Vieux Carré Commission Architectural Committee: Habana Café
The preservation and NIMBY clubs are on the march today. No gladiatorial contests on at the arena, so I went along to City Hall to see some blood sport. First was Habana Outpost. VCPORA has generally seemed sort of played out recently, mumbling the same platitudes to decreasing audiences, appearing increasingly cranky and out of touch. But they played a major role in scuppering the last attempt to replace a rat’s nest with a nice restaurant at Esplanade and North Rampart, so they should be baying for the chase for the second round. Get ready for the full menu of VCPORA stuff – fake facts, non sequitur and Tout Ensemble until your eyes glaze over, with some possible menace from their chief counsel and crypto-boss, if he manages to stay out of the parish clink.
In a small, crowded room, not enough seating for all the attendees, many waiting for the case set for last. Maybe like me, some were not familiar with the procedures of the Architectural Commission, not knowing when it might come up, there much too early. Some print reporters and video crew were in early as well.
Lary Hesdorffer, Director of the VCC, sits on the committee, in the position that looks like the head of the table, but the Committee’s session is run from the center of the long side of the table by Nicholas Musso, a stocky, bearded architect with a strong voice, decisive manner and huge credentials. On top of the briefs and drawings before they are projected on the screen, Mr Musso knows everything and has little patience for waffle.
The first thing I learned was that architecture is complicated and these guys know a lot. The staff sit in a row of three behind Director Hesdorffer and each case is introduced by a well-written summary with relevant detail by staffer Sarah Ripple, while plans and photos of the relevant property are projected onto a screen.
Some of the cases were fun to watch, and interesting. A highlight was an appeal for 35 more street level antennae for mobile phones. Mr Musso did not mind the design of the antennae, but did we need so many of them? There were already about 24. Couldn’t they be combined? No, said the technicians. To handle the traffic, it was this or towers. The discussion went to all the stuff that is in the street. Isn’t the space just filling up, with traffic and parking signs, street lamps, bike parking, horse head posts, gallery columns – vertical stuff everywhere. In the end, they gave the plan conditional approval, with a great summation from Nicholas Musso: “First you said you needed 12, then you came back to double that, now you want 35 more, and the streets are filling up. My advice: give it a few years before you come back again. I might not be here, so you might have a chance.”
Another was probably the fastest case. Represented by Justin Schmidt, the land use lawyer who got most of the T-shirt shops through the VCPORA sniper fire. Schmidt took his seat at the table opposite Musso, Sarah stood and described the case clearly, finishing with the staff’s recommendation that the file was well prepared, they had no objections and suggested approval. Mr Musso made a motion for approval, someone seconded, everybody said “Aye.” Done, but it didn’t feel quite finished. Too easy. So Musso turned to Justin Schmidt. “Any comments.” Schmidt gave it a beat for tension. “Thank you.” Picked up his briefcase and off. Perfect. A play in under a minute.
Finally, Habana Outpost, now branded Habana Cafe, is up. That’s what the cameras and the newspapers are here for. The Commission called for a brief recess, more news crews show up, they get their microphones on the table and lenses adjusted. Sarah tells the room that the session is public and interested parties may comment, remarks should be limited to two minutes, please don’t blurt out, interrupt or start fights. She also reminded us that the Commission’s purview is architecture and design not land use.
Sean Meenan, CEO of the Habana restaurant group, took the applicant’s place with a pair of colleagues. Sarah read the case with her usual clarity of voice and description, and rounded off with the staff’s very clear recommendation for approval.
The slide show had some great shots of the old gas station at Esplanade and N. Rampart, said to have been built circa 1925. The best one had mid-50s cars – tail fins and one of those Fords with the metal convertible top. What was not emphasized was the current state of the corner, now that the gas station and commercial building have been abandoned to decay for about 40 years.
I guess you will not be surprised that the first public comment was Ms Meg Lousteau. She had been there through the session, mostly plotting and planning with a laptop and co-conspirators in the outer room. (I don’t really know that Meg was engaged in Byzantine scheming, but it is a better image than thinking she was just checking her Facebook, and given VCPORA’s flexible way with facts, I’m sure they won’t object to a little imagination,)
I was a bit surprised at her comments, though, which were not strident objection, but rather resigned, possibly affected by the unambiguous positive statement of the VCC team. Meg said they had not had a chance to review the most recent plans, only the ones on the internet. VCPORA’s newsletter of just a few days ago said she had reviewed the plans, and the internet views did not look to me different from the renderings on the screen except perhaps with less detail. The relevance was also not obvious. It was clear that the staff and the Architectural Commissioners work at a professional level. Amateur fussing from VCPORA was unlikely to shake their determinations.
She questioned combining three parcels into one entity because the quaint character and all that. I don’t think this argument holds any water; many commercial properties in the FQ, including ones just a few yards away on Esplanade, are larger than the Habana Cafe will be. One of the longer cases earlier concerned conversion of the former Maison Hospitalière into apartments. It is made up of several different properties, even fronting on to different streets. I don’t know whether decision is a matter for the Architectural Committee in any case. She expressed concern about a brick wall which was low, so people might step over it. (I am still wondering what difference that could make to anyone except the restaurant itself.) She mentioned the tout ensemble, VCPORA’s bumper sticker, for some reason. I guess she thinks a nice restaurant is less in keeping with the “historic gem” than a rat trap of an old gas station, empty and abandoned for 40 years. She expressed concern about the number of people that could be seated or, God forbid, stand, which in the objectors’ view, is potentially greater than the population of New Orleans.
