When the deteriorated firehouse across from Wisner Park in Uptown finally went to auction in May, neighbors were relieved that something was going to be done about the eyesore that had sat empty since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The decommissioned firehouse had served as a New Orleans Recreation Department facility before the storm, but was left vacant after high winds destroyed its roof.
Last week, the new owners, Sylvi and John Beaumont, met with a group of about 30 neighbors to reveal plans for a coffee shop on the ground floor, two apartments on the second floor, and a third apartment in the former stable building at the rear of the site.
“We are excited to have the opportunity to renovate this wonderful old building into something that will not only be a treasure for the neighborhood but a treasure for the city,” John Beaumont told the group.
Treasure or not, some neighbors had apprehensions about plans to convert the ground floor of the building to a commercial use, which would require a zoning change from RM-2 (Multi-Family Residential District) to B-1A (Neighborhood Business District). Also required are zoning variances related to the number of units proposed in relation to the 3,600-square-foot lot.
“This is a nice quiet neighborhood. We don’t need people walking up and down the street all day and all night, throwing trash on the ground that my wife has to pick up,” opponent Don Michael Williams said. “And I’ll tell you what. The first time I come home with my 92-year-old father-in-law and I can’t park in front of my house, there’s going to be a problem.”
Laurel Street resident Bob Ferris expressed concern that if the zoning change is granted and the coffee shop fails, the change would open the door to potential uses that would not be compatible with the neighborhood.
But Ramsey Green, who lives less than a block away from the firehouse, had a different take on the issue.
“I didn’t move to this neighborhood because I wanted to park here; I moved here because I want to live here,” he said. “Yes, parking can sometimes be a problem when the park is crowded, especially on kickball nights on Mondays, but it works out. My number one concern is not parking. My number one concern is having a blighted building on the corner.”
Wylie and Nicole Whitesides live immediately adjacent to the firehouse and felt the coffee house could be an asset, as long as its hours were curtailed to limit parking issues at night.
“If I knew that when I got home from work at 7 p.m., I’d be able to get a parking spot in front of my house, then I might feel better about it,” Nicole Whitesides said.
Sylvi Beaumont explained that her plan was for dawn-to-dusk business hours to coincide with when the park was open and in use. Her vision is for the coffee shop to be a neighborhood amenity that parents could enjoy when they bring their children to the park.
“This is a wonderful Christy building that deserves to be restored,” she said, referring to former city architect E.A. Christy who designed the Laurel Street firehouse as well as many public schools and firehouses in the early 20th century. “We want it to come alive again in a way that serves the neighborhood.”
As proposed, the seating area of the coffee house would occupy 700 square feet of the ground floor of the building, with the remainder used for a kitchen, storage and baths. Beaumont hopes that the operator of the coffee shop would live in one of the two apartments planned for upstairs, mimicking a longtime New Orleans tradition of shop keeps living above their businesses. Plans for the site, drawn by the architectural firm of Barron & Toups, include landscaping and lighting along the street and the conversion of a cement side alley into a landscaped patio.
Jared Bowers represented the architects at the meeting and explained drawings that were provided to neighbors to review.
For Zelly Jeffers, who moved to the neighborhood recently with her partner Aaron Dunsay, concerns about the coffee house were surprising, especially in light of a recent issue with loiterers at the park.
“I think a coffee house would be an amazing thing for the neighborhood,” she said. “I work from home and see some disturbing things going on at the park. A coffee shop would be a warm and neat thing that would attract clientele and reduce some of the undesirable activity going on over there.”
The Beaumonts purchased the building for $280,000 and have been allotted a period of 18 months to restore it and return it to occupancy.
Their application for zoning variances will be heard by the Board of Zoning Adjustments on September 9.
The City Planning Commission will take up the Beaumonts’ application for a zoning change on September 24, then make a recommendation on the matter to the City Council.