Two new downtown hotels — including the first new hotel to be built in the French Quarter in nearly half a century — got the go-ahead from the New Orleans City Council on Thursday.
The unrelated projects have both been controversial, drawing fire from nearby residents and neighborhood groups in the Quarter and the Warehouse District.
And while opposition to the project on Tchoupitoulas Street seems to have ebbed with an agreement to reduce its height, groups representing Quarter residents remained concerned that a new hotel at 111 Iberville St. could trigger a wave of similar projects elsewhere in the neighborhood.
The plan in the French Quarter is to convert a blighted building across the street from the Westin Hotel into an 80-room boutique hotel. The building was erected in 1885 as the office for the Louisiana Sugar Refining Co.
It’s the second time developers Wayne and David Ducote have tried to win approval for such a project, having made a previous attempt in 2004. This time, the council approved their plans 7-0, with members saying they were glad to see that a blighted property would get fixed up.
Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell compared the rundown building to an unkempt armpit. “We need to shave this armpit and bring it back smelling good and looking good,” she said.
It would be the first officially authorized new or expanded hotel in the Quarter since the city put a moratorium on them in 1969 to keep developers from crowding out residents or harming historic buildings with tourism-focused projects.
The Ducotes’ previous attempt was championed by then-Councilman Jay Batt and received the council’s approval before drawing a rare veto from then-Mayor Ray Nagin. The idea was put on the shelf after Hurricane Katrina struck shortly thereafter.
Representatives of French Quarter groups reiterated their opposition to the project at Thursday’s council meeting, arguing it would open the door to other hotel projects in the historic district.
Meg Lousteau, executive director of the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates, said that while her group supported redevelopment of the site, it worries that approving a hotel sets a bad precedent. She asked council members to strip language out of the city code that might give future developers “wiggle room” to get past the moratorium.
Councilwoman Susan Guidry tried to calm those fears. She argued that the council’s approval could apply only to the Ducotes’ project.
“This is the only building in that zoning district that qualifies,” Guidry said, referring to the VCS-1 Vieux Carre Service District. “New hotels are and will remain prohibited in all other zoning districts in the French Quarter.”
While the Warehouse District hotel project generated less public debate, it also saw a more divided council.
The project, proposed by a company called Fillmore Hospitality, originally called for turning what is now a surface parking lot at 632 Tchoupitoulas into a 75-foot-high Cambria Suites hotel, 10 feet taller than the interim zoning district that covers the area allows. That generated significant neighborhood opposition, which prompted the developers to scale the project back to 65 feet.
Cantrell, whose district includes the site where the hotel will be built, said the $35 million development would help fill in a series of once-empty lots. And she noted that with the height change, no residents showed up to protest the project.
The council approved the project by a 4-2 vote, with President Stacy Head and Guidry voting “no.”
Head said the project still does not comply with the city’s master plan, and she argued that the council should not be allowing specific projects to skirt the rules.
“I don’t like changing the rules for a particular development,” she said.
Thursday’s vote reaffirms a 4-2 council vote last year giving the project conditional approval. The vote allows the developers to have six floors rather than five in the building.
Editor’s note: This story was altered on Feb. 10, 2015 to correct the vote on the hotel project at 632 Tchoupitoulas. The initial version of the article stated that Councilman Jason Williams was absent during the vote but he voted in favor of the project.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.