And that was pretty much it. What’s going on here? Is our Meg not feeling well? Where’s the old fire and brimstone? I have been standing in a hot, crowded room for almost two hours to see blood on the table, and if nobody stood up for the restaurant after a parade of pious objectors trying to destroy the proposal, I was going to stride forward and with oratory worthy of Cicero . . . well, I would think of something. Probably question whether the ghost of tout ensemble past would prefer the crumbling old relic to a fun restaurant.
Another objector who said he was speaking on behalf of the immediate neighbors expressed concern about the sound that would come from the refrigeration, probably including the air conditioning. He tried to rouse some passion with a description of the Brooklyn Habana Outpost, but I suspect the audience reaction was if anything the opposite of what he hoped for. It is of course irrelevant anyway. What is relevant is what is under review today, not another site in New York.
And that, my friends, was it. It was so clear that the plan was going to pass the Architecture Committee that if others had planned to object or support, they just let it go. Motion, second, unanimous Ayes, and it was time for Sean Meenan to be interviewed for TV.
He is good at that. He said he intends his restaurants to be good for New Orleans, that living here here now with his family, he knows the city better, and that everybody is entitled to their opinion. VCPORA is entitled to their opinion. But Habana Cafe will be good for us.
Afterward, preservation and residents’ groups said they were “stunned” by the decision. That’s a bunch of groups coming up with the same word. It is also not true. VCC had passed the Habana restaurant before, in a more challenging design. And besides, I watched them. They weren’t stunned. They knew it was coming. Their protestations presumed conditional approval, and the chance that a few amateurs would change the staff’s and Musso’s recommendation were less than slim. I’ll even venture a speculation: the “stunned” quotes in their PR stuff were scripted in advance.
“What we continue to fail to understand,” said René Fransen, a spokesman for the “preservation” lobby (I would say, almost everything) is why Meenan wants to build a restaurant like this instead of a little one, which would suit Fransen better. It is simple, of course, and everybody else understands it. Habana has a business model, and people like it. That is why they go to them. That is why the overwhelming majority want the restaurant, not a crumbling rat’s nest.
They said chain restaurants are illegal in the French Quarter. I had asked Lary Hesdorffer about that a few months ago. He said it was not true. Urban legend. FQ has rules against take-away and paper plate restaurants, not against companies. McDonalds could open a restaurant if they agreed to all the rules – sit-down, ceramic plates, conforming signage, etc.
The anti-groups were also “stunned” that the Architectural Committee gave “only cursory review” to the new drawings. Where do they get that from? The Committee’s staff are pros that do this all the time. They know this is a contested issue; they prepared and presented their report. Nicholas Musso designs restaurants professionally in his architecture practice, as well as teaching the subject in universities. He can see more in an architectural rendering in a few seconds than amateurs in whole table-banging meetings.
They went on being stunned about things irrelevant – zoning and points of land law. Those were not in the brief of the Architecture Committee, as Sarah Ripple had carefully explained. If you see these comments from those of the Hoodie Persuasion, just file them under B for Blowing Smoke. The VCC made no comment on those points. Concept Approval is stage one, not the whole story.
The Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance
Then down the elevator to the first Q&A in the series on the CZO. Like Habana Outpost, not as lively as expected. I guess council hall was about a quarter full. I am going to speculate that many people have things to say about this massive nightmare of a bad idea, but it just feels hopeless. The CPC and a lot of Kool-Aid lovers believe in this stuff like the islanders believe in the Cargo To Come, just as fervently, just as fictionally.
It might also be they have decided to reserve their ardor for the second session, or a grand set piece for the third. Several whose names were called said the would prefer to change to next time, so maybe this was just a warmup round.
The first critics were young men (they happened to be men) involved in microbrewing. They made a very sound point. Trends and activities not imagined in the CZO would be blocked, banned and sent to Metairie by this misconceived sorting plan that presumes to know the future. Or worse. So they put their finger right on the poison sac: the CZO and Master Plan are there to stop history and fill in the chocolate box to fit the vision of the current haute bourgeoisie and general Babbittry, yeah unto the seventh generation and for all eternity.
A very refreshing woman took the stand to argue for the 75 instead of 50 foot height limit in Bywater, because there are no views of the river. One of the sillier things occasionally heard in zoning is that high buildings block views of the river. But the Mississippi levees are higher than the houses, so there are no views of the river until you get on top of the levee. She said the only high building in Bywater is the Rice Mill. We need more 75 foot buildings, with bars and cafes on top, so people can sit back with a glass of wine and watch the traffic on the river. Sounds good to me.
