After developers agreed at the last minute to reduce the height of a proposed Warehouse District hotel to more nearly comply with the city’s zoning law, the New Orleans City Council voted 4-2 Thursday to give conditional approval to the controversial development.
Some nearby residents had urged the council to reject the proposal because it would have exceeded the maximum height allowed under both current and proposed new zoning rules for the site and also because they said it would put additional parking and traffic pressure on an already stressed area of town.
The proposed development, at 632 Tchoupitoulas St., is in Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell’s district. Cantrell was able to get the developers to agree, before the matter was considered at Thursday’s meeting, to reduce the building’s height from 75 feet to 65 feet, thereby nullifying the original need for a height waiver.
Cantrell said she will hold off introducing an ordinance to give Thursday’s vote the force of law until the design wins approval from the Architectural Review Committee of the Central Business District Historic District Landmarks Commission.
Fillmore Hospitality initially requested a waiver to the height restriction for 10 lots in the 600 block of Tchoupitoulas Street, also bounded by Lafayette, Commerce and Girod streets. An interim zoning district restricts buildings in that block to five stories and 65 feet.
The company wanted to build a $35 million, 178-room Cambria Suites hotel, made up of two buildings that would stand six stories and 65 feet on the side fronting Tchoupitoulas and 75 feet at an entrance facing Commerce Street.
The site, owned by hotelier Warren Reuther, is now a surface parking lot.
Fillmore, which owns and operates the Maison Dupuy Hotel on Toulouse Street and the New Orleans Marriott Metairie at Lakeway on Causeway Boulevard, is under contract to buy the property from Reuther, who would not own or operate the hotel.
The project was strongly opposed by many neighboring residents and businesses, who formed the group Residents for Responsible Development to fight it.
Before Thursday’s meeting and the announcement that the building height had been reduced, the opponents said allowing the project to move forward would send a message that the council was not serious about honoring the master plan or a nearly 2-year-old ordinance establishing the Lafayette Square/Warehouse District Refined Height Plan Interim Zoning District.
The result of a height study commissioned by the Downtown Development District, the interim zoning district establishes height limitations for various parts of the Warehouse District and Lafayette Square neighborhood. It has served as a placeholder to guide development in those areas until revisions to the city’s comprehensive zoning ordinance, which would give legal force to the land-use guidelines set forth in the city’s master plan, are adopted.
Residents reiterated that concern Thursday, saying Fillmore’s request would still flout zoning rules. The measure approved by the council would allow the hotel to have more stories than allowed under the interim zoning district.
“This is not about whether we want to support a hotel or not,” Warehouse District resident C.J. Bui said. “This vote is about choosing whether we choose to hold up our codes and plans as a standard to guide development or are we simply going to use them as a baseline or a starting point for negotiations with developers.”
If the council sees the rules set out in the interim zoning plan as too restrictive, Bui said, it should move to change the law, not to grant waivers to individual developers.
Ammon Miller, meanwhile, cheered the building’s lowered height but still urged the council to reject the project because of the amount of traffic it would put on narrow Commerce Street, where he has lived for 17 years. The hotel would include an automobile drop-off on Commerce, and service and delivery trucks also would use an entrance on Commerce.
“To do that will destroy the integrity of the whole Warehouse District and will defeat the purpose of why the people who live there now decided to live there,” Miller said.
Ultimately, the council’s decision hinged on the question of just how much weight the city’s master plan for development should carry when the council considers construction projects.
Council President Stacy Head and Councilwoman Susan Guidry said the plan carries the force of law. Head commended Cantrell for working with the developer to reduce the building’s height, but she said she could not vote for the plan because it violates the directives of the master plan, which guards against making decisions based on the wishes of individual developers.
“The master plan is not a guide. It’s the law,” Head said. “It’s not something from which we can deviate without a formal process.”
The city charter says “no public project or facility ... shall be authorized or significantly altered except in conformity with the adopted Master Plan.”
But Councilman James Gray said the master plan is a general proposition outlining the goals and guidelines of the city, not a rigid document with rules that can’t be bent or broken. Gray said the council should use the master plan as a guide but remain free to evaluate projects individually and award exceptions when necessary. Gray said it was difficult for him to ignore the jobs and real estate taxes the development would bring.
“The truth of the matter is when I looked at all the potential benefits ... this is something that’s hard to turn down,” Gray said.
Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey said she agreed with Gray.
Gray, Ramsey, Cantrell and Councilman Jared Brossett all voted to approve the project. Head and Guidry voted no. Councilman Jason Williams was absent.