The New Orleans City Council this week approved plans for a new family restaurant slated to take the place of a shuttered Bourbon Street strip club that was once accused of being a haven for prostitution and drug dealing.
The overarching idea drew few objections, but the process for granting the approval rankled historic preservationists, who accused the council and the building’s owner of sidestepping normal procedures.
Ordinarily, the Vieux Carre Commission would OK the plans first, then the council would make a decision. In this case, the owner went straight to the council after the VCC deferred a vote on the proposal.
“Allowing an applicant to say, ‘I don’t like what I’m hearing, I’m not going to wait until the end of the process, I’m just going to go straight to the City Council,’....is not a good policy,” said Meg Lousteau, executive director of the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents & Associates.
That objection was enough to sway Susan Guidry, the lone council member to vote against the project.
Five French Quarter strip clubs have had their liquor licenses suspended after a state inves…
But her colleagues took a different view of the relevant city and state laws, arguing that a building's owner is entitled to appeal any decision of the VCC to the council, even a decision to defer.
“I ordinarily would not like to see the appeal of a deferral, but for this project and the particular circumstances of it, it warrants it,” said Nadine Ramsey, who represents the French Quarter.
The building in question, at 411 Bourbon Street, used to house Centerfolds, one of several local clubs owned by members or affiliates of the Olano family. It had its liquor license pulled in October 2015 after undercover state police said they found prostitution, lewd behavior and drug use on the premises.
The club also found itself in an unwanted spotlight after one of its dancers, 19-year-old Jasilas “Chyna” Wright, was found dead on Interstate 10 in Metairie. Police said she was killed by a man acting as her pimp.
Shortly after its liquor license was yanked, the club ceased operations. The building's relatively new owner, Cajun 411 LLC, refused to renew its lease at the end of that year.
The City Planning Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to send a softened version of a plan …
Cajun 411, run by restaurateur Wassek Badr, asked the VCC in October to approve a proposal for adding a third story and a rooftop terrace that would be incorporated into the new restaurant. The agency had already signed off on his plans for the first and second stories.
But VCC Director Bryan Block argued that Badr was trying to hurry along his project’s final phase without doing everything that VCC asked. Though Badr was supposed to submit more detailed mockups of his third-story plans and examples of similar work on other buildings, he sent in inadequate information at the last minute.
His plans for the rooftop also go against VCC guidelines, Block said.
And Lousteau, French Quarter resident Betty Norris and others said letting an applicant go straight to the council before the VCC weighs in sets a dangerous precedent. Guidry agreed, calling it akin to a “trial court granting a continuance in a case, then you appealing that continuance to an appeal court and asking them to decide the case.”
Badr’s attorney, Daniel Davillier, and others on the council were unmoved.
“The deferral has significant implications for the project,” Davillier said, adding that work on the restaurant’s first and second floors can’t get started until the entire building is approved.
Ramsey again asked the council’s attorney to read aloud a law that lets the council hear an appeal of any VCC decision, including a failure to act. Although she said she appreciated the arguments from Guidry and others, the case was unique.
“I remind everyone that this project is taking a notorious strip club off the market...and putting in a family restaurant to be operated by the Badr family, which has a proven record of being good corporate citizens," she said.
The council's vote on the former Centerfolds club comes fewer than two months before its ban on other new strip clubs in that stretch of Bourbon Street, pending further review, is due to expire.
Sometime before then, the council is expected to consider new restrictions on such clubs.