A proposal to turn two vacant buildings at the edge of the French Quarter into a Cuban restaurant received the blessing of the City Planning Commission on Tuesday despite sharp and persistent objections from some Quarter residents, who said the restaurant would be too large for the neighborhood — the same argument they have made for more than two years.
Opponents can appeal the commission’s decision to the City Council. The site is in the district of Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, who is expected to endorse the project.
The commission voted 7-1 to allow consolidation of two lots at the corner of Esplanade Avenue and North Rampart Street. Merging the lots, the site of a long-vacant, 90-year-old service station and a 115-year-old adjacent building that once housed a pharmacy, will pave the way for a Cafe Habana restaurant at the site.
The project has been controversial since property owner and restaurateur Sean Meenan introduced it more than two years ago. Meenan plans a moderately priced restaurant serving lunch and dinner. Plans submitted to the Vieux Carre Commission call for a projected total occupancy of 183 people inside the restaurant, as well as beneath and on top of the old service station’s canopy.
Meenan also owns restaurants in New York; Malibu, California; and Dubai under the names Cafe Habana and Habana Outpost.
The Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates organization, the Louisiana Landmarks Society, the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association and French Quarter Citizens Inc. all urged the commission Tuesday to deny Meenan’s request for a resubdivision.
They said the restaurant would be too large for the neighborhood and would disrupt the “quaint and distinctive character” of the French Quarter. They made similar arguments countless times to the Vieux Carre Commission, which approved the project with a 4-2 vote last month.
“This is not a restaurant. This is an event venue,” said Sonny Shields, an attorney for the opponents. “We ask that you make a statement, take a stand, be strong. This is a neighborhood. It’s the last remaining neighborhood in the French Quarter. Please preserve it.”
French Quarter resident John Reed said the restaurant would have “enormous impact” on the neighborhood because it would become a destination for people who live elsewhere. He said that section of the Quarter should remain a neighborhood of small businesses, existing to support the residents who live there.
Meenan said the residents and groups opposed to his plan were “fearmongering” in their claims about potential crowds and trash.
“At the end of the day, the facts are that I want to open up a standard restaurant,” he said. “I didn’t move down to New Orleans to be the scourge of New Orleans. ... I’m certainly not going to ruin New Orleans by selling tacos on that corner.”
Supporters praised the proposal as a way to curb crime and revitalize an abandoned corner.
“I look forward to seeing that corner reinvigorated instead of being the abandoned corner that it is now,” French Quarter resident Kay Baker said, noting that the restaurant would be on a commercial corridor, Rampart Street, where other restaurants already exist and where a streetcar line is under construction. “I think having this property put back into commerce instead of it being a vacant building that attracts crime and vagrants will be welcome.”
The proposal received a recommendation of approval from the Planning Commission staff.
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.