A New Orleans developer presented his vision for a five-story condo building with a large ground-floor gym to Oak Street residents and neighbors Tuesday night, drawing questions and concerns about the scale of the project among expressions of general enthusiasm for the concept.
George Fowler IV has three lots under contract centered on 8616 Oak, and his initial plan shows a 3,000 square foot commercial space on the ground floor with 46 parking spaces, and 24 condo units in four floors above in a building called Oak Lofts. A gym open to both residents and the general public would be an ideal use for the commercial space, he said, but that and nearly every other element of the project are still open to reconsideration in this phase of design, Fowler said.
“I want something that’s going to fit into the neighborhood, that everyone in the neighborhood is going to like,” Fowler said.
About 60 people packed a vacant storefront on Oak Street (the future home of the Ale expansion of Oak wine bar) to discuss the concept, and most offered some support for Fowler’s idea of higher-density living space on the street. More foot traffic and residents, many agreed, will make the neighborhood safer. But almost all of them expressed some sort of concern about the project as well — either about its size, the amount of parking provided, or its design.
The most commonly-voiced concern was about the size of the building. Five stories would be the largest building on the street, and the proposed 56-foot height would actually require special permission from the city to exceed the 50-foot height limit. Three, or even four stories would be better, many said.
“We don’t need the biggest building in Carrollton at that end of Oak Street,” said Jerry Speir, a member of the Carrollton-Riverbend Neighborhood Association. Speir also questioned whether the height limit at that end of the street might actually be lower than 50 feet.
Others said the mass of the building against Oak Street appeared too large, and that reducing the corners or recessing the upper stories back from the street would help the building fit in visually.
Neighbors split on the issue of parking. The plan includes 10 spaces for the commercial area, one for each of the 24 condos, and 12 more to be sold as extras to the condo owners or reserved for their guests, Fowler said. Some argued that each condo should have two spaces, while others said the project should encourage less dependency on cars through fewer spaces.
The initial design of the building also drew mixed reviews. Some criticized it, saying it was out of place on Oak Street, and urged architect Charles Neyrey to create a facade that better fits the “urban fabric” of the corridor. Others said they did not care whether the design was more modern or historical, as long as the building was constructed from quality materials.
A handful of neighbors mentioned that they would prefer more neighborhood retail in the ground-floor commercial space, such as a small grocery or shops to replace the recently departed hardware store. Ralph Driscoll of the Oak Street merchants association and others said they thought the gym would be an asset, however.
Resident Drew Ward said, however, that the only way for neighborhood-oriented businesses to stay afloat is if there are more neighbors around it, which means higher density and perhaps five stories. Ward said a large building would also be more historically accurate — it used to be said you could walk down Oak in the rain without getting wet because of all the overhanging balconies, though many of those larger buildings have been lost to fire or other disasters. (Fowler asked the gathered neighbors what they thought of those balconies, and many agreed that they would like to see more of them.)
Oak Street already has a building somewhat analogous to Fowler’s proposal, a three-story condo building in the 8400 block with 12 units and 18 parking spaces, and many neighbors mentioned it favorably Tuesday evening. Anne Wolfe, president of the residents’ association there, said Fowler’s project could benefit from more parking per unit and being reduced slightly in size, to make it similar to her building.
“I think they could do something very nice if they kept it along that scale,” Wolfe said.
Cambronne Street resident Autumn Dawn urged Fowler not to think purely in terms of getting the maximum price per square foot for his project, but to think of the needs of the broader neighborhood. Many residents just a few blocks off of Oak cannot afford to eat at the restaurants on the corridor, and the solution to crime and other neighborhood issues is not to bring more wealthy residents in, but to provide more economic opportunity to the poorer residents, she said.
“Our neighborhood is in a hotbed of gentrification,” Dawn said. “We’re really on a fault line here.”
Others more generally urged Fowler to make the project — his first of this scale — one that he can be proud of into the future, and he promised to give all their suggestions serious consideration, reminding them that he too is from New Orleans. After the meeting, he said he wasn’t surprised by the strong opinions expressed.
“I felt like they generally supported the project,” Fowler said. “But like any good project, you’ve got to work with the neighbors to make sure it fits with people’s vision for their neighborhood.”
Nearby neighbor Marshall Hevron said after the meeting that, while he shared some of the concerns about the details of the building’s size and scale, the concept aligns with the way most residents see Oak Street now.
“No one said, ‘Not over my dead body,'” Hevron said.
To read our live coverage of the meeting, see below.