The four-story commercial building on Canal Street that was engulfed by fire early Wednesday is owned by controversial T-shirt shop king Kishore “Mike” Motwani, who has been accused in the past of flouting city regulations and allowing his properties to fall into disrepair.
However, there were no outstanding safety violations on the building that caught fire, according to Jared Munster, director of the city’s Department of Safety and Permits.
Still, Historic District Landmarks Commission Director Elliott Perkins acknowledged Wednesday that Motwani was well-known to city regulators. He said the building has a history of windows left open to the elements — considered a blight hazard.
And City Councilwoman Stacy Head, who has butted heads with Motwani in the past, said she believes officials are not doing “an adequate job of enforcing minimum building standards, particularly against sophisticated property owners.”
“We should be more aggressive downtown than really any other place in the city,” she said.
Motwani did not return multiple messages seeking comment Wednesday.
Quarter Holdings LLC, which lists Motwani as manager, acquired the buildings at 1016-22 Canal St. for $935,165 in 2006, according to Orleans Parish Assessor’s Office records. The Metairie-based Quarter Holdings owns 18 properties in New Orleans, mostly in the Central Business District and French Quarter.
Over the years, Motwani has often tangled with city officials. A 2008 Times-Picayune story described him as “the man whom local preservationists, city regulators and even economic development gurus love to hate.”
Among other reasons, the article cited Motwani’s “repeated flouting of government regulations, his failure to maintain some of his buildings and his gobbling up of Canal Street properties to open cut-rate stores that impede efforts to upgrade Canal as a shopping destination.”
Motwani owns a number of T-shirt and gift shops and is a controversial figure in and around the French Quarter, partly because of his penchant for such types of businesses but also because he often has flouted development restrictions. Some of his buildings are occupied on the ground floors by liquor stores and shops geared toward tourists, while upper floors are vacant or used only for storage.
New Orleans Fire Superintendent Tim McConnell told reporters Wednesday that the building at 1018 Canal St. had been burning for more than 90 minutes before the department learned about it. Neither the building nor its neighboring structures had alarms or fire-suppression systems, he said.
No injuries were reported in the early morning blaze, but at least four businesses were destroyed before firefighters could extinguish the flames.
McConnell said the building sustained “heavy damage,” and there were questions about its structural integrity after the fire. The bottom floors were occupied, but the upper levels were not in commerce, he said.
One of the challenges with better regulating building standards is simply the “enormous amount of resources it takes to focus on the sophisticated and well-financed owners,” according to Head.
“We don’t do a great job, and part of it is because it’s very difficult,” she said, pointing to a stretch of blight along Robert E. Lee Boulevard, where the city has battled with developer Kenneth Charity over his long-vacant Lake Terrace strip mall.
The buildings at 1016-1022 Canal, which date back to the early 20th century, were among the few along that stretch of Canal to feature bay windows.
For decades, they housed multiple retailers, including longtime tenants Schiro’s shoes and Robert’s jewelry shop, according to the Downtown Development District.
For more than three decades, the adjacent, four-story building at 1012-1014 Canal was home to Odyssey Records, which closed in 2013.