Developer Sean Cummings will carry a record of one win and one "no decision" when he goes before the New Orleans City Council in a few weeks, seeking approval of a controversial proposal for a modernistic, six-story, 75-foot-tall apartment building he wants to build at Elysian Fields and Decatur Street. The proposal has sharply divided residents of Faubourg Marigny, with many demanding that the city grant no exceptions to the 50-foot height that has long been the limit in the historic neighborhood. They argue that maintaining the limit is vital for preserving Marigny's special ambiance.
Many other residents and business owners have praised Cummings' plans, saying a taller building would be appropriate on a major thoroughfare such as Elysian Fields and that the project would bring needed life to an uninviting and even dangerous block.
One city agency has endorsed the plans for what Cummings is calling the Elisio Lofts building. Another agency Friday failed to do so, though it did not outright condemn the proposal. The final decision will be up to the council, which under the law must deal with the issue by its meeting of Sept. 6.
The site is in Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer's district. She has not taken a position on the proposal.
The disputed building would be part of a three-building complex that would contain 73 upscale apartments, likely to be converted to condominiums in a few years. The project also would have 74 covered parking spaces and three commercial units, probably including a restaurant.
The City Planning Commission voted 8-0 in late June to endorse the overall project, which besides the six-story building would include a new 48-foot-high building, separated from the taller structure by a historic two-story warehouse Cummings plans to retain. The whole complex would average a little under 50 feet.
A sideways decision
However, the Historic District Landmarks Commission divided almost evenly Friday on the issue of whether to give "conceptual approval" to the 75-foot building. Such approval would have essentially endorsed its height and mass.
Before the vote, speakers on both sides addressed the commission, largely repeating many of the same arguments they and others made several weeks ago before the planning commission.
Cummings again pointed out that he could legally tear down all the buildings along the lake side of Decatur between Elysian Fields and Marigny Street and erect a single 50-foot building running the length of the block. Instead, he said, it would be more visually appealing and more in keeping with the spirit of Marigny to have three distinct buildings of varying heights, with the old two-story warehouse in the middle.
He has said his plan is to "create a monumental presence on the wide boulevard, sloping down respectfully and sensitively to lower heights" on the side streets, where the 50-foot limit is "highly appropriate."
Opponents, clad in T-shirts proclaiming "Size Matters," said the 50-foot height limit for new construction is vital to protecting the historic, mostly low-rise neighborhood from intrusions like the Christopher Inn apartment building for seniors at Royal and Frenchmen streets, which stands 100 feet high and is considered by many to be a visual blight.
Even if a single new 75-foot building might not be disastrous, some critics have said, it would almost certainly lead to more requests for higher buildings elsewhere along Elysian Fields. Others have said Cummings' building alone would be unacceptable because it would tend to wall off the neighborhood from the riverfront park now under construction and would interfere with some residents' views of the river and access to cooling breezes.
Some dislike design
Besides the height, some critics took issue with architect Wayne Troyer's modernistic design, saying it would be out of keeping with the old neighborhood.
Cummings' position on the desirability of taller buildings along Elysian Fields is in line with a document called Riverfront Vision 2005 that the planning commission adopted a few years ago over the protests of many in Marigny. It called for offering 25-foot "bonuses" above the normal 50-foot height limit on new buildings at the river end of major streets in Marigny.
The planning staff said the bonuses would "encourage exceptional and creative design, new residential uses, public open space, improved access and pedestrian amenities" at the foot of Elysian Fields and Press Street.
But many residents, led by the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association, charged the planning staff with favoring developers' desire to make money over residents' desire to preserve the quality of life and character that had attracted them to the neighborhood.
The commission approved the plan in 2006, but with some misgivings. The council also endorsed the plan, but it added an amendment saying the vote "should not be taken as a blanket endorsement of every recommendation" in the document. The amendment also noted that "all zoning changes and each project or development proposal that requests a variance from existing zoning and scale will go through the normal community input and legal review processes."
After hearing from all the speakers and questioning Cummings and Troyer at length, the commission could not reach a consensus Friday. Member Lloyd "Sonny" Shields offered a motion to endorse the 75-foot building, yet requesting the developers to reduce it to 60 feet.
The motion failed to pass, with four votes in favor and five opposed. But even if the vote had been 5-4 the other way, the project still would have fallen well short of the eight favorable votes needed for an official commission recommendation.