing act. It’s tricky,” said Rebecca Rau, who oversees strategic development and represents the fourth generation of family to enter the business.
Last fall, as construction crews worked on the final phase of the extensive $20 million Bourbon Street overhaul, M.S. Rau was winding down a project of its own — the combination of its long-time gallery at 630 Royal Street with four neighboring historic buildings all fronting Royal Street. The historic renovation, which opened doors in November 2019, doubles M.S. Rau’s showroom space to 36,500 square feet and triples its storefront presence on the bustling, gallery-lined street.
Rau noted the renovation is a “once-in- a-generation” moment, a rare opportunity to preserve historic buildings and combine real estate in the Quarter.
“It’s not very often that you get the opportunity to acquire real estate that connects to the buildings that you occupy in the Quarter.
So, when this opportunity presented itself, we jumped on it,” Rau said.
Outside the gallery doors, the French Quarter has seemed chock full of change in recent months. This year, Carnival revelers meandered on a newly reconstructed Bourbon Street, the result of a two-and-a-half-year infrastructure overhaul completed in November. Property owners and neighbors report rents are stabilizing as new citywide rules cracking down on Airbnb-style rentals take effect. Meanwhile, a new digital age dispute is brewing — cellphone carriers are fighting for approval to install new 5G towers throughout the neighborhood, an effort neighborhood preservationists staunchly oppose.
Despite all that, the main priorities for French Quarter business owners like Rau remain largely the same: ensure the neighborhood is safe for tourists, residents and workers alike, and push for continued infrastructure upgrades.
“Everybody wants a safe neighborhood. It’s always going to be something we strive for as a community,” said Brittany Mulla McGovern, executive director of the French Quarter Business Association.
For Rau, ensuring downtown is welcoming and walkable for residents, employees and visitors alike is key.
“I wouldn’t want anyone to feel threatened by being here and re-evaluate how they experience the city,” she said.
The French Quarter Business Association includes restaurants, hotels, retailers and a range of other firms based in the French Quarter, representing business interests between Esplanade Avenue and Canal Street, from Rampart Street on the lake side to the Mississippi river- front. The association’s reach excludes the first 100 block of Canal Street, which, McGovern noted, is technically part of the Downtown Development District. (That block is fronted by The Shops at Canal Place and Harrah’s.)
McGovern said infrastructure has been the top concern for her members for the past few years, their worries centered on the digging up of an eight-block stretch of Bourbon Street between Canal and Dumaine, a reconstruction project that replaced drainage and water lines and sidewalks, made sewer repairs, and installed upgraded lighting, security cameras and smoother, concrete pavement. Most area businesses agree the work needed to be done, but the project was intensive, closing whole blocks of the iconic street for months at a time, diverting pedestrians and blocking off restaurants and shops who depend on tourist foot traffic.
The first phase of the project, which started in 2017, was full of growing pains, according to McGovern. The association started an email campaign encouraging local businesses to host meetings at restaurants affected by construction and promoting lunch deals. Still, she said, restaurants and retailers in the area were in a tough spot.
At the same time, NOLA.com | The Times- Picayune reported restaurant workers were seeing their hours cut, and tourist hangouts like Cigar Factory were considering altering opening times to avoid peak construction. McGovern said there was more communication with the city and better preparation for the second phase of the project, which started in September 2018, but the overall sales impact was inevitable.
“They still took a hit during that construction because it was such a prolonged period of time,” McGovern said.
Relief over the end of the Bourbon Street work this past November was palpable among French Quarter business owners, but they also acknowledge that infrastructure needs remain.
“We’ve seen flooding on Bienville Street where we’ve never seen flooding before,” said Vincent Marcello, a French Quarter property owner and owner of NOLA Pedicabs, a business he noted thrived during the Bourbon Street repairs. “Last year we flooded two times during heavy rains.” Marcellos main offices front Bienville between Rampart and Dauphine streets. They were flooded with about 4 inches of rain both times.
In early February, while crews were putting the finishing touches on Bourbon Street, work was continuing on the combined $2.5 million Conti and St. Ann reconstruction projects, which aim to fix similar problems with under- ground drainage, sewer and utilities. The work focuses on the blocks closest to Bourbon on each street. It will be completed in late 2020.
