New Orleans City Councilwoman Susan Guidry’s proposal to add new restrictions for restaurants on a commercial stretch of Maple Street initially won approval from staff members at the City Planning Commission assigned to review the request, records show.
But that recommendation was flipped in a second draft of their report at the request of the commission’s executive director, Robert Rivers, who signs off on all staff reports.
Guidry’s request — which has yet to come up for a council vote — would create an overlay district along Maple Street from Lowerline Street to South Carrollton Avenue, barring alcohol sales and live entertainment at restaurants where those were not already allowed by a conditional-use permit.
The city’s new comprehensive zoning ordinance, which went into effect last week, allows both activities by right.
Guidry has said the restrictions are necessary to keep order in an area of Maple Street that was overrun with underage drinking and loud parties when she took office in 2010 and that could see a resurgence of unruly behavior.
But the Planning Commission voted 6-0 to recommend the council deny the request for a special overlay district, taking their cue from a staff report that ultimately concluded the change would undermine the new CZO, which was supposed to make zoning more consistent and predictable throughout the city.
However, the initial draft of the report, prepared by planner Kelly Butler, recommended approval of the overlay, noting that it would allow the city to address the “concerns raised by the City Council and the area residents regarding alcohol beverage sales and live performances” in restaurants. It added that requiring conditional-use permits for those activities “would provide an opportunity to review and apply mitigation measures.”
“Given the history of this area, the staff believes the text amendment would provide an opportunity for resident input and an effective way for review and the opportunity to mitigate any potential adverse impacts,” the first draft of the report said.
Rivers marked an “X” through that section of the initial draft.
In a handwritten note in the margin, he said there was “no clear reason” Maple Street should receive special zoning treatment and that there was no difference between restaurants that serve alcohol and those that don’t.
He also wrote that the new CZO eliminated the conditional-use process for letting restaurants sell alcohol because “allowing it by right with use standards was deemed to be sufficient.”
He said Maple Street would need special provisions only if it were established “that current conditions are either out of control or that the area is over-saturated with restaurants, etc.”
Asked about the changes, Rivers said it is “fairly common” for aspects of a draft staff report, including the recommendation, to change after he reviews it. He said the initial staff report is only a “working document.”
Rivers said he reviews the reports to make sure they are thorough, balanced, consistent with prior Planning Commission positions and, if a change is being recommended, that the reason for that change is clearly articulated.
“The earliest draft did not do any of those things,” he said.
“It basically recommended approval based upon a number of comments that we got from the (neighborhood) group” — Maple Area Residents Inc. — “without really assessing the actual circumstances on the ground,” Rivers said. “I had a conversation with the planner and with the supervisor and made some suggestions, and based upon that and all of us collectively taking another look at the issues that were there, we changed the recommendation.”
The issue has divided Maple Street-area residents and businesses. The neighborhood’s business association and some residents are opposed to extra restrictions, while the main residential group, Maple Area Residents Inc., supports Guidry’s position.
The final staff report recommending denial said the “staff does not believe that there are special circumstances along Maple Street that justify the imposition of a special set of regulations.”
Guidry said she agrees with the original staff report and believes there is an ongoing threat on Maple Street because Tulane and Loyola universities are so close by and there are so many bars and restaurants in a few blocks.
“I think by focusing on the fact that the area is not out of control now, you’re really missing (the potential problem). And that’s the existence of those two universities and that small street,” Guidry said. “I’m pleased to see that the City Planning Commission staff that studied this had that opinion.”
The overlay proposal could go before the City Council for a vote Thursday. Guidry said she has not decided whether to proceed with the request.