The New Orleans City Council on Thursday unanimously approved a developer's plan to renovate and add three stories to a vacant historic hotel in the 100 block of Royal Street.
Renovation plans for the proposed Royal Cosmopolitan hotel at 121 Royal have been opposed for years by various French Quarter groups and preservationists, who argue that the taller building, at 120 feet, won't fit with the rest of the neighborhood.
Those behind the project have insisted that adding more floors is necessary to make a historic rehabilitation of the building, originally constructed in the 1890s, financially feasible and that their plans would help revitalize one of the area's more rundown blocks.
Council members said Thursday that the desire to fix up the block and quirks of zoning on and around the site justified the additional height.
"I don’t think it's reasonable to be against height for the sake of being against height without looking at the totality of the circumstances," said Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, whose district includes the French Quarter.
The dispute over the height limit is complicated by the fact that the building actually straddles the line that separates most of the French Quarter, where building heights are capped at 70 feet, and the taller buildings that line Canal Street.
It also sits in the one-block stretch between Canal and Iberville streets that is widely considered to be part of the French Quarter but that is not bound by the strict zoning that governs most of the historic district. The site is not under the control of the Vieux Carre Commission.
The request "doesn’t set any major precedent because there aren’t a lot of properties that fit that definition," said Miles Granderson, a representative of the developer behind the project, Joseph Jaeger.
The existing building already exceeds the 70-foot limit by 12 feet, and some nearby hotel and other buildings are significantly taller than that.
But some French Quarter and preservation groups argued that granting an exemption in this case could open the flood gates to other projects seeking waivers.
"We know there are a lot of projects in the Quarter that are waiting for this to pass so that they can jump on this," Louisiana Landmarks Society President Sandra Stokes said. "If we keep moving the line, where’s the line?"
"This is sacrosanct for us: that the French Quarter heights not be abused," she said.
The property's owner has been pushing for permission to build a taller building on the site for many years — with some proposals as high as 268 feet — and in 2015 actually won approval, by a 5-2 council vote, to build a 190-foot building.
But that plan was immediately challenged by French Quarter organizations in court in a case that has yet to play out.
In the meantime, Jaeger put in an offer to buy the property and develop and manage a smaller hotel there. That plan is the one approved by the council on Thursday.
The proposal would see the existing building renovated to historical standards, with the additional height coming from a tower that would be set back from the street.
The city's planning staff recommended against granting the additional height. Three members of the City Planning Commission voted to grant the waiver, with four voting against it.