An Uptown Pilates studio has been allowed to resume construction on its controversial new Magazine Street building even as it continues negotiating with the city over its final design and parking requirements.
A packed meeting of the Audubon-Riverside Neighborhood Association attended by city officials and representatives of Romney Pilates led residents upset about the studio’s impact on the neighborhood to conclude that there is little they can do other than strive for better notification about similar projects in the future.
The studio owners first took their building plans before the city’s Board of Zoning Adjustments in 2009 for two issues – its position relative to Magazine Street and the amount of parking it would require, according to officials and public documents. City staff members recommended the building be oriented closer to Magaine Street, but with parking along the side to prevent departing customers from having to back onto Magazine. At an August 2009 zoning-board meeting, this concept was approved, along with a waiver allowing the studio to have only four parking spaces instead of the 14 its square footage would require.
Construction did not begin until late 2010, and complaints from surprised neighbors quickly followed.
“As the building went up, people were very concerned that the building was very tall,” said Peggy Adams, a member and past president of the Audubon-Riverside Neighborhood Association who led the Romney Pilates discussion last week. “As the third story went up, people became more concerned.”
The three-story structure attracted the concern of Mayor Mitch Landrieu last month at about the same time as the rest of the neighborhood began to take notice, said Michael Sherman, who represented Landrieu’s office at the ARNA meeting.
“His first comment to himself was, ‘This building just looks out of scope and out of size with everything else around. Can this really be legal?’” Sherman said.
That third story has become a flashpoint of sorts, as many critics say it was improperly left out of the original presentation to the zoning board, which includes a drawing of a two-story building. Romney attorney Justin Schmidt said that drawing was merely intended to illustrate the orientation of the building with a parking lot on the side, rather than the appearance of the building itself, but many at the meeting said they felt it misled the board.
“I wish it had been required that they build what they presented to BZA, the two story building,” said Adams, noting that the lack of such a requirement limits the neighborhood’s current options. “The amount of leverage that exists to influence the building is somewhat limited.”
“There should be very tight requirements as to what is to be submitted,” agreed City Councilwoman Susan Guidry. “If the BZA had seen the building that is now planned, they might have thought differently, given the mass of that building right at the sidewalk.
“We don’t want to stop economic development,” Guidry said also. “It’s just the mass of the building, the size of the building for the property, we believe is outsized.”
At one point, Guidry called for a show of hands of the 50 or so people crowding the Laurel Street Bakery for the meeting: How many people in the audience came in opposition to the project? More than half the hands in the room were raised.
Of those people, Guidry then asked how many were concerned about the design, and how many about parking. To that question, many more hands were raised about the parking issues – though Guidry acknowledged that the pedestrian-friendly atmosphere of Magazine Street prohibits full-sized parking lots around every new business.
Still, reducing the number of required parking spaces so drastically from 14 to four was “an ill-advised decision in already stressed neighborhood,” said Sherman, referring to Whole Foods supermarket and the proliferation of other, smaller businesses on the block. In fact, the Landrieu administration was so concerned about it that officials re-measured the Romney building once construction had begun, recalculated the number of parking spaces required, and found it to be 15 – allowing the city to halt construction temporarily during December to re-evaluate. Officials decided that the 10-space waiver from 2009 still applied, however, and could only technically require one additional space on the site, which the building owners found by moving a dumpster.
With construction allowed to resume, both the parking and the design issues are being addressed by the studio owners now, Schmidt said. The third “floor” was actually intended only to be a high ceiling in the front, so the owners are now seeking approval from the state fire marshal’s office for a “camelback” design that would significantly reduce the building’s face on Magazine Street. Beyond that change, however, the studio owners do not want to reduce the actual square footage from their current building farther down Magazine – the need for more space was one of the initial reasons for the move, Schmidt said.
“The mayor would love to see it reduced as much as possible,” Sherman said of the upper story, acknowledging the studio’s effort.
With regard to parking, the studio is attempting to secure agreements with nearby businesses to use their parking after their hours, Schmidt said.
“To date, we have five,” Schmidt said. “As you’re aware, parking is at a premium.”
With the understanding that the studio’s current actions likely comprise all that can be required to accommodate the neighborhood, residents began asking how they could have been so surprised by this building to begin with. For starters, current law only requires a property owner to notify his immediately-adjacent neighbors of requested changes – not the neighborhood association, Guidry said.
In fact, the city in 2009 did suggest that the Romney developers speak to the Audubon-Riverside group. Schmidt produced an email showing that a former ARNA president told the developers that the group couldn’t support a reduction in parking, but that they were not opposed to the project as a whole.
The current ARNA board members said they were unaware that any such letter had been sent. The email made the association “look terrible,” said current president Ray Cannata, a notion that other board members agreed with as they tried to dissect how it got sent.
“What could we say to anyone at that point?” asked board member Tim Betzbe.
Adams said she believes the studio was never formally discussed by the board, but that it had only come up in a passing conversation after a meeting one night, as the past president mentioned that the lot was going to be used for a Pilates studio. The studio’s actual requests were not discussed, and no vote was ever taken, Adams said.
ARNA, however, is not the only neighborhood that has expressed concern with the Pilates building; both Hurstville and Upper Hurstville have as well. Schmidt said that when the city directed the developers to talk to ARNA, it never mentioned the other two groups.
“If Hurstville and Upper Hurstville didn’t get notice of it because they weren’t on that list, I don’t think that’s something you can hang on Hunter and Erin,” Schmidt said, referring to Hunter Cazes and Erin Romney, the husband-and-wife owners of Romney Pilates.
The need for better notification ended as the one point most broadly agreed upon. State Rep. Neil Abramson spoke briefly on the topic, saying, “I wish this meeting had taken place a year ago.”
“My hope is that one of the things that come out of this is that this is required,” Adams said of formal notice to neighborhood associations. “The process is a little bit broken and I hope will be changed.”
That change is underway, Sherman said, citing both the city’s new Office of Neighborhoods and its nascent Neighborhood Participation Plan.
“One debate we’ll hopefully never be having again is, ‘I didn’t get notice of this,’” Sherman said.
Contact Robert Morris at rmorris@NolaMessenger.com, or post your comment below.