The controversial proposal to open a Cuban restaurant at Esplanade Avenue and North Rampart Street took a big step toward final approval Thursday, with the New Orleans City Council removing one of the last hurdles.
The council voted 4-2 to allow the project to go forward, ratifying an earlier approval by the Vieux Carre Commission, despite opposition from neighborhood groups and French Quarter activists who have fought the project for nearly three years.
The fight over Cafe Habana pits neighbors who worry the restaurant would attract raucous crowds to a relatively quiet corner of the French Quarter against those who want to see a long-blighted property revitalized.
“You’d think most people would be happy to see this vital property put back into commerce,” said Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, whose district includes the site of the proposed restaurant.
As part of a compromise, the plan for Cafe Habana no longer includes dining space on the building’s second floor; the restaurant now is expected to seat about 183 diners.
But it was not enough for some of the project’s critics.
Councilwoman Stacy Head voted in favor of reversing the VCC’s decision. She said the project wouldn’t be in keeping with the historic neighborhood, taking issue with plans for outdoor seating and pointing to photos of Cafe Habana locations in New York, Malibu and Dubai with furniture that she described as looking secondhand.
She was joined in seeking to overrule the VCC by Councilwoman Susan Guidry. Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell was absent.
But Lary Hesdorffer, the VCC’s executive director, said neither the potential crowds nor the furnishings fall under his agency’s purview. “That’s a quality-of-life issue; that’s an issue of policing. It’s not an issue for the VCC,” he said.
Cafe Habana’s owner, Sean Meenan, told the council that he did not foresee any problems with rowdy patrons. He even suggested that the location’s relative calm would serve to prevent things from getting out of hand in the first place.
“I don’t even understand how 400 people are going to want to come to the corner of Esplanade and Rampart if there’s no gambling, no dancing girls, no live music,” he said.
Ultimately, the council may have to weigh in on the issue one more time if opponents appeal the City Planning Commission’s decision to allow Meenan to consolidate two lots into one. But Thursday’s vote signals that challenge would be unlikely to succeed.
The last resort for groups opposed to the project would be a lawsuit.
Proponents of Cafe Habana said the project would actually improve the neighborhood. Several noted that Meenan lives nearby and, thus, would have a personal incentive not to let the area deteriorate.
They also argued that the current state of the property creates a public safety issue.
“I’ve got to decide what this entire community wants, and what we don’t want is a place where someone can rob someone on St. Philip (Street) and then run and hide in this blighted building,” Councilman Jason Williams said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.