A controversial plan to replace a long-blighted service station at the edge of the French Quarter with a restaurant can proceed to the design phase of development, the Vieux Carre Commission ruled Wednesday in granting conceptual approval to the plans for Café Habana.
The project will move forward despite opposition from several French Quarter residents. Most said the project is out of scale for the neighborhood. Others requested that a decision be deferred because they said the proposal was lacking in detail, particularly with regard to the restaurant’s capacity.
The commission voted 5-2 to accept its Architectural Committee’s recommendation of conceptual approval.
“I think I can smell a rotten project as well as anyone,” Commissioner Pio Lyons said. “And I do not see that here.”
Commissioners Michael Skinner and C.J. Blanda voted against the proposal. Neither gave a reason why.
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. The City Planning Commission and City Council also will have to approve aspects of the proposal at some point.
This is the second attempt by Sean Meenan to get his plan for a restaurant serving Cuban and Mexican fare at Esplanade Avenue and North Rampart Street through the approval process.
Meenan dropped his original bid nine months ago after he had spent more than a year trying to get it approved. He withdrew that proposal in the face of unrelenting opposition from some neighbors, who said it matched neither the scale nor the character of the historic neighborhood.
Opponents were again plentiful at Wednesday’s commission meeting. Only three of the more than 15 speakers were in favor of the project.
Those in opposition complained largely about the restaurant’s intended capacity and function. Several expressed concern that it would attract hundreds of diners at a time and overwhelm the nearby residential blocks.
Meg Lousteau, executive director of Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates, said that joining two lots and two buildings, as Meenan proposes, is out of character for the neighborhood, as is the proposed use of a second-floor rooftop for outdoor seating.
But Bryan Drude, who represents an upstart group called French Quarter Advocates, said 75 percent of its members are in favor of the project. They believe replacing the abandoned and blighted gas station with a commercial use would only improve the neighborhood, he said.
Like his original proposal, Meenan’s new plan calls for 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. But the reconfigured project is a somewhat pared-down version of the earlier 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.
The original proposal called for the site to become a Habana Outpost, like an establishment Meenan owns in Brooklyn. The new version calls for the restaurant to be called Café Habana, which Meenan said would be slightly more upscale.
Meenan said he is still finalizing the amount of square footage that will be available to the public, a figure that will determine the restaurant’s capacity. That detail and others will be revealed as the project winds its way through the commission’s review process.
Commission Chairman Nicholas Musso said the matter will be discussed in at least three additional public hearings.
It is not clear whether opponents will appeal the commission’s decision to the City Council.
The site is in Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey’s district.