The three-year battle over the opening of Cafe Habana at Rampart Street and Esplanade Avenue likely came to its end on March 12, when the New Orleans City Council denied cafe opponents' appeal to strike down approved plans.
Cafe Habana — a Cuban restaurant with locations in New York, California and Dubai — had faced opposition from neighborhood groups like French Quarter Citizens and Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates when the restaurant introduced plans to turn an abandoned gas station and neighboring property into an expansive restaurant. Cafe Habana owner Sean Meenan first submitted plans to the city in 2012.
Opponents fear the restaurant will bring unwanted traffic to the neighborhood on the edge of the French Quarter and that the design is out of character with that neighborhood and the neighboring Faubourg Marigny. In January, the Vieux Carre Commission approved design plans, followed by the New Orleans City Planning Commission's approval in February.
Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association President Lisa Suarez said the group isn't against Cafe Habana itself, but rather "the quality of life issues that come with the development."
"I don't want to circumvent the process, that's why I'm here," said Meenan, adding that he has worked with other cities to develop Cafe Habana sites. "I have no idea what laws I'm breaking."
But City Council President Stacy Head said Meenan has been delinquent on property taxes for other properties he owns — exclaiming after the vote that Meenan "owes a shitload of taxes." Head and District A Councilwoman Susan Guidry ultimately voted in favor of the neighborhood groups' request to overturn the design plans, but four other members of the council rejected the request, killing it by a 4-2 vote. (District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell was absent.)
"You would think most would be happy to see this blighted property brought into commerce, and you'd be right," said District C Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, whose district includes the proposed location. "But it hasn't been without opposition."
At-large Councilman Jason Williams called the three-year period "atrocious," adding, "It's going to be impossible to get an Ikea or a Bass Pro Shop in New Orleans East if they hear they'll be stymied." Williams also said he voted "against his own interest" as a French Quarter resident, and said his vote made him less likely to be invited by his neighbors for a glass of wine.