Update, 3:10 p.m.: Sean Cummings' proposed 260-unit mixed-use development along the Bywater riverfront received the City Planning Commission's backing Tuesday with a 6-1 vote. The final decision is up to the City Council.
One of the city’s most prominent developers, Sean Cummings, hopes to capitalize on a tight housing market in one of its trendiest neighborhoods, transforming two full city blocks of abandoned industrial buildings along the Bywater riverfront into hundreds of new apartments and retail space.
The City Planning Commission on Tuesday is expected to consider Cummings’ proposal, his largest development to date: a 260-unit development that would include six buildings ranging in height from 25 to 75 feet.
The project is proposed on four acres bounded by Chartres, Press, Montegut and Dauphine streets. It is on the downriver, or Bywater, side of Press, which divides Faubourg Marigny from Bywater.
The six buildings would include one renovated warehouse and five new structures. The taller buildings are proposed for near Press, with the others tracking down in height toward Montegut.
Most of the 260 apartments would have two bedrooms, and almost all would be rented at market rates. There would be 23,169 square feet of ground-floor retail space.
A new interior street would stretch through the development. About 271 of the 301 proposed parking spaces would be in buildings along the Press Street side.
The project would be close to Crescent Park, the recently created riverfront park that Cummings played a key role in developing when he was director of the New Orleans Building Corp. under former Mayor Ray Nagin.
The Planning Commission’s staff has recommended approval of Cummings’ request for a conditional-use permit — subject to five waivers and more than a dozen conditions — after concluding that a mixed-use residential and commercial project would benefit the former industrial neighborhood, which is now moving on to other commercial and residential uses.
“The design of the buildings is contemporary but complementary to the historic neighborhood, and the massing and height transition well from the lower-scale Montegut Street side to the more intense Press Street side,” the staff said in a report.
The project has an “attractive contemporary design which, with the simplicity of forms and details, and with the variations in massing and height, and introduction of passageways and open space, responds well to the historic surroundings and the character of the neighborhood,” the staff report said. “The proposed green walls, murals and rooftop gardens give a contemporary edge to the project, while still conveying a sense of an intimate urban environment.”
Regardless of what the commission recommends, the final decision is up to the City Council. The site is in the district of Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, generally a fan of development.
Despite some opposition, largely from neighbors along Montegut Street, Cummings has submitted to the city multiple support letters with more than 100 signatures, and has secured the backing of a major Bywater neighborhood group.
The existing level of development in the area is mixed: Some properties are occupied by industrial uses, others vacant and some redeveloped for non-industrial uses, including Cummings’ Rice Mill Lofts, a 70-unit residential development across Chartres Street.
His latest project is called Via Latrobe, a nod to famed architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who died in New Orleans in 1820. In addition to the interior street — which would be open to the general public — other proposed amenities include two small corner parks, rooftop terraces and gardens, and an urban farm.
Plans call for 77 one-bedroom units, 167 two-bedroom units and 16 three-bedroom units, according to the staff’s report. The units will average about 1,240 square feet, Cummings said.
Since unveiling his plans earlier this year, Cummings has made a few adjustments based on feedback from residents and others, including reducing the planned commercial space by more than 50 percent and dropping plans for an on-site brewery.
The permit applicant was submitted before the city’s new comprehensive zoning ordinance took effect, allowing Cummings to take advantage of the previous 75-foot height limit for the site that has now been reduced to 55 feet.
In an interview, Cummings said Bywater badly needs to boost its population in order to attract more basic services such as groceries and other retail stores.
Cummings, who declined to say how much he expects the project to cost, said rents would be in line with what’s offered at the Rice Mill, which he said range from about $1,100 to $4,200 per month.
The project, if built, will be Cummings’ largest yet: The Rice Mill has about 70 units, while the International House, a boutique hotel he developed in the Central Business District, has about 140 rooms.
He said construction could begin in April and take 18 months.
Still, not everyone in the neighborhood is on board with his vision for its future.
Neighbors First for Bywater, a residents group, submitted a petition with nearly 130 signatures urging the Planning Commission to reject the project. It said the project would be out of scale with the rest of the historic neighborhood, and that creating so many new housing units in a small area would cause traffic and parking problems.
“To do this right would be so respectful of the neighborhood,” said Mark Gonzalez, a Neighbors First for Bywater board member who lives about two blocks away in the 3100 block of Dauphine Street and who wrote a letter to the Planning Commission that summarized the group’s concerns.
But the project has the support of the older Bywater Neighborhood Association. In a four-page letter last month, the group’s chairman, John Guarnieri, said the development would provide new housing units that could draw more residents to the area and potentially lower price trends.
Bywater has lost more than half of its population in the past century, Guarnieri wrote, and adding so many new units could create more interest in the neighborhood and potentially encourage new retail outlets.
He acknowledged the project’s critics along Montegut but said that “a handful of near neighbors should not be allowed to stop or cripple a project that can only benefit the neighborhood as a whole.”
Gonzalez said he would like to see something happen on the 4-acre site but doesn’t think this is the right fit.
“We’re not anti-development at all,” he said of his group. “We just want to see development that respects the neighborhood and respects the historical character and the architectural character, but what he’s doing looks like something out of Miami or Dallas.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.