French Quarter tower gets preliminary OK, but big hurdle remains

Posted on: November 6 2015

Revised Royal Street project down to 190 feet

By Jeff Adelson, The New Orleans Advocate

A condo and hotel project that’s become the latest flash point in the debate over the future of New Orleans’ oldest neighborhood won preliminary approval from the City Council on Thursday.

The vote may clear the way for a 190-foot tower on Royal Street on the edge of the French Quarter that would rival the height of other nearby hotels, but only if it can overcome opposition from neighborhood groups and skepticism from some council members.

The latest version of the Royal Cosmopolitan project at 121 Royal St., which was publicly unveiled at the council meeting, trims the height of the proposed tower to 20 stories — six fewer than in a plan opposed by the City Planning Commission over the summer — but would still rise about 120 feet above the area’s height limit.

The 100 block of Royal, between Canal and Iberville streets, is not part of the Vieux Carre as defined by the city’s zoning law but is often considered as such by New Orleanians.

Along with opposition from French Quarter groups that consistently have called on the council not to allow projects that violate height restrictions near the Vieux Carre, the project also drew protests from an unlikely source: other developers and representatives of the city’s hospitality industry. Those groups do not typically object to new projects, but representatives said the height of the proposed building would mar the French Quarter.

The council nevertheless gave preliminary approval to the project on a 5-2 vote, with Councilwomen Stacy Head and Susan Guidry objecting on the grounds that it would go against the city’s master plan. That’s been a common refrain in previous disputes as council members debate how closely they should keep to the plan’s guidelines.

Thursday’s vote does not mean the project necessarily will be allowed to move forward. Even some council members who voted for approval said their support was still tentative.

The project would involve restoring a long-vacant five-story building that fronts Royal Street — formerly the home of the Cosmopolitan Hotel and the Astor Hotel — and replacing a three-story building in the center of the block behind it with the proposed tower.

Reade Nossaman, an architect on the project, said the plans for the tower unveiled Thursday would be in keeping with the scale of other hotels in the area, including the 205-foot Wyndham and 164-foot Astor Crowne. He also noted that because it is set back from the street, it would not be visible from certain angles in the Quarter.

“This revision fits the Royal Cosmopolitan into the established context of the buildings around it,” Nossaman said.

French Quarter groups aligned with the business community — the French Quarter Business League and French Quarter Advocates — showed up to support the project.

Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, whose district includes the site, said it would help clean up a block that badly needs improvement. “This should be a dream we will all be proud of,” Ramsey said. “Putting this building back into commerce will only improve this block, which is in a very bad state now.”

On zoning issues, the council typically defers to the council member who represents the district where a project is located.

But preservationist groups, the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates group, and members of the hospitality industry argued that such a large project would be out of character for an area most consider a part of the historic district, even though it technically falls into the Central Business District for zoning purposes.

“In light of our master plan and strategic plan, we’re in favor of more hotels and more hotel rooms in the city but do think they should be lawful and appropriate,” said Mavis Early, head of the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association and a former city attorney.

Representatives of the Hotel Monteleone and architect and developer Marcel Wisznia also voiced their disapproval.

“This is some of the most unified opposition I’ve ever seen from disparate groups and individuals who are not usually like-minded,” Head said.

Ramsey said she, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration and the developers had been working on a “compromise” on the project for months. That plan was distributed to council members only on Wednesday, raising concerns from some that there had not been time to fully vet the new proposal.

“You’re asking the City Council to vote on something when at 8 o’clock you didn’t have a plan for parking, a plan for trash,” Guidry said. “I agree this block needs new life. But I can’t justify voting for something so completely out of step with the master plan and the zoning ordinance.”

Typically, approval of a zoning petition signals that the council is behind a project, and the subsequent passage of an ordinance formally allowing developers to move ahead is essentially a formality. That may not be the case this time.

In addition to getting final approval from the council, the project also will need the sign-off of the Historic District Landmarks Commission.

Both Council President Jason Williams and Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said they agreed to vote for preliminary approval because the project’s application was running up against a city-imposed deadline. Had the clock run out, it would have needed to be resubmitted.

The project has been proposed various times and in various configurations in the decade since Angelo and Regina Farrell purchased the building. An initial project, which would have been 17 stories and 179 feet tall, was approved by the City Planning Commission just days before Hurricane Katrina struck and scuttled the plan.

Subsequent proposals in 2008 and 2009, calling for towers that would have risen about 259 feet, were derailed by the bad economy.

The earlier approvals came before the approval of the new zoning law and before interim height rules were put in place.

Regina Farrell said the proposed height is necessary to make the project financially viable.

“All these other changes have recently just happened,” she said, referring to the new CZO and height limits. “We’re looking for some happy medium between where we were and what we were approved to do.”