New Orleans preservationists battle developers - and economy

A new Battle of New Orleans is being waged here, 172 years after the first one. It is a fight between developers and preservationists, and at stake, some residents believe, is the soul of this historic old city. The latest skirmish is over the site of a proposed $40 million theme-park aquarium approved by city voters in November. Aquarium proponents originally opted for a tract of land between the French Quarter and the Mississippi River nearly in the heart of the tourist district.

But preservationists have mobilized resistance to the aquarium site, claiming that the project could ``dramatically alter'' the character of the French Quarter, primarily through traffic congestion.

Because of their vote-getting clout and ability to mobilize, the preservationists have turned New Orleans into a model of what other cities can do with old neighborhoods and historic structures.

``Cities across the country have studied us,'' said Saundra Levy, director of the New Orleans Historic Landmarks Commission.

Despite their achievements, however, the preservationists seem to be waging an uphill fight. The sagging Louisiana economy and the need to bolster the New Orleans tourist industry are strong weapons effectively wielded by the developers. In the past two years Jax's Brewery - a large urban marketplace on the outskirts of the Quarter - and Charles Rouse's Riverwalk development have opened their doors over the protests of the preservationists.

Even within their own ranks, the preservationists are divided over questions of objectives and tactics.

Ms. Levy of the Landmarks Commission says, ``We try to work with developers and convince them of the importance of keeping structures within an existing environment, of sticking to a certain theme. ... The question is how they want to develop the building in a way that will fit in with the architectural and environmental context.''

But other preservationists take a harder line. ``You never compromise, you never give an inch to the developers,'' said Mary Morrison, the grande dame of New Orleans preservationists and a French Quarter resident since the 1930s.''

Some developers also take this man-the-barricades approach. ``The preservationists have made a number of projects unfeasible,'' said G.F. Corcoran. ``You run into such red tape and so much regulation with preservation.''

``I think the preservationists have seen their heyday,'' said one city developer. ``They did a great job protecting the French Quarter, and America owes them a debt of thanks for that. But new building and construction signify progress. And you can never stop progress.''

Mary Morrison seems to agree, though sadly. ``We keep losing and losing these days,'' she said. ``I find that my sense of justice has become so outraged. Sometimes I just feel bitter about the whole thing - we've lost so many wonderful, wonderful buildings. What will this city look like 100 years from now?''

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