Saying the project violates New Orleans’ newly adopted zoning law, the City Planning Commission on Tuesday voted to oppose a proposal to build a hotel and condominium tower on the edge of the French Quarter that would rise 200 feet above the existing height limit.
The final decision falls to the City Council.
The site, in the 100 block of Royal Street, is in Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey’s district. It is technically in the Central Business District but in a block often considered part of the French Quarter.
Similar projects at the same site have been proposed several times in the past 10 years.
The Planning Commission’s vote was 7-2, with Craig Mitchell and Royce Duplessis dissenting.
The proposal “is just not in keeping with the vision of what the community wants, and I feel like it’s very important for us to honor that,” Commissioner Alexandra Mora said. “The precedent it would set, I feel, would be unconscionable for us.”
Duplessis said the developer involved has been looking for a way to redevelop the property for a decade and is now being penalized by the city’s new comprehensive zoning ordinance, which went into effect this month.
He also argued that the proposed tower would not be out of keeping with the rest of the area.
“I don’t see it as being that much out of scale,” Duplessis said, citing the nearby Marriott and Wyndham hotels. “I don’t see it as being that obscene or out of character, nor do I see it as setting some terrible precedent.”
To move forward, the developer, Royal Cosmopolitan LLC, would need permission both to put a hotel on that particular property and to exceed a height limit of 70 feet in that section of the Central Business District.
The block is dominated by four-story to six-story buildings. The proposed structure is 268 feet, nearly four times the legal limit.
The proposed site for redevelopment, at 121-125 Royal between Canal and Iberville streets, is made up of two vacant buildings. A long-vacant five-story historic structure facing Royal once was home to the Cosmopolitan Hotel and later the Astor Hotel. The word Astor is still visible on the building’s façade. A three-story building occupies the rear portion of the lot.
The developer’s proposal calls for renovating the main building, demolishing the smaller structure and building a new 26-story tower in its place. The historic building and the new tower would be connected by an atrium.
The $28 million, 105,500-square-foot development would include as many as 162 units, including 15 to 20 condominiums. It would have no off-street parking or loading docks.
Several supporters of the project said it would clean up a section of Royal Street that has become a haven for prostitution and other illegal activity.
The project has the support of the French Quarter Business Association and the business-friendly group French Quarter Advocates. FQBA President Robert Watters said the increased pedestrian traffic the hotel would bring would help to improve safety in the block.
French Quarter Advocates President Bryan Drude said he witnessed a drug deal and was propositioned by a prostitute near the proposed site when he went with the developer to visit the area.
Reade Nossaman, an architect representing property owners Angelo and Regina Farrell, told the commission the proposed project would be the best use for the site, which also has housed a T-shirt shop.
Farrell said he intends to take a “preservationist’s approach” to restoring the existing building. But doing so, he said, is only feasible with the tower addition.
“The front building can’t stand by itself to make it financially feasible,” Farrell said.
He bought the building in 2005 and received approval from the Planning Commission to develop a 17-story, 173-foot-tall building at the site in August of that year — days before Hurricane Katrina scuttled the plan. Then the national recession stalled other attempts at redevelopment in 2008 and 2009.
The latest proposal calls for a building that would rise about 100 feet higher than those previously envisioned.
The idea is opposed by French Quarter residential groups, including Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates.
Carol Gniady, executive director of another group, French Quarter Citizens, said Farrell is partly to blame for the poor conditions on Royal Street that he and other supporters complain about. “For 10 years, this building and its state of decline has contributed to the decline of the 100 block of Royal Street,” she said.
Opponents said they aren’t opposed to a hotel at the site, just one that would violate zoning rules.
“How could we justify putting a building that not only exceeds the old CZO but the new CZO?” French Quarter resident Alvin Guillot asked.
Opponents challenged backers’ assertion that the building wouldn’t be visible from the street and also said it would be foolish to waive the height requirement just so a developer can make his project financially tenable.
The Planning Commission staff recommended rejecting the project, saying the proposed tower would be “excessive, out-of-scale and fundamentally incompatible with its surroundings.”
The staff report also said the requested waiver to the height limit did not meet the standards to qualify for an exemption, given that it would “adversely affect surrounding historic structures and the historic character of the area as a whole.”