A proposal to turn a long-abandoned French Quarter service station into a restaurant once again is under review by the Vieux Carre Commission — eight months after the developer, facing unrelenting protest from some neighbors, withdrew the project from consideration.
The commission is considering a new proposal from Sean Meenan, whose original bid to build a restaurant serving Cuban and Mexican fare at Esplanade Avenue and North Rampart Street came to a halt in December. The project had spent more than a year under review by the VCC and its Architectural Committee before it was derailed.
The Architectural Committee on Tuesday recommended “conceptual approval” of Meenan’s new plan for a restaurant at the site. The full commission will consider the plan at a meeting next week.
Conceptual approval is the first of several steps in the process toward getting permission to make changes to a building in the city’s oldest neighborhood.
As he did in 2012, Meenan has proposed renovating the old service station at North Rampart and Esplanade and a neighboring building at 1036 Esplanade Ave. into a two-level, open-air restaurant.
The original proposal called for the site to become a Habana Outpost, like an establishment he owns in Brooklyn. The new version calls for the restaurant to be called Café Habana, which Meenan said would be slightly more upscale.
The reconfigured project appears to be a pared-down version of the previous proposal. It does not, for instance, contemplate significant modifications to the Victorian-era building at 1036 Esplanade. Many of the changes will involve rehabilitating the gas station. But Meenan said he is still finalizing the amount of square footage that will be available to the public. More details will be revealed as the project winds its way through the commission’s review process.
“This is very close to what I always envisioned when I saw the space,” Meenan said. “I’m really very proud of this iteration, and I’m looking forward to working together.”
In a report, the VCC staff said the project’s “conceptual design as submitted is respectful to the (site’s) existing buildings, space and history of commercial use.”
Before the proposal goes before the full commission, the committee requested that it be revised to show the restaurant’s total capacity and table arrangements.
Capacity was a point of contention with Meenan’s earlier plan.
As they have in the past, the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates organization and others argued that the proposed two-level eatery would be too big and not in keeping with the style and character of the French Quarter.
“(Size) has been one of our major concerns,” VCPORA Executive Director Meg Lousteau said. “According to our calculations, it looks like rather than scaling the project back, there’s actually more room for people.”
An initial review of the plans estimated that the restaurant in the revised proposal could hold 300 to 350 seated diners, VCC staffer Sarah Ripple said.
Lousteau said her organization also has concerns about rooftop seating atop the service station and the planned conversion of the site into one lot of record, something VCPORA generally opposes.
“The concerns that we had about the initial project have not necessarily been remedied,” Lousteau said.
But committee member Nicholas Musso said the plan was “significantly improved” from the earlier version.
“I find this one fairly accommodating for all the criticisms we had previously,” Musso said. “I find this one far more minimal and more approvable than the previous concept and the direction we were going.”
Meenan’s plan was first presented to the VCC and its Architectural Committee in mid-2012. When Meenan pulled the project last December, it had already 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 the appeal. He said he intended to try to rework the idea into something French Quarter residents and other opponents would find palatable.
He said Tuesday that he believes he has found a solution that will win over critics.
“I’m not worn down. I’m not bitter,” he said. “I’ve been in a million and one fights. You’ve just got to keep swinging.”
The site is in City Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey’s district.