City Planning Commission rejects 14-story Virgin Hotel over height concerns

Posted on: July 14 2015

By Katherine Sayre, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

proposed Virgin Hotel on Baronne Street was rejected by the City Planning Commission on Tuesday amid concerns over the 14-story building's height, although a few commissioners seemed conflicted by the decision. 

A team led by Gatehouse Capital, a Dallas-based hotel developer, wants to bring Virgin Group founder Richard Branson's expanding hospitality brand to the corner of Baronne and Lafayette streets, which has been a surface parking lot for decades.  

Developers need permission to build beyond the property's zoned limit of 125 feet and 10 stories. The building design calls for 148 feet and 14 stories. 

After the commission's 6-1 vote against the height waiver, developers said they plan to appeal to the City Council. 

The 183-room Virgin Hotel would include a restaurant, rooftop garden, pool and bar. The average room rate is projected at $300 per night. 

Developers argued the main hotel tower will stay within the 125-foot height limit. A penthouse on top exceeds the limit -- to a total of 148 feet -- but will be set back and not visible from the street. 

Gatehouse's team also included DAG Development, Mathes Brierre Architects of New Orleans, and RTKL, a worldwide architecture firm. The landowner is Downtown Star LLC. 

David Garcia of DAG Development on Tuesday said a Virgin Hotel would fit with the entrepreneurial and creative environment of the neighborhood and bring "new global attention, new visitors, to the city."

Garcia said Virgin plans on linking hotels with Virgin Atlantic flights, which could be a further benefit to the city. 

Todd James with Mathes Brierre Architects said to bring the building within the 10-story, 250-foot limit, they would have to cut between 69 and 80 rooms, which would kill the economic feasibility of the project. Those requirements would be for any hotel, not just the Virgin brand, he said. 

James said through the building's design, the 14 stories would be masked using double windows to stay within the aesthetic intent of the zoning requirement. Meanwhile, he said, the hotel supports the intent of the city's master plan and new comprehensive zoning ordinance. "It's about energizing that neighborhood," James said.

In a staff report, city planners said the zoned height limit was intended to "respect the historic character and scale of development within the Central Business District," and the Virgin Hotel design is inconsistent with the purpose and intent of the zoning. 

The property was once zoned for unlimited height, but the 125-foot cap was imposed under an interim zoning district nearly three years ago. The move stemmed from a height study led by a group of Warehouse District and Lafayette Square residents and developers. 

Commissioner Nolan Marshall, who cast the sole vote in favor of the 14-story hotel, said Tuesday's decision was "a particularly challenging one," and the height should be considered in the bigger picture. 

"I think this development actually lives within the spirit of what the (interim zoning district) was trying to accomplish," Marshall said.

A group of residents from neighboring condo buildings at 528 Baronne and 825 Lafayette spoke out against the project, citing concerns over noise, increased traffic in a back alleyway, blocked window views and the impact of construction on neighboring buildings. 

Commissioner Robert Steeg told the residents that their complaints didn't address the issue at hand -- the building's height. Developing a hotel is within the property owner's rights based on the zoning, he said. 

"I think this is a close call," Steeg said. 

But Commissioner Craig Mitchell, whose office is in the neighborhood, said there has to be a balance between revitalization and the concerns of small business owners and residents. "What overall impact are you going to have with a proposition such as this?" Mitchell said. 

Branson, founder of Virgin Group, launched his line of hotels in 2010. The first location opened in Chicago in January, and two others are underway in New York and Nashville, Tenn.

Under the plan, parking would be provided by a valet service to an eight-story parking garage under construction two blocks away, behind the First Bank and Trust tower at Perdido Street and O'Keefe Avenue. The garage is being developed by the same landowner as the proposed hotel.

Gatehouse Capital is returning to New Orleans after a fallout with city leaders over developing the World Trade Center. City officials ended lease negotiations with Gatehouse last year and launched a new developer search. Earlier this year, the city picked a Four Seasons hotel developer instead.