In a city that loves to talk about itself, the changes New Orleans has made after Hurricane Katrina and the levee collapses are more and more often the subject of heated conversation and debate. With an influx of economic development, where do we relax our stringent standards for authenticity and historic preservation, and where do we uphold them? And who decides?
That’s a tension the newly elected New Orleans City Council will attempt to balance Thursday, when a developer will appeal for the right to tear down several small historic (but neglected) buildings at 105-111 Tchoupitoulas Street and 422 Canal Street to build a 21-story hotel.
The project, spearheaded by Kishore "Mike" Motwani of Jayshree Hospitality LLC and the Minnesota-based hospitality management company Wischermann Partners Inc., seeks to build two hotels, a Marriott Residence Inn and a Marriott Springhill Suites.
The $120 million project has been rejected twice — first by the Central Business District Historic Landmarks Commission (HDLC) and then by the Architectural Review Committee. Among the loudest voices opposing the project is the Preservation Resource Center, whose senior advocate, Michelle Kimball, says it’s uncommon for the City Council to approve a project that’s already been denied twice by government entities. Still, Kimball is uncertain. “You never know when you’re coming on with a new City Council what might happen,” she says.
The City Council has issued few clues as to how its members might vote tomorrow. Council President Stacy Head declined comment on the matter, while District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who represents the district that includes the proposed development, issued a lukewarm statement without taking a side.
“She’s currently looking at it,” says spokesperson David Winkler-Schmit. “There are a lot of different things to consider.”
A spokesperson for Mayor Mitch Landrieu says the mayor opposes tearing down the historic buildings.
Sean O’Laughlin, vice-president of development and construction for Wischermann, says it’s not up to a few disgruntled neighbors to decide whether New Orleans plays host to a $120 million redevelopment project on its main street, which already is lined with high-rise national hotels.
“It truly is (the leadership of the City Council) that needs to make this decision on behalf of the greater good, the city,” says O’Laughlin. “Or, is it going to be the chosen few of immediate neighbors that will have the larger voice? I say today that I think the project is more about the street of Canal than it is about the neighbor across the way. And that is hard to say. The last person I want to be is the big bad developer.”
According to O’Laughlin, restoring the buildings simply won’t work for the plans the developers have in mind. The long, slender buildings, he says, which are roughly 20 feet wide and 100 feet long, don’t meet the requirements of the Marriott or modern-day construction demands. “You can’t build higher than the existing building because they can’t support anything over them,” he says. “They are supported on foundations of hay bales back from the early 1800’s.” O’Laughlin adds that “they’re generally termite-infested, and they require new internal structures and beams to support what you want to do with your new project.”
No one argues that the buildings proposed for demolition are dilapidated. They have been cited by the HDLC for demolition by neglect, but critics of the project point out that the owner who has let them fall into disrepair is Motwani himself.
The Picayune Place Historic District, which is bounded by Camp, Common, Tchoupitoulas and Poydras Streets, mandates a 70-foot height limit on buildings. The developers want to build a 250-foot building with a 100-foot spire on top, so they also would need a height waiver. The height, O’Laughlin says, is crucial to the project and non-negotiable, since that’s the space the project needs to generate revenue.
“That’s why it has ended up at the height that it is,” he says. “I think a more aggressive developer would definitely take the project taller. Because what is unique about the New Orleans market is that the hotel demand is there to support more hotel rooms. And we could easily put 500 rooms on that site.” (The plans call for 373 rooms.)
“The city subdivided the property and sold the property to different developers,” Kimball says. “Those developers were a really mixed bag of people. There were free people of color that owned some of the properties, there was Paul Tulane, who owned one of those buildings. If you’ve seen the history of the buildings, it’s really rich.”
Motwani has come under fire by preservationists for his many T-shirt and souvenir shops in the French Quarter, earning him a reputation that O’Laughlin calls unfair. “He’s one of your largest retailers in the city,” he says. “He’s one of your largest retail employers in the city. He’s one of those French Quarter owners. He’s created unique brands of stores. Is it not enough for a person to spend $100 million on a new project, to try to change a site or a block and still get peppered with ‘He’s not doing enough?’”
