Vieux Carre board to take up Habana petition

A controversial plan to convert two buildings and a long-abandoned service station at the corner of Esplanade Avenue and North Rampart Street into a restaurant will once again go before the Vieux Carre Commission today.

Sean Meenan, who owns the three parcels of land, is asking the VCC to grant a change of use on the properties to allow for their conversion into Habana Outpost, a restaurant serving Mexican and Cuban cuisine. Meenan operates Habana Outpost and Café Habana restaurants in his native New York, as well as in California and Dubai.

“I thought that location in New Orleans would put me in the optimal location to see the most disparate crowd in New Orleans,” Meenan said. “I feel like it’s a place that all kinds of people will want to come to.”

The project has been under consideration by the Vieux Carre Commission for more than a year, as various aspects of the plan have been tweaked to make it comply with the requirements of the city’s oldest neighborhood.

But the plan has failed to win the support of the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates, the 75-year-old organization that represents people who live and work in the Quarter and also seeks to preserve the neighborhood’s character. The organization is concerned about various proposed architectural changes to the site under Meenan’s plan, as well as the operations of the restaurant itself.

“This project comprises three parcels. It is an outdoor commercial venue in an almost exclusively residential section of the French Quarter,” VCPORA Executive Director Meg Lousteau told the commission recently. “Its sheer size, spread over three lots, is out of character for the neighborhood, and that is one reason that the VCC routinely denies applications to consolidate multiple lots into single lots of record. More importantly, the outdoor nature, and in particular the second-floor outdoor use, is completely out of character for this historic neighborhood.”

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 restaurant, two-level, open-air restaurant 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. 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. On Sundays, a movie — in recent weeks, choices have included “Goonies,” “Fame” and “Grease” — is projected on the side the building.

An outdoor movie night is not planned for the New Orleans venue site, Meenan said. But he does intend to turn a portion of the property into gallery space that can be used by a rotating crop of artists.

Meenan is asking the VCC for permission to re-subdivide 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.

Meenan has been trying to get the plan approved for more than a year, appearing before the commission multiple times. The commission has kicked the plan back to its architectural review committee to address a variety of concerns.

In the latest iteration of the plan, solar panels and a rooftop canopy are gone from the initial plan. A fence around the perimeter has been added to contain restaurant patrons and block noise. All were concerns of the commission and neighbors.

Not all the issues have been solved.

VCPORA fears re-subdividing the property would make it out of character with the rest of the small lots in the Quarter, Lousteau said. Lousteau said the organization also objects to the multi-level design plan and is not convinced that the property will be used primarily as a standard restaurant with seated dinner service, as opposed to a bar and event venue.

Lousteau said her organization is supportive of the site taking on a commercial use, but doesn’t believe this project is the right one.

“Such an establishment would be ideal for another location, one in a more commercial area, or not surrounded by dense historic residential uses,” Lousteau told the commission.

Arguably the most contentious aspect of the dispute involves billboards that existed on the property decades before Meenan bought it. The VCC called the billboards “unsightly and non-conforming” and initially suggested they be removed. But Meenan was able to strike a compromise with the architectural review committee at the last meeting that allowed him to keep the billboards as long as they are used only to advertise local nonprofits.

Residents, however, are dissatisfied with that plan. The billboards are the subject of a lawsuit filed in Civil District Court May 20 against Meenan by VCPORA and four Esplanade Avenue residents. They are asking that the court to force Meenan to remove the billboards and to award them damages for diminished property values, among other things.

The city has intervened in the lawsuit on Meenan’s behalf, arguing that the billboards’ legal status has not been officially determined by the Department of Public Safety and Permits and other agencies that control zoning.

The Vieux Carre Commission meets at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday. The party unhappy with the result will likely appeal the decision to the City Council.