A controversial proposal to turn an abandoned service station and former pharmacy on the edge of the French Quarter into a Cuban restaurant got the thumbs-up Wednesday from the Vieux Carre Commission.
The commission voted 4-2 for the project, in line with its staff’s recommendation, even though some Quarter residents continued to protest, calling the large restaurant inappropriate for the city’s oldest neighborhood.
The commission’s decision can be appealed to the City Council, an option critics are almost certain to exercise. The site is in Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey’s district.
Sean Meenan, who owns the properties at the corner of North Rampart Street and Esplanade Avenue, has sought for more than two years to turn the long-vacant space into Cafe Habana, a restaurant serving moderately priced lunches and dinners.
This is Meenan’s second attempt to get a restaurant built at the site. He received approval from the Vieux Carre Commission in 2013 for a similar, but larger, project. The decision was appealed to the City Council, but Meenan withdrew the plan before the council considered the appeal.
In the face of unrelenting opposition from some neighbors, it seemed likely that the area’s then-councilwoman, Kristin Gisleson Palmer, would support the appeal, making it unlikely that other council members would back the project.
But Palmer is no longer on the council, and the current membership, including Ramsey, so far appears to be more favorably disposed toward such commercial developments than the previous council.
“I can’t tell you how good it feels,” Meenan said after the commission’s latest vote. “This has been so important to me. It has been a really long time.”
Meenan also owns restaurants in New York; Brooklyn; Malibu, California; and Dubai, U.A.E. under the names Cafe Habana and Habana Outpost.
Critics have pointed to the Brooklyn location, which has hosted outdoor parties, as a reason to deny Meenan’s request to set up shop in New Orleans. He has said the local restaurant would not offer such parties.
The Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates organization, the Louisiana Landmarks Society, the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association and French Quarter Citizens Inc., as well as neighbors who live in the same block as the site, urged the commission Wednesday to deny Meenan’s request. They said the restaurant would be too large for the neighborhood and would disrupt the “quaint and distinctive character” of the French Quarter, which they said the commission is supposed to preserve.
The well-organized group of critics, led by lawyers Sonny Shields and Stuart Smith, brought an acoustics expert and a building code expert to the meeting to bolster their arguments, which took up about an hour of Wednesday’s session.
“It’s a real shame to take the last corner of the Vieux Carre which is still residential and is supposed to remain residential ... and let this happen,” Shields said. He said allowing the restaurant to open would contribute to the “incremental degradation” of that section of the French Quarter.
He went on to compare the potential for damage unfavorably with Bourbon Street.
“A restaurant is a good thing for us,” Shields said. “This is just the wrong place for this event center.”
In the end, two commissioners, C.J. Blanda and Michael Skinner, voted against the plan. Blanda said he couldn’t support it because so many people appeared to oppose it. Skinner was opposed to the plan because it calls for outdoor seating on the service station’s canopy.
Voting in favor were commission Chairman Nicholas Musso, Vice Chairman Daniel Taylor, Leslie Stokes and Jorge Henriquez. The restaurant also has the support of the French Quarter Business League and several people who operate businesses nearby on North Rampart and said it would improve public safety in the area.
Plans submitted to the commission call for a projected total occupancy of 183 people inside the restaurant, as well as beneath and on top of the canopy.