The proposed hotel would replace the low-rise warehouse adjacent to the two-story townhouse with wrought-iron galleries. Credit: Matt Gatzman

Developers need a variance to build a new hotel at 744 St. Charles.  The city should not give it to them.

Working a deal with Marriott to bring their new “Moxy” brand hotel chain to the site, the developers initially proposed an eight-story, 85-foot-high hotel. Significant neighborhood resistance, a poor review from the Historic Districts Landmark Commission (HDLC), and a “no” vote from the City Planning Commission goaded them to scale back. They are now proposing a six-story, 65-foot hotel tower.  Their problem is that the maximum height requirement for the CBD-7 zoning district is five stories not to exceed 65 feet.

Zoning doesn’t exist merely to annoy developers or to prevent your dad from turning his back shed into a five-star man cave.  It exists to protect the public and the city itself from improper land use damaging to the district in which it occurs.  The zoning in this, the Lafayette Square District, allows for hotels — just not this hotel.

The Lafayette Square District is described in the zoning code as a mixed-use area with a high residential component and significant historical value. Many of the district’s buildings are fast approaching the 200-year mark; they comprise a tout ensemble of distinguished architecture that rivals any part of the city, including the French Quarter.

Other views of the CZOAs the City Council contemplates final action on a Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance, this is one in a series of columns on the issue. Other columns to date:Keith Hardie: Wanted: Businesses sized to fit current zoning — not more parking lotsJohn Koeferl: Ripping the fabric of a neighborhood and with it the spirit of democracyKeith Hardie: Auto ‘rapture’ along Magazine Street? The CZO parking deregulation seems to count on itDiane Lease: City Council needs to redraft the CZO — too important not to get it right

The result is a sparkling destination neighborhood full of restaurants, cafes, art galleries, and the residences that make it a true community — exactly the kind of neighborhood where developers would dream of building another posh boutique hotel.  The proposed hotel at 744 St. Charles is not that.  It does not fit.  It’s a boxy airport-style hotel that tries to cram an extra floor within the height limits.

The HDLC advisory to the City Planning Commission listed 11 problems with the hotel plans, a thumbs down summed up in its observation that “the tower lacks a coherent design.” The blueprint is now shorter, but the building’s no prettier.

Councilmember Latoya Cantrell attended a meeting on Jan. 20, with concerned downtown residents, many from the Lafayette Square District, to hear their concerns about the proposed development.  The level of accessibility Cantrell gives her constituents is commendable.  She appeared to listen to everything we had to say.  She promised to defer a decision by dropping 744 St. Charles from the next council meeting agenda, and she delivered on that promise.  But she made comments during the meeting that were dismaying.  As residents, we don’t have a say in what a property owner does with a property, she told us — the implication being that the rights of the property owner trump neighbors’ concerns.

That’s simply not true. We do have a say.  It is called zoning.  If the developers had opted to build a five-story, 65-foot hotel, I would not be writing this column and anyone opposed to the new hotel would have little legal recourse. But by asking for a variance, a developer gives every member of the community a say in the project.  It was the developers, not the residents, who opened the democratic process when they decided not to build to the district’s standards.

The variances the developers originally applied for leave you to wonder if they had any regard at all for zoning.  The owners of the parcel rushed to their defense by telling an earlier community meeting that they shelled out $2 million for the parcel without a clue as to what is and isn’t permitted under the zoning code. If so, it’s long since time that they sat down with a licensed broker for a little coaching on basic urban real estate practices.

It is deeply unfair to dismiss or disregard the men and women who made early bets on this once dubious district by rejuvenating its housing stock and making their homes here. 

But the sad truth is that developers in New Orleans for too long have had no reason to acquaint themselves with the letter of the zoning law, because they knew that, with the proper connections at City Hall, they could always override it. It’s the same arrogance that inspired developers to propose a condo cluster in Holy Cross twice the maximum height allowed by code, a proposal that has since been scaled back to be just 50 percent taller than the law allows.

It makes a mockery of zoning itself, turning height restrictions not into a ceiling, but a floor to be routinely exceeded in negotiations between politicians and developers.

At times, Cantrell spoke to the residents as if they were against any and every economic development. This too is untrue. While some of us may want the block to be frozen in time, many more of us appear to welcome new development. My neighbors are heavily invested in the district and they want to see it prosper.  But they want it done right and in accordance with the vision set forth in the voter-approved Master Plan and the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance that awaits final Council action.

Another of Cantrell’s standout remarks was her observation that the majority of the city’s revenue comes from businesses, not residential property taxes. The city certainly needs revenue, but it should not compromise the character and integrity of our neighborhoods to get it.

Many downtown residents invested in this neighborhood decades ago when it was more like Skid Row than the hip, happening, historic community it is today.  Ask any of the old-timers about it and they will regale you with tales of flophouses, vagrants, and drug dealers.

It is deeply unfair to dismiss or disregard the men and women who made early bets on this once dubious district by rejuvenating its housing stock and making their homes here. Marriott would not be interested in 744 St. Charles were it not for the vision and perseverance of these urban pioneers. City Hall may be hooked on corporate developers and the campaign donations they cough up, but it would be foolish to ignore the concerns of resident taxpayers who also comprise a voting majority.

It all comes back to zoning. In the neighborhood meeting, Cantrell noted that variances play an important role in development decisions. She was accurately describing a regrettable reality, not what’s right or good. Variances do play an important role in planning, but this culture of granting them to every developer with a fat-enough wallet has to stop.

Well-planned cities prosper.  Poorly planned cities do not.  They lack charm and, as they defy the logic required for sensible and efficient delivery of city services, they become expensive and ultimately unsustainable. The Master Plan and comprehensive zoning ordinance work only if we abide by them.

In justifying their bid to deviate from the zoning code, the developers of 744 St. Charles point to all the other variances that have been granted — as though a legacy of past mistakes justifies making yet another. If this variance is granted, it will nicely serve as a handy reference for the next developer who wants to cram extra floors into another claustrophobic high rise.  We want development, but we want it done smart and we want it done right.

I remember the first time I read the city’s Plan for the 21st Century: New Orleans 2030.  I was so impressed by the vision set forth in that document that I couldn’t help but be suspicious. What’s the catch, I wondered. If this culture of persistently granting variances continues, my cynicism will have been affirmed.

Matt Gatzman is a UNO graduate in urban planning and a resident of the Central Business District.