Should New Orleans expand hotel condos across the city?

Posted on: September 9 2015

By Katherine Sayre, | The Times-Picayune 

Four Seasons in 1982 started selling condos inside its high-end hotels, offering full-time residents the perks of being a hotel guest.

Now a widely used concept across the hotel industry, Four Seasons is bringing condos to New Orleans as part of its renovation of the former World Trade Center building.

Whether the city should expand that hotel-residential model as an option to every part of New Orleans that already allows for hotels -- including areas around the burgeoning Mid-City hospital complex -- is now up for debate.

In August, Councilman Jared Brossett asked the City Planning Commission to examine changing the definition of a hotel in the city's Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance. Under the proposal, a line would be added to allow for-sale residential units as an option for a hotel.

At the City Council's request, the City Planning Commission took up the issue.

The commission's staff found the change would allow for residential developments to be expanded into areas where housing isn't currently allowed, such as industrial and medical-service areas. The staff recommended the nine-member Planning Commission deny the change.

The issue divided the commission, splitting 4-4 in a vote with one member absent Tuesday (Sept. 8).

On Wednesday, Brossett said his intent was to address the fact that the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance doesn't explicitly account for mixed hotel-residential projects -- an important point as more hotels are developed in the city. He said he will continue talks with the Planning Commission.

The city has 26 zoning categories that allow for hotels, and 21 of those categories also allow for residential units, which means hotels could already offer permanent housing under existing rules, according to a City Planning Commission staff report.

Proponents of the change want the five remaining zones -- medical service, light industrial, heavy industrial, maritime industrial and business-industrial park districts -- to also be opened for hotel-residences, to add to the mix of housing options at various price levels. 

"What's wrong with a nurse being able to have an affordable condo located in a mixed-use hotel, right near the hospital where she works at?" Shaun Mena, a supporter of the change, told the commission Tuesday.

A look at the city's zoning map shows industrial and medical use areas across Tulane Avenue from the $2 billion Mid-City medical complex, where University Medical Center recently opened and a VA hospital is set to open next year. But other than the World Trade Center, no specific proposed projects were discussed.

Mike Sherman, a land use attorney, said he understands it's not good public policy to allow for single-family homes in some of the areas at question, but he doesn't see a good reason to forbid a hotel from adding a few residential units.

Industrial and medical areas are frequently next to neighborhoods across the city, he said. 

"Why would we ever tell a visitor or a tourist 'you can stay here, it's OK for you to do that' but then turn around and tell a New Orleanian 'no you're not allowed to stay here, this is only for visitors and for tourists?'" Sherman said.

"The rest of the country is doing it," he added. "It's a new type of housing option. It just hasn't hit New Orleans yet."

Commissioner Robert Steeg, who voted against the change, said the proposal is "too blunt an instrument to achieve what the proponents are trying to achieve."

"I'm concerned that changing a definition that reverberates through the entire ordinance, in lots of ways that we can't anticipate, is not the right way to address a specific issue like this that has to do with affordable housing and bringing permanent housing into specific districts," Steeg said.

Commissioner Nolan Marshall, who voted in favor of the definition change, said it's an appropriate amendment given that hotels are increasingly incorporating residential components to get projects financed.

"To me, the issue is whether or not we should be allowing hotels in heavy industrial in the first place," Marshall said. "But if we're going to say it's OK for some people to stay there for a week or two, why are we saying it's not OK for some people to live within that same building?"