As Oak Street’s status among New Orleans “going out” destinations continues to rise, a number of residents’ groups have engaged a planning firm to help them ensure that the “mixed use” commercial corridor evolves into something more diverse than a strip of bars and restaurants.
Carrollton-Audubon Renaissance Inc., formed by residents’ groups from around the Carrollton area, is sponsoring a study by the planning firm Villavaso and Associates to help define the “neighborhood mixed use” zoning designation currently slated for Oak Street. The firm has created a complete list of the current uses of buildings on Oak Street, and planners are now meeting with individual business owners and residents to determine how they would like to see the rest of the street develop. After public hearings about their findings, they will draft language about Oak Street to be inserted into the new Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance the city is assembling now, said planner Steve Villavaso of the University of New Orleans at a meeting last week of the Carrollton Riverbend Neighborhood Association.
“We have put Oak Street under our microscope,” Villavaso said. “We have the opportunity to embed our vision and our rules in this new zoning ordinance.”
For example, most new restaurants seeking liquor licenses along Oak Street over the last year have signed agreements with the association with provisions intended to keep them from becoming bars, such as promising to maintain sales of more food than alcohol, closing around midnight or earlier, and prohibiting video poker. Those agreements have all been fairly similar, and if people along the street generally view those as fair conditions, they may be written into the zoning, Villavaso said.
“We might actually put that in the law,” Villavaso said.
Another example — illustrated at Thursday night’s meeting — was ongoing discussions with the developers of a proposed Mellow Mushroom pizza restaurant. The neighborhood is generally in favor of alcohol sales at the restaurant using its usual agreement, but neighbors are concerned that the developers’ request for regular live music could allow the establishment to one day become a performance venue.
The study will seek to find standard answers to those questions for Oak Street, Villavaso said, but the process is still in the early stages, and the planners will base their recommendations on what they hear from the Oak Street community.
“We don’t come with any preconceived judgments,” Villavaso said. “We don’t know what the right toolbox for Oak Street from 2012 to 2020 is.”
A number of the 30 or so people at the meeting said they like the current configuration of Oak Street, a combination of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, galleries, professional services and retail establishments. What they don’t want to see, they said, is Oak Street become another Frenchman Street.
“Whatever you think of Frenchman Street, it was a grand experiment that went awry,” Villavaso agreed. “The city several years ago tried to plan and control what happened on French Street, and I assure you, it went kablooie. It’s fun, but it’s all clubs, it’s all alcohol and it’s all music.”
One attendee, who declined to share his name after the meeting, said that legislation could not prevent that outcome, and that it would only happen if private developers felt comfortable coming to Oak Street. But Jerry Speir, president of Carrollton-Audubon Renaissance Inc., pointed out that a number of buildings on Oak remain vacant, and that they could potentially become the next set of bars.
“In the last few years, there’s obviously been a lot of change on Oak Street, and there’s a lot of concern at every juncture about what it’s all about,” said Speir, also a former president of the Carrollton-Riverbend association. “How do you make sure it remains mixed use, that there are daytime uses and night-time uses, and that not everything is a restaurant or a bar?”
Villavaso predicted that the City Council will vote on the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance next year, and that Carrollton must have the study complete and its recommendations in place in time in order to be heard.
“Nothing we do here is going to affect that, unless we get going here,” Villavaso said. “We have a golden opportunity to influence that.”