The often-contentious relationship between historic preservationists and private homeowners has flared up here in recent weeks, as activists determined to save the city's distinct architecture face off against Hurricane Katrina victims who can't afford to repair architecturally significant homes — and need a place to live.Both parties have an important role to play in the rebuilding of New Orleans and both are correct in their stance.
On one side are Laureen Lentz and Karen Gadbois, who say it is their "duty" to safeguard the architecture that distinguishes New Orleans: The eclectic mix of ground-hugging Creole cottages with steeply pitched roofs; low-slung, horizontal Arts and Crafts bungalows; ornately trimmed narrow, rectangular "shotgun" houses.
On the other side are homeowners like Rosilyn Anderson and Linda Ireland, who want to demolish their Katrina-ravaged homes and replace them with new modular structures.
In the middle is the city government, which decides what is saved and what can go. The decisions could lead to a lingering landscape of blight.
It's a question of preservation for the long-term good versus immediate need in the short term, said Richard Campanella, a geographer at Tulane University who has been studying building trends in the city since Hurricane Katrina destroyed more than 123,000 properties here.
"I fully understand and appreciate the predicament," Campanella said, but his support is fully behind preservation. "Our incredible inventory of distinctive, historic, well-built structures … form integral parts of expansive neighborhoods.
"This is an extremely valuable resource that should be preserved. This is money in the bank for New Orleans. When you tear down, it's like a gap in a smile, a tear in a fabric."
The homeowners, often with finite resources, are stuck between the cost of renovation versus the cost of building anew. Often they find that new construction is cheaper than renovation. Any architect will tell them the same thing.
The preservationists have charged themselves with protecting an architectural legacy that has largely made New Orleans what it is and hopefully will continue to be.
Rather than spending their time at loggerheads, the preservations might better spend their resources exploring ways to mitigate homeowners cost of renovation. I'm no tax attorney but I do know there are tax credits available for renovating historic homes. If that is not enough, they should look to lobbying Congress grants/credits/rebates etc... the help sweeten the pot for renovation to be much more fiscally viable for homeowners.