NEW ORLEANS -- The development of the big box wholesaler Costco in New Orleans was applauded throughout the city, from the mayor’s office to the City Council to residents of Hollygrove where the store has turned into a commercial success.
But looking back at the incentive deal that the city made with the national retailer, some people see a missed opportunity.
Andy Kopplin, the city’s chief administrative officer in 2011 when the project was in the planning stages, said he now harbors “regrets” that the city did not require more from Costco to handle storm water and take pressure off the city’s overburdened drainage system.
“I've said that myself, that one of my greatest regrets was we didn't know enough about pervious pavement,” Kopplin said. “The city gave an incentive to Costco, and for a few hundred thousand dollars more, I suspect, we could have given a bigger incentive and required them to use pervious pavement.”
Pervious pavement is a type of asphalt that absorbs rainwater as it hits the ground, storing the water underground rather than allowing it to flow through the pipes and canals of the city’s drainage system.
Kopplin knows all about this type of porous pavement. At the headquarters of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, where Kopplin is now president, he proudly shows off the rain-absorbing qualities of the pervious pavement parking lot.
Pervious pavement is just one cutting-edge green infrastructure feature that Kopplin and others are today advocating throughout New Orleans. The call has gained urgency since last summer, when the city’s antiquated and over-taxed drainage system was exposed after two hard rains caused flooding that spilled into homes, business and cars.
Kopplin is not the only person with regrets that features such as rain-absorbing pavement weren’t considered for Costco.
“I feel like I should have asked sooner,” said Council Member Susan Guidry, whose district includes Costco.
In 2011, when the Costco plans were already well under way, Guidry was a relatively new council member. She said she was still learning about green infrastructure at the time, but knew enough to ask the city administration if it was being required of Costco.
“I checked with the administration and they indeed said they were not requiring anything,” Guidry said. “If it would have been earlier on, I could have stomped my feet and made a big statement about it.”
Jarvain Bingmon remembers attending community meetings when Costco was still in the blueprint stages and asking why more green features weren’t being considered.
Bingmon, director of the Trinity Community Center on Joliet Street, also is a neighborhood activist who has been pushing green infrastructure and flood management for years.
When the Costco project was announced, Bingmon was encouraged by the company's commitment to sustainability. He found that other Costco stores included modern flood management features such as pervious pavement. In fact, the company has an entire department devoted to sustainability.
“We have A-1 flood zone here in Hollygrove, so we were pretty much concerned about a big box coming,” Bingmon said. “We know that Costco has done things like that in the past and in different cities. But that conversation didn't go far here.”
When Bingmon raised the subject with city officials, he was told the same thing as Guidry: it was too late to change the construction plans.
The last opportunity to get concessions from Costco was a June 2012 city council meeting to grant final approve for the project. Before the vote, in which rules were suspended to move it ahead of schedule there was no discussion about green infrastructure.
But after the vote, there was an unsettling moment, according to several people who attended.
“I was informed that there were a couple of Costco people leaving the meeting and rather chortling about the fact that they didn't to do any retention pond or any kind of storm water management,” Guidry said.
Guidry said the reaction by the Costco officials “made me ill.”
Bingmon also monitored the meeting.
“I'm not surprised that they walked off laughing. I think we missed an opportunity. We blew an opportunity, actually,” he said.
Costco opened its doors in 2013 with no pervious pavement, limited water-soaking green space and no features such as bio-swales, cisterns or rain gardens.
And while the store has gone on to become a big success – popular with shoppers, employers and the neighborhood – it could go down in New Orleans’ history as the last major commercial development in the city to avoid storm water management.
Within two years of Costco’s opening, in 2015, the flood-prone city would consider green infrastructure so critical, it changed the zoning laws to require large new commercial developments to safely catch and store some of the rainwater rather than dumping all of it into the overtaxed drainage system.
The zoning ordinance now requires “construction of the permanent storm water best management practices to retain, detain, and filter the first one-and-one-quarter (1.25) inch of storm water runoff during each rain event.”
Had the Costco project – the first in Louisiana – come a year or two later, or had the city become aware of green infrastructure a year or two earlier, that construction project could have been very different.
“It's definitely a regret for me,” Guidry said.
Costco officials did not respond to our calls and emails.
The city offered a statement, that reads New Orleans’ understanding and relationship with water has changed dramatically over the decades and its water policy has improved with it.
“We now know that living with water will be paramount to the City’s future success. As the City has learned more about this relationship, through publications like the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, published in 2013, the City has worked tirelessly to implement aggressive storm water management requirements for new developments and redevelopments.”
“In 2015, New Orleans City Planning Commission adopted a storm water management requirement through the comprehensive zoning ordinance (CZO) requiring developments or redevelopments over 5,000 square feet of impervious surface to detain and filter the first 1.25 inches of runoff for the whole site.
"Additionally, the City’s Resilience Strategy, Resilient NOLA, released in August 2015, adopted the urban water plan and committed the city to investing in comprehensive and innovative urban water management. The Comprehensive Endeavor Agreement (CEA) with Costco finalized in July 2012, long before these new and important requirements were made into law.”