Neighbors file lawsuit to block Cafe Habana project _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Sean Meenan, who owns and operates Cafe Habana and Habana Outpost restaurants in New York, California and Dubai, has proposed putting one at a long abandoned gas station at the corner of North Rampart and Esplanade Tuesday, September 3, 2013. This is the corner in 1939.

Four French Quarter residents have filed suit against the City Council and City Planning Commission to try to block construction of a Cuban restaurant at Esplanade Avenue and North Rampart Street.

The Civil District Court lawsuit — filed by Charles Garber Jr., Rodney Villarreal, Rene Fransen and Edward Bonin — says the commission and the council “violated the (state) constitutional mandate to prevent detrimental effects to the Vieux Carre’s quaint and distinctive character and to preserve the Vieux Carre as a historic, living neighborhood, and protect its status as a national treasure.”

The lawsuit asks that the decisions authorizing the restaurant, Cafe Habana, be declared null and that any official actions allowing construction to begin be reversed.

The lawsuit is the latest move in a long-running feud between French Quarter residents and restaurateur Sean Meenan, who has been trying for three years to get permission to convert a long-vacant, 90-year-old service station and a 115-year-old adjacent building that once housed a pharmacy into a restaurant.

Opponents have argued that the restaurant, which is projected to seat 183 people, would be too large for the neighborhood and would disrupt the character of a mostly residential section of the French Quarter.

Meenan first introduced the restaurant plan in 2012.

After years of setbacks, he has been on a winning streak recently.

In February, the City Planning Commission approved his request to consolidate the separate lots containing the old building and the service station. The City Council then ratified an earlier vote by the Vieux Carre Commission to allow the lots to be resubdivided and, in so doing, denied an appeal from residents.

Both bodies acted “arbitrarily and capriciously,” the lawsuit contends.

The petitioners, who live on Esplanade Avenue near the proposed restaurant, say it will damage their quality of life and the historic character of the French Quarter.