Mayor, Torres reach cease-fire in dispute over French Quarter crime _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Sidney Torres arrives at City Hall for a meeting Friday, January 16, 2015.

The king of French Quarter trash collection is in trouble with the board charged with historic preservation in the district after making major alterations to a pair of 19th-century buildings near Esplanade Avenue without permission.

The Vieux Carre Commission's inspectors found major violations to the historic structures owned by Sidney Torres IV. But even after they ordered a halt to the project, which includes the addition of skylights, windows, doors and exterior walls, crews were soon back at work on the illegal alterations, the staff said.

The VCC heard about the unpermitted work Wednesday, but it opted to give a new architect working on the project time to begin restoring the properties before taking any action against Torres.

"We've already started to resolve them," said Loretta Katherine Harmon, who said she was brought onto the project Monday. "I started making drawings to put things back the way they were before the work was started."

The work was being conducted on 730 Esplanade Ave., a two-story brick building set well back behind a wall in a 7,800-square-foot lot, and its stable building, technically a separate property at 729 and 733 Barracks St.

In an emailed statement, Torres said the issue was a misunderstanding.

"This project has been going on for three years and we have been through the permitting process multiple times and been before the Vieux Carre Commission as well," Torres said. "People make mistakes, and the contractor made a mistake here. But it’s important to understand that this was an innocent mistake and the insinuations to the contrary are out of line."

Changes to the exterior of a building in the French Quarter as minor as a new coat of paint are supposed to be vetted in advance by the VCC, which is charged with protecting the neighborhood's historic character.

VCC staff said a number of the renovations on the property were not permitted.

All told, the planned renovations included the installation of 13 skylights, new stucco, the addition or removal of several windows and the addition of new walls and exterior doors.

Torres specifically noted that his contractor thought the skylights - which were drew the most attention during the hearing - had already been permitted and noted that new VCC rules allow them on certain roofs. 

The buildings are rated as "blue" by the commission, which signifies that they are of major architectural or historic importance. That's the second-highest rating on the VCC's scale, exceeded only by "purple rated" structures of national importance such as St. Louis Cathedral.

Any changes to buildings in either of those categories are supposed to be reviewed under the strictest review process used by the commission.

"There is an important precedent to set not only because of the importance of the building but because we have an owner here who's going to be renovating multiple properties, and I want to give him an understanding of the procedure," VCC Chairman Nick Musso said.

Torres is frequently associated with the French Quarter, primarily because his trash hauling company won the contract to keep the neighborhood clean in the years after Hurricane Katrina. He sold that company a few years ago, but he recently gained renewed attention for initially footing the bill for a patrol of off-duty police officers in the Quarter who could be summoned by an app as a way of responding to crime in the area.

Torres argued there could be no attempt at subterfuge, since the VCC has to conduct an on-site inspection before signing off on an occupancy permit, which would have made the changes to the property obvious.

But Musso during the meeting said Sidney should come down in person to explain the issue.

"There's a little hostility here, and I think people need to vent that hostility in certain ways, and I would encourage your client to attend the next commission meeting," Musso told Harmon. "I can't think of what would (cause us to) forgive it, but I like good stories."

In cases where work is found to have been done illegally, the commission typically requires that all the renovations be reversed, even those that would have been permitted if they went through the proper channels, Musso said.

Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates Executive Director Meg Lousteau urged the commission to take a hard line.

"The skylights punched 10 holes into the roof of a blue-rated structure without permission," Lousteau said. "You need to send a message to him and every other applicant that it doesn't matter who you are, the rules are the rules."

Torres got into trouble with the commission at least once before, in 2002, when paint was applied without permission on brick buildings at 1000-02 Royal St. owned by Torres and his father, Sidney Torres III. They said the painting was done by a contractor who didn't follow instructions.

Editor's note: This story was updated on Aug. 3 to include comments from Torres.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​