The New Orleans City Council delivered a unanimous message Thursday to the owners of the former Gabrielle restaurant: Please reopen your restaurant, but not on Uptown’s Henry Clay Avenue.
“There are many locations that would be appropriate,” said Councilwoman Susan Guidry, after a lengthy explanation of her reasons for opposing the Sonniers’ request to convert The Uptowner banquet hall into a revival of the Gabrielle. “I do not believe this is one.”
Throughout his years of fighting to open at 438 Henry Clay Avenue, Greg Sonnier has long maintained that he bought the Uptowner building after Katrina-related flooding destroyed his old location under the impression that it could be operated as a restaurant, only to be told by the city afterward that it could only be a banquet hall. Guidry, however, specifically rejected this argument, saying Sonnier requested an assurance from its seller that the Uptowner could operate as a restaurant, was rejected and bought the building anyway.
“I can find no evidence that the applicant had reason to believe he was purchasing property that could legally be used as a restaurant,” Guidry said.
Among Guidry’s other concerns were Sonnier’s failure to find support among the surrounding neighborhood associations and the fact that Henry Clay Avenue has no other businesses on it. The type of historic corner business that would be allowed should have large plate-glass windows and doors on the street corner, not the residential-style construction of The Uptowner, she said.
One major concern about the Gabrielle has been the availability of parking, and this week Sonnier announced a plan to provide valet parking to a nearby lot associated with Children’s Hospital unused during dinner hours. To that, Guidry replied that “we’ve seen no such contract,” and concluded that the neighborhood is already well-served by restaurants in walking distance.
“As much as it may serve a want, it does not serve a need,” Guidry said.
Guidry’s rationale for opposing the zoning change was echoed by the other council members, prior to their eventual 6-0 vote denying the Sonnier’s request. The two at-large members, Arnie Fielkow and Jackie Brechtel Clarkson, both emphasized what they saw as inconsistency with the city’s recently-approved master plan.
“This was spot zoning before the master plan. This would have been wrong before the master plan,” Clarkson said. “The whole purpose of the master plan is so the Greg and Mary Sonniers of the future will know the rules before they sign.”
Opposition from the neighborhood ran along similar lines to previous meetings, and included several of the same speakers, including former Councilman Eddie Sapir. Parking was a chief concern, as was the general issue of allowing a restaurant into the neighborhood.
“It would open a virtual Pandora’s Box of rezoning requests. It is time for these spot zoning requests to stop,” argued Kent Blackwell, president of the Burtheville Association of Neighbors. “Would you want your next door neighbor to suddenly wake up and decide a large destination restaurant is a good idea?”
Sonnier brought in two longtime allies, local food writer Lorin Gaudin and celebrated chef Leah Chase, who urged the city to consider the Gabrielle issue from the perspective of what it would bring to the city, some jobs, more taxes and a step closer to becoming Chase’s vision of a “city of gastronomy.”
“These are brilliant chefs,” Gaudin said. “They are brilliant people.”
Sonnier kept his comments to the council brief, only reiterating his belief that valet parking should have solved the majority of the neighborhood problems and that his restaurant would be an asset to the city. The discussion had opened with Guidry’s motion to reject his request, however, and after his long struggle, Sonnier seemed resigned to that outcome.
“I know after four years of trying to resolve this battle, it’s a hard cause,” Sonnier said.
Several council members likewise professed their patronage of the former Gabrielle restaurant, and the impending decision to deny the Sonniers’ location on Henry Clay set off a bidding war of sorts among the council members. Councilwoman Stacy Head suggested O.C Haley Boulevard, Mid City or Broad Street.
“If you decide to open a restaurant elsewhere, come see my office,” Head said.
Clarkson then remarked on how long she had known the Sonniers.
“I would like to invite you back to Algiers where you belong,” Clarkson said, drawing a joking rebuke from Head. Clarkson continued, “We don’t have a restaurant the quality of yours or Ms. Chase.”
Councilman Jon Johnson then made his own offer: “Forget Uptown, forget Algiers,” he said. “Come out to New Orleans East!”
Contact Robert Morris at rmorris@NolaMessenger.com, or post your comment below.