The New Orleans City Planning Commission voted Tuesday to oppose a request to amend the city’s new comprehensive zoning ordinance to create an overlay district along Maple Street to prohibit the sale of alcohol and live entertainment at restaurants where those are not already allowed by a conditional-use permit.
The City Council will have final say on the matter, and there is a good chance it will overrule the commission. The site is in Councilwoman Susan Guidry’s district. She is in favor of the overlay district and requested that the Planning Commission consider it.
Commission members said the overlay, which would require that new restaurants get a conditional-use permit from the City Council to serve alcohol and have live entertainment, would undermine the purpose of the CZO, which is intended to make zoning consistent, uniform and predictable.
The CZO is intended to “get the council offices out of the business of being the gatekeepers for what business gets to open,” Commissioner Nolan Marshall said. “You want business owners to know what’s allowable, what can open there.”
The Planning Commission’s vote was 6-0, with Commissioners Kelly Brown, Royce Duplessis and Jason Hughes absent.
A representative from Guidry’s office told the commission that the overlay was necessary to guard against the underage drinking, loud parties and other unruly behavior that was occurring on Maple Street when Guidry took office in 2010.
Guidry said last week that her office was inundated with calls from residents five years ago complaining about late-night parties attended mostly by college students. She has spent the past five years working to clean up the area and make sure that it stays in order, Guidry aide Enrico Sterling told the commission.
“A lot of these problems have been alleviated,” Sterling said. “There’s great concern that if this overlay is not put in place that this type of behavior could return to Maple Street.”
Guidry added an amendment to the new CZO before it was passed in May that creates a similar overlay district on Magazine Street. The amendment was not considered by the City Planning Commission.
Planning commissioners said Tuesday that Guidry’s concerns about Maple Street, shared by some nearby residents, really relate to enforcement, not zoning.
The city’s longtime zoning law made the sale of alcohol at most standard restaurants a conditional use, requiring City Council approval. It also prohibited live entertainment at such establishments. But the new zoning ordinance, which goes into effect Aug. 12, allows both uses by right, though live entertainment is subject to additional approvals. The live entertainment must be a secondary use.
The proposed overlay district would run from Lowerline Street to South Carrollton Avenue and would make the restaurants themselves, as well as alcohol sales and live entertainment at them, conditional uses.
In recommending denial, the City Planning Commission staff said the overlay district would challenge the basic purpose of the new zoning law, which it said aims to eliminate the “excessively burdensome” conditional-use process and establish citywide policies governing zoning.
“The staff does not believe that there are special circumstances along Maple Street that justify the imposition of a special set of regulations,” the staff said. It said Maple Street is no different from nearby Oak and Freret streets, whose commercial districts are not covered by special overlay districts.
Planning Commission Executive Director Robert Rivers said the regulations regarding alcohol sales and live entertainment at standard restaurants in the new CZO don’t loosen the standards for restaurants. Instead, he said, the new rules codify the conditional-use process and include many of the provisos that had become common conditions for issuance of a conditional-use permit.
Supporters of the overlay district said that without the overlay district, some Maple Street restaurants could morph into bars, again making the street overly rowdy.
Unlike Oak and Freret streets, Maple Street was built as a residential corridor, not a commercial one, and therefore deserves special treatment to protect people who still live on and near the street, said Dorothea Martin, who lives one block away on Hampson Street.
“After 20 years of dealing with the trash, noise, public defecation and property damage ... the Maple area is finally becoming a neighborhood,” Martin said.
But Sherif Sakla, president of the Maple Area Business Association, urged the commission to deny the request so as to prevent council members from being able to use their own discretion to decide what businesses can open where.
“Under conditional use, similarly situated individuals can get two different outcomes,” Sakla said. “And that is a violation of equal protection.”
The council voted 3-2 last week to impose an interim zoning district on Maple that would have accomplished the same goals as the overlay district. That was one less than the four votes needed for passage, but at least one of the members voting against the IZD said he would likely support the overlay when it came before the council, probably in August.