Vieux Carre Commission’s move to City Hall concerns French Quarter civic leaders

The seventh floor of City Hall is a scene of organized chaos these days as the space formerly occupied by the Civil Service Commission is being reworked to house a “one-stop shop” for people needing to deal with land-use and permit issues.

Among the agencies moving into the space that formerly housed operations for city hiring are the City Planning Commission, the Historic District Landmarks Commission and the Vieux Carre Commission.

The latter agency is tasked with overseeing the French Quarter. The VCC’s move from its offices in the New Orleans Police Department’s 8th District station at Royal and Conti streets in the Quarter has caused concern among some civic leaders who fear losing a watchdog for the city’s oldest neighborhood.

In a Jan. 31 letter to council members and constituents, Deputy Mayor Michelle Thomas, who has spearheaded the “one-stop shop” creation, wrote that “within the coming weeks, staff and files from the VCC offices will relocate to the 7th floor of City Hall.” Thomas wrote that the current Royal Street office will be “staffed with VCC personnel and will maintain its current hours of operation.”

“Staff at the Royal Street office will primarily serve to provide inspections, accept applications, handle walk-in complaints, answer general questions and engage the public,” Thomas wrote. “The review of applications and plans, preparation for commission and committee meetings and enforcement actions will take place in the City Hall office.”

But Thomas did not specify the number of people who will continue to work in the Quarter. Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s press office did not respond to an email seeking clarification about that point.

The VCC has four staff members who are responsible for ensuring that work done in the historic district is authorized and done according to plans submitted to the VCC. None of those, however, is a building inspector. The agency has not had an inspector in more than three years, according to the neighborhood group Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates, which fears an uptick in illegal work on buildings in the area.

In a Feb. 4 letter to Thomas, Carol Allen, president of VCPORA, questioned what effect the move will have on the Quarter if there are fewer or no people there to keep an eye on things.

“Everybody knows that violators of land use codes and permitting requirements seek every possible opportunity to exploit these regulations for their own personal good,” Allen wrote. “... It is incomprehensible to me, and to others, that the savings the administration hopes to gain by implementing this move will outweigh the importance of maintaining a fully-funded VCC inside the Vieux Carre.”

However, Councilwoman Kristin Palmer, whose district includes the French Quarter, said that the move to put agencies such as the VCC, planning commission, HDLC and the department of safety and permits under one roof will be beneficial to everyone. Right now, she said, those agencies, which have similar goals, are “fragmented.”

With those offices’ staffs working side by side, the city will achieve greater efficiency for residents, Palmer said, and each agency can now share information that could prevent problems from arising.

“It’s meant to stop problems before they start,” Palmer said.

Palmer also said the move to City Hall means the VCC should be more “transparent” since it should be able to use the City Council chambers for its meetings. That means they can be broadcast on the city’s cable access channel and meetings can be streamed and archived on the Internet, something that is not possible from the commission’s current office.

Ultimately, Thomas said, the “one-stop shop” is a work in progress that will be fluid as it comes online.

“As we have shared throughout the one-stop planning process, we see the implementation of the one-stop (shop) as an iterative process that we will refine over the next 18 months,” Thomas wrote. “We will continue to provide venues for feedback, as we have for the past 18 months, and we will strive to be responsive to the feedback received.”