Rau said the short-term pain is worth the long-term gain in terms of improved infrastructure. She acknowledged that’s easier to say from Royal Street, which has yet to see closures and may have even benefited as pedestrians avoided Bourbon during peak construction.
Still, there’s no question these investments are necessary, especially as the French Quarter sees more flooding than it ever has before, Rau said.
“We’ve already experienced more flooding in the Quarter over the last few years,” she said, “and it’s definitely going to continue at a noticeable increase when there’s a change in weather or construction. It’s a real concern, especially for us. We have precious objects that need to be in climate-controlled spaces that aren’t flooding.”
As the entirety of Bourbon Street returns to business as usual, the priority for many French Quarter business owners has again re-centered on public safety efforts. More than $8.5 million is spent each year on public safety in the French Quarter on top of the policing budget for the New Orleans Police Department’s 8th District, which includes the historic neighborhood
The spending includes a network of real-time surveillance cameras and patrol support from the Louisiana State Police, both hold-overs from a 2014 plan by former Mayor Mitch Landrieu following a shooting on Bourbon Street that killed one person and injured nine others. There’s also the French Quarter Task Force, a privately funded security detail and app that allows users to summon off-duty NOPD officers to a scene.
“Things have gotten a lot better,” said Vincent Marcello, a French Quarter property owner and owner of NOLA Pedicabs, adding the safety spending has made a “huge difference” in ensuring more of the Quarter is being monitored.
Marcello, who is also a member of the French Quarter Management District’s public safety and security committee, noted there’s still work to do, namely convincing would-be criminals that the historic neighborhood is a bad place to commit crime.
The patchwork spending has its critics, including New Orleans City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who has called for more oversight in how funds are spent. That conversation reignited last summer as the French Quarter faced an uptick in violent crime.
According to NOPD crime data analyzed by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, there were 93 homicides, aggravated assaults and batteries and robberies reported in the French Quarter during the first half of 2019. That was roughly 30% higher than the same period in 2017. This ran counter to a downward trend in violent crime citywide.
Crime analysts warned against reading long- term trends into a few months of data. But nerves were on edge following several high-profile incidents, including the fatal shooting of 36-year-old nurse Julie Couvillon, who was killed by a stray bullet on Bourbon Street. On Dec. 1, 2019, 10 people were injured in a shooting on Canal Street near the corner of Bourbon, the worst mass shooting in the city in several years.
Acknowledging high-profile incidents like those are terrible and have to be prevented, McGovern stressed that they are also infrequent and added that the NOPD 8th District leader- ship understands this, and has earned the trust of FQBA members. She said that supporting efforts, such as the French Quarter Task Force, are making a difference.
“The French Quarter is not a Wild West,” McGovern said. “It’s heavily patrolled, it’s heavily videoed.”
Updated crime statistics for the French Quarter specifically were not immediately available (the cyberattack on City Hall has delayed data requests in many departments), but preliminary NOPD data show violent crime in the 8th District decreased from 2018 to 2019. There were 226 homicides, aggravated assaults and batteries, and robberies in the year ending Dec. 9, 2019, the latest data available online. That was down from 267 in the previous one- year period, a 15% decrease. The 8th District was among districts with the lowest number of reported shootings, though only the 5th and 7th Districts had higher reports of violent crime overall, according to the data.
The focus moving forward, McGovern said, is keeping the Quarter clean and well lit, as well as ensuring systems are in place to help people who are homeless or transient move from French Quarter streets get access to shelters and other services.
“It’s a holistic approach,” McGovern said.
Marcello agrees. He said he’s noticed City Hall taking a more aggressive approach to removing graffiti and fixing damaged sidewalks, which, in his view, is a crime deterrent. The outlook is known as the “broken windows” theory in criminology —clean up signs of petty crime and civil disorder in an area and people are less likely to commit crime in general.
“Absolutely, the broken window theory applies here,” Marcello said.
