Cafe Habana completed another leg Tuesday in its second attempt at finishing the marathon process of winning city approval to turn two abandoned structures at Esplanade Avenue and North Rampart Street into a Cuban restaurant.
The Vieux Carre Commission’s Architectural Committee granted the proposal “design development” approval, the second of several steps in the process of getting permission to make changes to a building in the city’s oldest neighborhood.
The planned restaurant received conceptual approval from the full commission earlier this month.
Sean Meenan has proposed renovating an old service station at North Rampart and Esplanade and a neighboring building at 1036 Esplanade Ave. into a two-level, open-air restaurant.
The Architectural Committee said it was comfortable moving the project along to the next stage of development, the review of construction documents, in part because Meenan addressed the controversial question of the restaurant’s total occupancy in his latest application.
Cafe Habana will hold a maximum of 172 occupants, including staff, according to the application on file with the commission. That number includes maximums of 44 diners and 42 diners, respectively, on the first and second floors of the building at 1036 Esplanade Ave. and 34 diners and 39 diners, respectively, under and on top of the former service station’s canopy.
“I think we’re at a very reasonable level related to the size and volume of these properties,” commission Chairman Nicholas Musso said.
Capacity has been one of many points of contention in Meenan’s attempts to develop the site.
Critics have argued that the two-level eatery would be too big and not in keeping with the style and character of the French Quarter. They said Tuesday that they fear the site could hold as many as 900 people based on its square footage and because three patio areas included in the design would not have fixed seating.
Meenan said those three spaces would be used as a waiting area for customers when the restaurant has no seats available.
The committee asked Meenan to revise his plans to specify that purpose. He also must reduce the proposed size of a sign by nearly 50 percent and make other changes related to fencing, lighting and the location of mechanical equipment.
The next step will be for the full commission to consider the project’s design.
However, the project could land on the City Council’s agenda before then. A group called the Citizens Action Committee has appealed the full VCC’s approval of the cafe’s conceptual design to the council.
Meenan’s proposal to resurrect the long-vacant corner has been about two years in the making. The plan was first presented to the VCC in mid-2012. Meenan pulled the project from consideration in December 2013, saying he intended to try to rework the idea into something French Quarter residents and other opponents would find palatable.
At that time, the project already had received conceptual approval and design approval from the commission and was awaiting final construction approval. But it still faced persistent objections from some neighbors, who appealed the commission’s approval to the City Council. Meenan pulled the proposal days before the council was to consider that appeal.