Then came a series of height-phobics. I don’t get this in preservationist-afflicted America. What is so bad about building height? What is so wrong about diversity and an interesting skyline?What is so great about uniformity of height in residential areas? Why do they have to be just residential districts, which is a backward and boring idea anyway, as design and planning trend toward mixed use? Some of them call it “walkable.” Huh? Where do people walk the most, possibly a reason why their obesity quotient seems a little lower? New York.
Height phobia has held back the Perez project for Holy Cross, which would do a lot to help that neighborhood. I suspect the good burghers of the Neighborhood Association, who moved there to indulge Historic fantasies, are the animators of the obstruction, with assistance from neo-preservationists like Louisiana Landmarks.
There was a fine appearance by the mayor’s sister Shelley, professional administrator of Garden District Association, who had some plan to link up neighborhood associations including Garden District and Lafayette Square, I think. Sounds like a Republican conspiracy to me, suspicious for a family of professional Democrats. But here in NOLA, we have Republican Democrats as well as the regular kind. Ms Landrieu objected to a proposed reduced lot size. The property value junkies never like that, Smaller lots mean smaller houses which might mean . . . . People Not Like US! We can’t have that. No, no. The purpose of the CZO is rising house prices forever. Don’t forget who the Master Plan is written for: aspiring Masters. At least Ms Landrieu is relatively transparent and honest about what she wants for Garden and the others – us not them. Not an admirable objective, but the clarity is refreshing.
I have just seen a legal study showing that Tipitina’s would be illegal under the new CZO. So would BJ’s and Vaughan’s in Bywater, and probably J&J’s sport bar as well.
In fact, much of what makes New Orleans worth living in would be illegal. The CZO and the Master’s Plan are for designing a city for Corporate Man with commutable servants’ quarters.
The spirit that made New Orleans what it is will move on, to Austin or Portland or Berlin, and the Gentrification Mardi Gras will move to the time of a metronome between barriers supervised by QoL cops with sound meters. We will stay in the house, pay higher air con bills, and give up on street life. The Street will live on in the Servants Quarters, but Quality of Life will mean arrest for playing a violin or having a conversation in a public right of way downtown or on Magazine. Goodbye, New Orleans. It was nice knowing you.
Not really much speaking going on this afternoon. The MC called Meg Lousteau’s name several times, but she wasn’t there. What? Our tour guide of the land of No! had gone home. The last time an audience member called out, “How many cards did she put in”? “Four.” Funny.
The height phobia victims were thanking the fine folk of the CPC for their great good work. Feelgood time at the podium. What good would it do for me to stand up and say: “This document is a burp out of the gaseous guts of hell. Push “Delete,” and sue the consultants to get the money back they charged you for a mess of Kool Aid.”
And let us see in handcuffs the one who wrote in several places:
” . . . maintain a desirable character of such development.”
Name and shame.
Don’t they even see themselves clearly enough to want to conceal the classism? Desirable to whom? To CM Head or Meg Lousteau, Commissars of the Preservationist fantasy? To Mr Motwani, or to Louisiana Landmarks, or perhaps to a committee of three guys in the Orleans Parish hoosegow who can’t make bail on a charge by the Smokeys for some useless minor drug bust on an unwarranted car search? They must really want to make sure that development in the Historic Marigny is desirable.
Preservationism is generally shorthand for Historical Preservationism. Dropping the first word might be indicative, because the preservationism I see in City Hall today generally seems to be un-historical, or more accurately, anti-historical
History means: what happened? Why and how?
VCPORA Preservationism is meant to stop things from happening. They take the red blood out of history. I laugh at them a lot, and they richly deserve it for their distorting approach to facts, re-molding truth to fit their little vision. But I am not mocking real preservationism. At some level, I am probably more preservationist than they are. History includes the clash and clatter and clutter of real life. Life is a million movies, not an old snapshot.
Cautioning about Habana Cafe, Meg brought up their tout ensemble.
Well, she would, wouldn’t she!
Come on, don’t laugh! Tout ensemble is the VCPORA trade mark. The space you can make it all up in. The tout ensemble is a multi functional loophole. Without a judicial interpretation by Justice Roberts on the afternoons he is allowed out, we can tell what the people that put it in meant. Not only should a building or its architectural details meet the standards of historicity, but it should “fit” the neighborhood. So when you decide something doesn’t fit the way you like the neighborhood to be, you send it back up the pipe the wrong way, and you prove by preservation algebra that it must be unhistoric.
These fantasies and the weird height fetish might soon be responsible for some of the most boring cityscapes real urban folk could ever hope to fall asleep in.
The tout ensemble has a time dimension as well.
Did they mean the tout ensemble in 1936, when. The expression was written in the law? Or maybe 1968 – that was a fine year. Or the 90s, when the FQ was supposed to be a pretty lively place. More fun than now, that the gentrification started back in the 1920s has gelled into quite the lace doily neighborhood. Or is the tout ensemble as it is right now the definitive one? This is what Adrien de Pauger had in mind the whole time, so now it must not change.
Fortunately for Habana Outpost, Nicholas Musso and the Architectural Committee have a much more robust idea of what historical really means than VCPORA does. But it still has to survive zoning and maybe the Council. We have been expecting this council to be less goofy than the last one, but you can’t always tell.