Vieux Carre Commission approves Habana Outpost

After more than a year of sometimes contentious debate, the Vieux Carre Commission on Wednesday cleared the way for a restaurant to replace an abandoned service station at Esplanade Avenue and North Rampart Street.

The nine-member commission voted 7-1 in favor of granting a change of use permit to Esplanade NOLA LLC, whose registered agent Sean Meenan has proposed turning the gas station and two nearby buildings into a two-level restaurant serving Mexican and Cuban cuisine. Commission member C.J. Blanda, who represents the Louisiana Historical Society on the board, voted against the measure. The board’s chairman, Dr. Ralph Lupin, is a non-voting member.

The decision came more than a year after the commission began considering the proposal, which was opposed by Vieux Carre Property Owners & Associates, which represents people who live and work in the Quarter and also seeks to preserve the neighborhood’s character,

Meenan’s proposal calls for renovating an old service station at North Rampart Street and Esplanade Avenue and neighboring buildings at 1036 Esplanade Ave. and 1310 North Rampart St. into a 210-seat, two-level, open-air restaurant called Habana Outpost, that could accommodate about 400 standing patrons.

Meenan opened his first eatery, Café Habana, on Prince Street in New York in 1997, according to the Café Habana website. Other restaurants followed, carrying either the Café Habana or Habana Outpost name, in California, Dubai and elsewhere in New York.

Brooklyn’s Habana Outpost serves moderately priced sandwiches, burritos, tacos and other Mexican and Cuban fare. The restaurant also serves as a gathering place for families and artists in Brooklyn, according to the restaurant’s website.

Meenan needed the Vieux Carre Commission to approve combining the former gas station and North Rampart Street building into a single lot, as well as to change the use of the property from vacant to retail/gallery and restaurant.

Opponents of the proposal argued Wednesday that the restaurant will be too big and out-of-character with the rest of the French Quarter.

“In another location I think it would be a great restaurant and I would love to frequent it,” said Sandra Stokes, with the Louisiana Landmarks Society. “It is a great restaurant concept that is simply not appropriate for our most important historic neighborhood with such a visible front as Esplanade and Rampart.”

VCPORA also has objected to the multi-level design plan and expressed skepticism that the property will be used primarily as a standard restaurant with seated dinner service, as opposed to a bar and event venue. The organization appealed on the commission to protect the French Quarter from what they view as an intrusion on the neighborhood’s historic character and the quality of life of the people who live there.

But at Wednesday’s meeting opponents were in the minority.

Many of the people who spoke praised the proposal for its potential to erase blight and possibly improve safety in the area by providing additional lighting and increasing foot traffic. Others argued that disallowing the plan to move forward would discourage other entrepreneurs from moving to or investing in New Orleans.

“You can send a message to entrepreneurs all over the world that Louisiana is open for business and it’s a great place to pursue your dreams,” said Ron Bienvenu, who owns investment firm Louisiana Buyout Fund. “People are watching and I encourage you to support this project because I think it sends a very positive message to the country.”

The commission’s vote gives Meenan the go-ahead to draw up formal construction plans for his Habana Outpost. Those plans will go back to the architectural committee for final approval and then, again, to the full commission for a vote.

VCPORA Executive Director Meg Lousteau said she was disappointed and that the organization would meet soon to consider its next steps.

Still, unless there is some significant structural change to the plan, it’s unlikely that either the committee or the commission would scrap the project at that point.