In two years, developer Ted Kelso hopes to move into his new, 185-bed home — an upscale hostel, or “poshtel,” that he proposes to build on vacant land along the Mississippi River in Bywater.
The project — with an estimated price tag of nearly $18 million — would include both shared, hostel-style rooms with shared bathrooms and private rooms with private baths, as well as a 4,000-square-foot restaurant, a coffee shop, a laundromat, a bar, a pool and a parking lot.
The site, formerly a seafood processing plant, is bordered by Royal, Mazant, Chartres and Bartholomew streets.
Kelso, 30, plans to live at the property, a compromise he reached with neighbors after they expressed concerns that the hostel would draw loud, drunk partygoers to its pool and bar, torpedo nearby property values and create a headache for other residents and businesses. His concept might work in Miami or Las Vegas, they argued, but not in Bywater.
Kelso has made other adjustments to his proposal, including dividing a 16,000-square-foot courtyard into two areas and reducing its size by 43 percent. He’s also hired acoustician David Woolworth, formerly the City Council’s sound expert during a contentious debate over regulating sound levels at bars and nightclubs, to help develop noise-mitigation strategies for the site.
The project has support from the Bywater Neighborhood Association, a group that’s generally in favor of development and that believes the hostel would help to ease demand for short-term rentals in Bywater, eliminate blight and offer new amenities to residents.
The project needs a conditional-use permit from the city because it would exceed 10,000 square feet. The City Planning Commission is slated to vote on the permit Tuesday; the final decision rests with the City Council.
Although the planning staff said the project could “create certain nuisances that could affect the surrounding residential properties,” it recommended approving the needed permit with 14 stipulations, including a prohibition on amplified noise from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m.
The staff’s report noted that a hostel is a permitted use in that area and could open up new lodging options in a historic neighborhood.
However, the project has drawn sharp opposition from many nearby residents, who submitted dozens of letters to the city opposing it.
“Even if they do stop the amplified music at 10 p.m. — which is a reasonable hour — there’s going to be splashing and yelling. Drunks make noise. They just do,” said Julie Jones, president of Neighbors First for Bywater, which opposes the project.
The so-called “poshtel” idea — which has sprung up in major cities like Chicago and Miami — merges the potential thriftiness and social aspects of a hostel with the modern amenities of a boutique hotel.
That best-of-both-worlds approach could draw travelers who “either can’t afford or do not want to afford a typical lifestyle or boutique hotel but want a lot of the same kind of experience,” said Aaron Chaffee, vice president of hostel development for Hostelling International USA, a nonprofit that operates more than 50 hostels in 20 states and is considering building one in New Orleans.
Kelso said he expects the project will attract international tourists and travelers from major metropolitan areas. In a presentation outlining his vision, he discussed heady goals like “fostering community and belonging” and building a boutique property rather than a generic crash pad.
He said rates would average $40 to $140 per night, depending on room size and the season. Most of the project’s revenue will come from lodging rather than food and drink proceeds, he said, estimating a 70-30 split.
A New Orleans native, Kelso moved back to the city last year after finishing graduate school, where he came up with the idea. He searched for a place to build before reaching a deal with the site’s owner, lawyer John Cummings.
Kelso called Bywater “a true representation” of the city that’s “full of grit and fun” and appeals to travelers looking for a more authentic New Orleans experience.
Some travel experts agree. “If you think about the kind of people that travel to New Orleans, that would definitely be an attractive location for a hostel,” said David Pearlman, an associate professor of hotel, restaurant and tourism administration at the University of New Orleans.
Down the line, Kelso hopes to open additional high-end hostels in similarly sized cities.
One thing he’s expecting to set his concept apart: a smartphone app he’s developing to let guests interact with one another and make recommendations about nearby attractions — an arrangement designed to encourage travelers to explore the area and ease hesitations about boarding with strangers.
Despite the adjustments he’s made to his proposal, many neighbors — including Jones — are skeptical that the project offers them much benefit, despite features such as the laundromat.
But give him time, Kelso says, contending that neighbors will come around to his project in a few years if it gets built.
“Our concept is a sense of belonging, and we can’t get that unless we have community and neighborhood support,” he said. “I think we’re taking the right steps. Ultimately, we can’t please everybody, but we’re working very closely to make sure that our direct neighbors feel heard.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.