City Council to decide on Warehouse District hotel proposal

The New Orleans City Council will be asked to reveal just how much weight it is willing to give to the city’s master plan for development when it considers this week whether to permit construction of a hotel in the Warehouse District that would exceed the maximum height allowed under both current and proposed new zoning rules for the site.

A newly formed coalition of residents and business owners in the Warehouse District and some adjacent neighborhoods is putting pressure on council members to reject the proposal, which already was turned down by the City Planning Commission and doesn’t have the support of the Downtown Development District.

At issue is a request for a waiver to the height restriction on 10 lots in the 600 block of Tchoupitoulas Street, bounded by Tchoupitoulas, Lafayette, Commerce and Girod streets. An interim zoning district restricts buildings in that block to five stories and 65 feet.

Fillmore Hospitality has proposed building a 178-room hotel, made up of two buildings, that would stand six stories and 65 feet on the side fronting Tchoupitoulas and 75 feet at an entrance facing Commerce Street.

The Cambria Suites hotel would include a restaurant and meeting rooms and would have a pedestrian entrance on Tchoupitoulas and an automobile drop-off on Commerce. Service and delivery trucks also would use an entrance on Commerce.

Fillmore owns and operates the Maison Dupuy Hotel on Toulouse Street and the New Orleans Marriott Metairie at Lakeway on Causeway Boulevard.

The newly formed group, known as Residents for Responsible Development, said allowing the project to move forward would send a message that the council is not serious about honoring the master plan or a nearly 2-year-old ordinance establishing the Lafayette Square/Warehouse District Refined Height Plan Interim Zoning District.

The result of a height study commissioned by the Downtown Development District, the interim zoning district establishes various height limitations for the area. It has served as a placeholder to guide development in the area until revisions to the city’s comprehensive zoning ordinance, which would give legal force to the land-use guidelines set forth in the city’s master plan, are adopted.

“The master plan very clearly sets forth a clear and predictable set of rules to say here’s what you can expect for zoning and development,” said Erin Biro, a Warehouse District resident and member of the residents’ group. “It takes away the City Council’s whim to approve or reject a project just at their discretion.”

The site is in Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell’s district. She is concerned about the project’s height, a spokesman for her office said, but has not decided whether to support it.

Spokesman David Winkler-Schmit said Cantrell is undecided because she recognizes the concerns of residents but believes “the developer has committed to working” on them. For instance, the developer has agreed to lop off 10 feet from the design that was presented to the City Planning Commission, though it still does not comply with the proposed or current zoning for the site.

The Tchoupitoulas Street site, owned by hotelier Warren Reuther, is now a surface parking lot. Fillmore is under contract to buy the property from Reuther, who would not own or operate the hotel. He described the project as “very small.”

“This little thing is going to be beautiful,” he said. “It’s only going to complement the neighborhood.”

In its report recommending denial of the request, the City Planning Commission staff disagreed, saying the development as proposed would diminish “the historic character of the area and set a precedent for other potential developments.” The staff also said the development would create more traffic in the neighborhood, particularly on Commerce Street, a minor artery with just one lane of traffic and no on-street parking, and would block out adjacent buildings’ access to light at certain times of day.

The version of the project considered by the Planning Commission proposed a height of 85 feet on Commerce Street.

The commission agreed with its staff’s findings and voted 5-0, with four commissioners absent, to deny the request.

Since that meeting, more than 250 individuals who live or work near the proposed development have signed a petition opposing it. The petition says residents are in favor of development and would support a project that matches the guidelines set forth in the zoning ordinance.

Max Ortiz, who owns the restaurant Root on Julia Street and lives in the Warehouse District, said the new hotel would put pressure on a neighborhood already struggling with parking problems. The conversion of the parking lot into a hotel would eliminate 60 parking spots, now used by another nearby hotel.

The proposed development site is surrounded by mostly low-rise, historic warehouse buildings. A one-story warehouse building, used for parking, flanks the parking lot on one side. A two-story building, which contains the bar Vic’s Kangaroo Cafe, sits on the other. The same block also includes several two- to four-story residential buildings and a 10-story parking garage.

Reuther said the hotel would not intrude on the neighborhood any more than the massive garage, which was built before the master plan was adopted.

But Biro said the zoning changes were established to protect the neighborhood from additional intrusive developments. The fact that this one would require a waiver of the current law means it should be dismissed, she said.

“The biggest point for us is asking the council to refer to the master plan and to not make an exemption for this building,” Biro said. “We feel that would create a very slippery slope.”