French Quarter Task Force report released

January 24 2011 | Latest News
After the NFL muscled in last fall, a citizens panel suggests new guidelines for 'the city's heart'

Sunday, January 23, 2011

By Frank Donze
Staff writer

Fix the sidewalks. Turn down the volume. Pick up the poop. And for goodness' sake, offer the community a heads-up before anyone commandeers one of New Orleans' most iconic attractions.

Those are just some of the recommendations from a citizens task force drafted by City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer to examine the rules that govern the use of Jackson Square and its perimeter.

After a series of meetings, the 23-member panel found that many regulations are not being enforced, while others are in dire need of updating.

Palmer formed the study group last fall after the National Football League sparked a firestorm of criticism by taking over the square for its 2010 "kickoff concert" without serving notice to the neighborhood.

While the task force suggested ways to bring French Quarter residents and business owners into the loop before big productions, much of the report deals with problems the Vieux Carre faces on a day-to-day basis. Leading the task force was Meg Lousteau, executive director of Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates.

"Jackson Square is, undeniably, the city's heart. It's the most photographed, most iconic and most recognizable spot in New Orleans," the review says.

"But Jackson Square is not a frozen piece of history. Instead, it's a vibrant residential, commercial and tourist hub that is under increasing pressure because of its popularity."Among the oft-heard complaints cited in the report is the French Quarter's infrastructure, most notably the sorry state of the flagstones on pedestrian malls surrounding Jackson Square, described as in "deplorable condition, with many of them broken or missing entirely."

Beyond the sidewalks' shabby appearance, the task force said the problem presents "physical hazards" for hundreds of thousands of visitors.

The study also suggests a City Hall crackdown on buggy companies that fail to pick up droppings that fall from the cloth contraptions attached to their horses and mules. "The diapers are not being emptied, resulting in piles of manure" along Quarter streets, the report said.

The task force said the city should consider imposing an additional fee on buggy licenses to pay for a third party to clean the mess, "since the buggy operators do not seem able to meet this requirement."

Palmer said Friday that she is not ready to propose any legislation because she is still vetting the report to determine which arm of city government is best suited to oversee Jackson Square.

"I am looking for systemic solutions for long-term problems associated with Jackson Square," she said. "For too long our city has been reactive to quality-of-life issues that impact both visitors and residents of the French Quarter."

The committee advocates a prohibition on amplified music on the pedestrian malls around Jackson Square and all streets, sidewalks and other public places in the Quarter. The report said the ban should be lifted for permitted special events, including the annual French Quarter Festival.

Task force members are slated to discuss their findings at the Feb. 7 meeting of the City Council's Governmental Affairs committee. Palmer, who sits on the board of the French Market Corp., said she also plans to seek input from that agency.

For large events, the panel of government officials, merchants and civic activists appointed by Palmer said City Hall should designate one main point of contact. In addition to acting as a guide through the city's permitting process, the point person would keep stakeholders aware of upcoming events.

Residents and business owners have been reporting problems in Jackson Square well before the NFL's nationally televised extravaganza kicked off the Saints' home opener Sept. 9.

Palmer said the concert, featuring Taylor Swift and the Dave Matthews Band, highlighted the need to better coordinate special events. Some merchants reported lost business, while others griped about road closures, parking problems and crowds.

Among the other recommendations by the task force:

Rigorous enforcement of a requirement that members of the Jackson Square artists' colony sell only original works of art. "Some artists sell prints in spite of the law," the report said, which threatens "the integrity of the colony."

Around-the-clock security for the square to ensure that cars are not illegally parked there, that vagrants are not causing health problems and that tarot card readers are abiding by rules.

Designating a single entity to keep the square and pedestrian malls "not just free of debris, but also clean." The report said the "piecemeal approach being taken now has resulted in piles of garbage and other debris" that often stay for days.

Requiring tarot readers to undergo background checks, get licenses and post menus of services, prices and grievance and complaint procedures.

Requiring buggy operators to board customers from the front of the line, so animals will have a chance to rest and get watered. "Instead," the report said, "drivers at all points in the line are hustling customers, an unlawful practice known as "barking."

Enforcing rules that allow cars and trucks on the pedestrian malls only between 8 and 10 a.m., and 6 and 8 p.m.

Creating a Jackson Square Foundation to manage the site, generate revenue and oversee maintenance. The Department of Parks and Parkways is in charge of upkeep inside the square's wrought-iron gates, which is accessible only part of the day. But the Department of Sanitation is in charge of the pedestrian malls outside.