The City Planning Commission signed off Tuesday on a request to rezone The Times-Picayune's former Howard Avenue headquarters, a move that went against its staff's recommendation but could help pave the way for the nine-acre site to be redeveloped to include retail and other uses and breathe more life into an long-isolated industrial corridor.
The building at 3800 Howard Ave., next to the Pontchartrain Expressway, was sold in September to a group of local businessmen including developer Joseph Jaeger Jr.; Mardi Gras float builder Barry Kern; developer Arnold Kirschman, whose family operated furniture stores in the city for nearly a century; and businessman Michael White.
Their group, 3800 Howard Investors LLC, has not outlined specific plans for the property but sought a mixed-use zoning designation that would allow the site to be redeveloped in various ways. The land is now zoned as a business-industrial park district.
The building opened in 1968 but has been mostly vacant since 2013, when the newspaper moved most of its staff to One Canal Place. The last staffers still working there moved out last year.
In a report, the City Planning Commission's staff recommended denying the request, contending that the proposed mixed-use zoning is "intended for walkable neighborhood centers," whereas the Howard Avenue site "is physically isolated and not easily accessible for pedestrians or vehicles."
The commission last month voted to defer taking any action until Tuesday's meeting.
Mike Sherman, a lawyer representing the property's owners, told the commission Tuesday that having the zoning change in hand would be "the single best way to get the site back into commerce."
Sherman, who said the group is in negotiations with a specific but unnamed tenant, described the project as potentially becoming "a catalyst for this whole corridor, which is in a sea of underutilized property."
Peter Aamodt, senior development manager for Jaeger's firm, MCC Real Estate, said the property's owners fielded "dozens of calls from interested parties" about developing the site but had not drawn any interest under its current industrial zoning.
Residential units are not part of their present plans, he said.
The commission voted 6-1 to approve the zoning change. The lone dissenter, Walter Isaacson, did not explain his vote.
The City Council will have the final decision on the change.
On another matter Tuesday, the Planning Commission deferred a request by the Regional Transit Authority to demolish the aging ferry terminal at the foot of Canal Street after a series of Algiers residents and community leaders spoke out against the design of the proposed replacement.
"The applicant intends to redevelop the site with a new pedestrian-only ferry terminal that is part of a new vision for the riverfront," the commission's staff wrote in a report recommending approval of the demolition request. "The redevelopment of the ferry terminal will be done in conjunction with other improvements to the surrounding area in advance of the city’s tricentennial" in 2018.
The proposed new terminal would feature two high-speed, catamaran-style ferry boats, designed for transporting more than 140 passengers each.
But critics have expressed concern that the proposed design doesn't include a covered walkway to get to and from the ferry or a pedestrian bridge over the riverfront railroad tracks, where slow-moving New Orleans Public Belt Railroad trains often block access to the river for long periods.
Some speakers also said the community wasn't provided advance notice of Tuesday's meeting.
"I'm very disappointed in this lack of process," former City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer said. "This is how we used to do things before (Hurricane) Katrina. This is not how we do things now."
Mark Major, chief investment officer for Transdev, the private transportation company that manages the RTA's operations, said plans for the terminal are about halfway complete and that designers would continue to re-evaluate their ideas based on what they heard Tuesday and at an earlier meeting.
Action on the request was deferred to the commission's Feb. 21 meeting.