Feb 032011
 

The Uptowner, 438 Henry Clay Avenue (Sabree Hill, UptownMessenger.com)

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.”

Greg Sonnier of The Gabrielle restaurant addresses the Audubon-Riverside neighborhood earlier this week about his desire to reopen his restaurant on Henry Clay Avenue. (Sabree Hill, UptownMessenger.com)

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.

  2 Responses to “City Council rejects Gabrielle’s petition to reopen on Henry Clay”

  1. The council can joke as much as they want, but this was a travesty. My understanding is this building has been commercial for over a century, and the immediate prior use was that of a reception hall. A reception hall isn’t substantially different from a restaurant, and I gather that the only reason the Uptowner didn’t generate parking issues, etc., is because it wasn’t terribly successful. A fully booked reception hall will generate approximately the same traffic as a restaurant, if not more.

    Clarkson is correct that this was spot-zoning, but it was spot-zoned because of the historic use of the building. There are commercial structures mixed in residential neighborhoods throughout the city. From a planning perspective, we’re supposed to support mixed-use development; the combination of housing, restaurants and retail. If the city’s new master plan is trying to separate commercial uses as much as possible from residential uses, then it is fatally flawed and amounts to a suburban zoning scheme. Frankly, it’s cases like this that make me want to abolish zoning altogether. New Orleans originally developed organically. You can’t preserve what makes New Orleans unique through regimented zoning laws.

    I’m especially disappointed in Susan Guidry on this. Neighborhood associations are not the gold standard when it comes to whether a development is warranted. If you have a “community veto,” then the community is going to veto anything that might inconvenience them in the slightest, no matter how trivial their concerns. I expect councilmembers to rise above that and make the most reasonable decision. Given the historic use of this building, the upscale nature of the restaurant, and the concessions made by Mr. Sonnier, I don’t see how there was a well-reasoned basis for denying his petition.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by laurabergerol, JC. JC said: This is despicable. Shame on you City Council! #nola RT @UptownMessenger: Recap of city council rejecting the Gabrielle http://bit.ly/fSzxkh […]

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