Gambit tried to get Motwani to speak about the project, with no success. His partners in the project have directed all media inquiries to O’Laughlin. (Motwani also did not return calls to The Advocate for a story that paper ran in March, and in a Times-Picayune article earlier this week the real estate mogul is also silent.)
O’Laughlin, who serves as the project’s spokesperson, is based in Minnesota. Asked why he is the spokesperson for a project in New Orleans that is being co-developed by Motwani’s own local hospitality company, he says that hotel developments of this nature are his company’s forte “and there isn’t necessarily a local in town who can bring these brands to town. … And there might not be a local developer that could have brought this development to town.”
As for why Motwani hasn’t weighed in on the project at 400 Canal Street, O’Laughlin chooses his words carefully: “He’s a large landowner, a wealthy person. He can be passionate about what he wants to do here. And sometimes, I will say, his passion can carry him to … He may not understand why somebody wouldn’t like this. And his passion will speak louder when he talks. And I think he’s being protective at this point. He doesn’t want to say something that will hurt his place and he thinks the right people are on this to help his place.”
One thing on which everyone agrees is that the corner of Canal and Tchoupitoulas streets is one of the city’s premier intersections.
“(It is) perhaps most iconic landmark site locations in the city,” says O’Laughlin. “It is literally at the intersection of the CBD, the Convention Center and the French Quarter, and a statement should be made at that location.”
Kimball agrees about the corner, but says, “Looking at it from a strict preservation point of view, this particular block in New Orleans is one of the most significant historically, in the history of New Orleans.”
The standstill comes from the reluctance on both sides to compromise, O’Laughlin says. “No one has come to us to say, ‘Would you consider keeping this particular facade? It’s very important to us,’” says O’Laughlin. “Part of me says that just putting facade for ‘facadism’ may ruin what you want your building to look like, but I also say we need to get our project done, and we need to work together. And would I consider saving a façade or two? Yes, I would consider that. But I’m not the type that starts the negotiations first. I’d rather see the parties work together.”
In a broader sense, the successful or unsuccessful derailment of the Motwani project will speak to the real agents of change in New Orleans. With development happening all over the city, from the mixed-use development proposed for the Holy Cross neighborhood to the contended Habana Outpost restaurant at the corner of N. Rampart Street and Esplanade Avenue, the neighbors who have been most successful in changing or even halting construction typically have the voices and the resources to resist those changes. In many underserved communities, a project that brings redevelopment and jobs is sold as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — whereas with projects in booming areas like the CBD, it’s often a question of waiting for the next proposal.
Peter Duffy Bennett, an urban planner and researcher at the University of New Orleans, points out that each proposed development in the “new New Orleans” has been different depending on who’s complaining.
“It hasn't been the same story each time, and more privileged, connected, wealthier groups have had better (for them) results,” Bennett said in an email. “It also is troubling that the number of voices you can gather has become the measure of whether anyone listens, not the merits of your argument. People raised a stink about the Habana Outpost for years, even though the project didn't have any issues identified by the city; it was just people who didn't like it. The loud voices won.”
That, he says, is the reason for the city’s Master Plan — the document organized with community input after Hurricane Katrina to create long-term, sustainable goals for New Orleans. The Master Plan requires developers to seek approval from the HDLC, and violating that procedure, as well as constantly looking for exceptions from zoning ordinances, undermines that process.
“It sets a precedent that any future project can get approved by one-time exceptions to the rules,” Bennett says. “The reason why planners aren't happy about that is not that we want to tell people what to do, it's because the plan is supposed to be what the community wants. It was created through many community meetings and other forms of input.”
The developers will go before the New Orleans City Council for a vote Thursday, and O’Laughlin says that both he and Motwani will be present. A public notice sent out this afternoon by the City Council said the issue is scheduled to be heard at 12 p.m.