Voters will decide again in 2021 whether to allow the use of tax revenue to support extra state police and the French Quarter Task Force after the current approval sunsets. McGovern is confident the measure will pass.
“There’s a willingness there because they understand the need,” McGovern said. “For better or for worse, if an incident does happen in the French Quarter it can and does get city- wide, state and sometimes national headlines.”
While public safety often dominates the conversation, the long-term battle over the future of the French Quarter, its historic character and the type of residents and businesses who call it home often plays out in nuanced policy and, in some cases, the court system.
Take, for example, the citywide short-term rental rules that took effect late last year. Short-term rentals have been banned in much of the Quarter for years, but the rule change, which took effect in December, placed a renewed emphasis on enforcement, said Erin Holmes, executive director of the Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents & Associates (VCPORA), a neighborhood advocacy group that includes French Quarter property owners, residents and businesses.
Holmes said enforcing the ban is critical to preserving the French Quarter’s character as a vibrant neighborhood, with a mix of renters, homeowners and businesses.
“We can’t preserve a neighborhood as a living neighborhood if you can’t live in it,” Holmes said. She noted the neighborhood’s rental market has been artificially inflated by apartments converted into short-term rentals. The citywide rule has made a difference, she said, noting she and neighbors have noticed a wave of rental properties coming available this year. However, she’s worried the recent City Hall cyberattack could derail enforcement.
Marcello, who owns rental properties throughout the French Quarter — some of which were operated as short-term rentals — said the new rules have resulted in an influx of rental properties in the neighborhood. He’s seen flattening rates, both commercial and residential. He said his properties are about 80% occupied right now, compared with upward of 95% a year or two ago.
Short-term rental rules aren’t the only factor at play. Marcello has properties, including commercial space in the 1000 block of Bienville Street, just a block from the Hard Rock Hotel site, which has sat caved and exposed at the corner of Canal and Rampart streets since October 2019, when it partially collapsed killing three people and injuring dozens. City officials expect to fully demolish the building, which still holds the bodies of two workers, in May. Lawsuits assigning blame for the collapse are likely to remain in court for years.
“Until this building comes down, I don’t see [my properties] getting any new tenants,” Marcello said.
The next French Quarter fight? Cellphone towers. Specifically, 35-foot 5G towers, which cellphone carriers are seeking approval to build throughout the historic neighborhood. Verizon, AT&T and other carriers say the poles are necessary to support mobile broadband use in the Quarter, especially during big events. Carriers currently roll in mobile units to support cell- phone data use on heavy-traffic days.
The French Quarter Business Association says it is taking a wait-and-see approach to the issue, watching a lawsuit currently working its way through the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in which dozens of cities nation- wide have sued the Federal Communications Commission over a 2018 decision to eliminate historic and environmental review for 5G towers. If the cities prevail, it could give entities like the Vieux Carre Commission, which oversees the preservation of buildings in the French Quarter, more of a say in the process.
VCPORA is vocally opposed to the idea. Holmes noted plans submitted to the city map out some 200 towers total in the French Quarter, or roughly a tower at every intersection. Moreover, each carrier has submitted its own proposal, she said.
“It does not necessarily work within very dense, historic neighborhoods, particularly the French Quarter,” Holmes said, adding that the towers only enhance open-air data use, which means residents and businesses would see no improvement in mobile broadband speeds inside their homes.
Holmes said neighborhood groups are willing to work with carriers on solutions for moving forward, including smaller, more compact tower designs. But the priority must be preserving the look and feel of French Quarter streets.
“If you think about the French Quarter being a major economic generator of the city, and largely of the state, how much of the look of the French Quarter is important? It’s pretty significant,” Holmes said. “If you go on any tourism promotion site, you’re going to see the streets of the French Quarter and the balconies and all of this historic architecture.”
From her Royal Street office, Rau preferred not to wade into the 5G tower debate, but said she’d like to see a more intentional conversation about flooding, climate change and how the Quarter intends to prepare. She knows there are other like-minded French Quarter business owners out there.
Overall, Marcello said he has a positive outlook as a French Quarter resident and business owner.
“The French Quarter is alive and well, and always will be,” he said. “I think we’re starting to head in the right direction.”