Planning Commission approves request for downtown hotel, West Elm furniture store

A 31-story downtown office building left vacant for nearly eight years could soon see new life as a boutique hotel and apartments.

Plans to convert the tower, at 225 Baronne St., received unanimous approval Tuesday from the New Orleans City Planning Commission. Developers intend to turn the 550,000-square-foot tower into 192 residential apartments, a 188-room Aloft Hotel and a 356-space public parking garage.

The project’s developers, 225 Baronne Complex LLC and Kingfish Development LLC, went before the commission with two requests: a conditional use permit to transform the building’s second through tenth floors into a garage, and permission to demolish an adjacent, two-story structure at 919 Gravier St. The site of that building will become the entrance to the parking garage. Neither request drew opposition.

The matter will go to the New Orleans City Council for final approval.

Developers hope to begin the $90 million conversion in October and open 14 months later. The development also will include two pools, one each for the hotel and apartments.

The proposed development would be the first use of the building since Hurricane Katrina.

“It’s a pleasure to see a developer coming in to move these buildings back into commerce,” Commissioner Joseph Williams said. “I wholeheartedly move approval.”

Also on Tuesday, commissioners approved a request to add 1,899 square feet, in the form of a second-story addition to 2929 Magazine St. The expansion would accommodate a proposed West Elm furniture and home d├ęcor store in space that was most recently occupied by Pippen Lane children’s store. The request received unanimous approval despite opposition from residents who complained that the store would put additional parking pressure on the neighborhood.

“It’s just really maxed out,” said Douglas Robinson, who lives on Camp Street behind the retail shop. Robinson said he has had to resort to putting parking cones in front of his house when he leaves to go to the grocery store for fear that he won’t have a place to park upon his return.

Other neighbors expressed concern that delivery trucks would clog already busy streets. Most of the residents said they supported a West Elm store at the site, but wanted developers to provide additional parking.

The planning commission’s staff recommended that the expansion include the addition of 12 parking spaces, for a total of 15.

But commissioners voted to waive that requirement. The retail store will have four parking spots, including one that is dedicated accessible.

Instead, commissioners voted to limit the total amount of retail space in the new store to 6,026 square feet, a mandate developers and commissioners said would decrease traffic at the store. The remainder of the building can be used only for office or storage space.