January 22 2010 | Latest NewsDevelopers withdraw plans to build 26-story hotel tower on Royal Street
By Bruce Eggler, The Times-Picayune
January 21, 2010, 6:16PM
Facing likely defeat of their plans, developers Thursday dropped their request for New Orleans City Council approval of a 26-story hotel tower in the 100 block of Royal Street.
However, the developers are expected to repropose the same project soon, probably timing their request so that it would come back to the council after at least three new members take office in May
The 259-foot tower would be more than three times the 85-foot height limit normally allowed in the block by the city's zoning law. The project has drawn opposition from French Quarter residential organizations but has been supported by several Canal Street business owners.
Developers Angelo Farrell and Lee Laporte first won city approval for the project in early 2007, but they were unable to line up financing before their permit for the 174-foot height waiver expired, forcing them to reapply.
The City Planning Commission reapproved the project 6-0 in November, but Councilman James Carter, whose district includes the site, said it was doubtful the council would have approved it Thursday.
An angry Farrell said later that the council's attitude represented "a black eye to the city."
The council approved the hotel proposal 5-0 in early 2007 on Carter's recommendation, but Carter said several things have changed since then, including the fact the city recently sued Farrell over renovations done at a bar in a building he owns at 711 Bourbon St.
The Vieux Carre Commission said Farrell repeatedly ignored stop-work orders there and did work not authorized by the commission, including removing a carriageway wall and replacing it with steel beams.
Farrell, who said the unauthorized work was done by a tenant, not by himself, said he has been trying to correct the violations but the Vieux Carre Commission has yet to issue him a permit. The commission's staff is still reviewing the application.
In addition to concerns about 711 Bourbon, Carter said, he and other council members were troubled that Farrell and Laporte failed to get the project off the ground in three years. He also said economic conditions have changed since 2007, when the developers said they needed a huge height waiver to offset construction costs that had risen by 35 percent to 40 percent since Hurricane Katrina. Carter said that argument no longer applies.
Even in 2007, several council members said they found the issue a close call but decided that, as the city struggled to recover from Katrina, the pluses outweighed the minuses.
Among those objecting to the proposal at that time was Jackie Clarkson, who was not on the council then but has since been elected to an at-large seat.
In return for being allowed to build the high-rise tower in the middle of the block bounded by Royal, Canal, Bourbon and Iberville streets, Farrell and Laporte pledged to restore the blighted, long-vacant Astor Hotel building at 121-125 Royal, which is more than 100 years old.
The old five-story building, with a distinctive metal facade, would serve as the new hotel's entrance. The new tower would provide the rooms needed to make the project economically viable.
The hotel, to be known as the Royal Cosmopolitan, would be a "condotel," meaning its 152 rooms and suites would be sold as condominiums but rented as hotel rooms when the buyers are not using them.
Although the block between Canal and Iberville streets is considered part of the Central Business District and is not covered by a ban on new hotels in the French Quarter, opposition to the project came mainly from two Quarter organizations: the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates, and French Quarter Citizens.
They said the height waiver would continue a trend of erecting inappropriately tall hotel buildings on the edge of the city's most historic neighborhood.
But supporters said the hotel would be vital to cleaning up the 100 block of Royal Street, which they called an ugly area frequented by hustlers, drug dealers, prostitutes and thieves.
Proponents also said the tower would be set so far back from any street that it would not be visible to nearby pedestrians, and would be so small, occupying a 40-by-85-foot footprint, that it would not be visually oppressive.
Farrell said he and Laporte have restored the faÃ§ade of the old building but were unable to begin constructing the tower until they got financing.
During debate before the council in 2007, Clarkson said the hotel tower should be limited to 168 feet. That was the height allowed under a 2005 compromise agreed to by the same developers and the Quarter residents when Clarkson was the district council member. Farrell and Laporte said in 2007 they needed to add nine floors to offset higher post-Katrina costs.
Bruce Eggler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3320.
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