Hurricanes are disasters for some people, but just another business opportunity for others. It seems that Hurricane Katrina has not only destroyed a significant part of New Orleans, but has blown away much of the good reasoning on the city’s planning board. The Times Picayune reports today that the City’s Planning Commission has approved an expansion to the Home Depot store, which will guarantee that local home improvement merchants will not get back on their feet in the ravaged city. Home Depot will rake in the profits from the Hurricane, as homeowners and builders return to the city. So of course they need a bigger share of the market. The Planning Commission did make one change. The commission voted to reject Home Depot’s request for a sign 75 feet high, so cars on the elevated highways could see it. The only problem was, Home Depot’s sign would be more than six times higher than the site’s zoning limit of 12 feet high signs. But Home Depot now takes their case to the City Council, which will make the final decision. The Home Depot stores in Jefferson Parish are some of the highest grossing stores Home Depot has, pulling in $100 million in sales. Lowe’s, also is planning to build additional stores in the area. Both companies have prospered in the wake of Katrina. Home Depot recently opened a “half-sized store” where a former Winn-Dixie supermarket once stood. The new Home Depot will be around 150,000 sf. on 12.3 acres of land. The site is zoned light industrial, and the giant retailer had to get city approval to demolish 13 houses on the site, most of them deteriorated and many of them vacant. To fit in with the unique character of New Orleans, Home Depot has prepared a building facade that is slightly upgraded from the standard prototype, according to the Picayune. “It features split-face concrete masonry units in contrasting colors of beige and brown, corniced columns, indentations and projections to break up the long, flat walls, and the site would be surrounded by hedges, trees and iron or masonry fences.” The city’s design standards for big-box stores limit detached signs to 12 feet, but for some reason the planning staff recommended letting Home Depot have a single 75-foot-tall pylon topped by two 17-by-17-foot signs. The staff approved the huge sign because “the applicant is proposing only one detached sign where there is the potential for four” and because “there are several raised roadways in the vicinity.” But the Planning Commission disagreed, voting unanimously to deny the 75 foot sign. The same sign controversy happened recently to rival Lowe’s. The North Carolina company proposed a 60 foot high pylon sign, the Planning Commission cut it back to 35 feet, and the City Council agreed to let it rise to the full 60 feet. If that is any indication, residents can expect the New Orleans night to be lit up by a towering, 75 foot orange sign in the near future. But here is the kicker: the public did not even get to testify at a hearing about the new Home Depot store. The Picayune says the Planning Commission did not hold a public hearing on the Home Depot proposal because it was considered as a “design review,” not a zoning petition.
New Orleans may have been devastated by the failure of the levies, but the good ole boys network is alive and well, and big box sprawl in an urban area is uncontrolled. The parking lot for this store will hold more than 500 cars — not underground, or on the roof — but a surface parking lot where houses once stood. The Home Depot store will be three times the size of a football field — the perfect suburban footprint in an urban area. All of this is crammed onto 12 acres! The high winds of Hurricane Katrina have blown all the good planners right out of the city, and left the corporations to rule. For earlier stories, search Newsflash by “New Orleans.”