Mar 282014
 
The former Uptowner banquet hall at 438 Henry Clay Avenue. (Robert Morris, UptownMessenger.com)

The former Uptowner banquet hall at 438 Henry Clay Avenue. (Robert Morris, UptownMessenger.com)

A sign at the Uptowner alerting neighbors of a proposed prisoner re-entry program. (Robert Morris, UptownMessenger.com)

A sign at the Uptowner alerting neighbors of a proposed prisoner re-entry program. (Robert Morris, UptownMessenger.com)

For years, chef Greg Sonnier fought to reopen his old Mid-City restaurant Gabrielle in a banquet hall on Henry Clay Avenue known as the Uptowner, but neighbors eventually convinced the New Orleans City Council to keep the building zoned residential, and Sonnier moved on to become executive chef at the new French Quarter restaurant Kingfish.

Now, Sonnier says he has a plan for The Uptowner that will suit both him and the building’s residential zoning: The Orleans Parish Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative. Local and state corrections officials, however, say they are not involved in or aware of the project.

A sign hanging on the building’s exterior announces the project as “The ‘O.P.P.R.I.’ House, Orleans Parish Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative, a partnership with the O.P.P. and the La. Department of Corrections.” The sign makes note of the official zoning of the building as RD-4, and states that a “small group home” is a permitted use under that zoning.

“Note: The maximum number of residents (unrelated released prisoners) at 438 Henry Clay Avenue is limited to six (6),” the note states.

In an interview Thursday afternoon, Sonnier confirmed that the halfway house is a direction he’s pursuing for the building. He said he was approached by a nonprofit (which he declined to name while negotiations are in progress) that is seeking a grant for the program, and that he would lease the Uptowner to them.

Sonnier said his personal involvement has been limited, except to double-check that the use is already allowed under the city land-use laws.

“It qualifies for that zoning,” said Sonnier, who also still lives nearby on Henry Clay. “I think it’s good direction to take it in, and I think the neighbors will embrace something like that.”

It is unclear how far the project has gotten, however. Pam Laborde of the state Department of Corrections said she was unaware of any prisoner re-entry programs planned for Uptown New Orleans, and the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office is not affiliated with it in any way, said spokesman Phil Stelly.

“We are not aware of any partnership between OPP and DPS&C to create a group home on Henry Clay Ave.,” wrote Darryl Campbell of the Department of Public Safety & Corrections on Friday morning.

The Sheriff’s Office does have partnerships elsewhere in the city to help people transition back into society once they are released from prison, an important aspect of preventing recidivism, Stelly said.

“The first 72 hours after a person is released is the most difficult for them,” Stelly said. “We try to connect them to services that former inmates can connect to, to get them back on track and not come back to us.”

In the meantime, what is clear is that The Uptowner’s tenure as a banquet hall seems to be over. Sonnier said he is now focused on Kingfish in the French Quarter, where business is “booming,” and that he has removed most of his commercial kitchen equipment and other belongings from 438 Henry Clay Avenue.

“My part of it was to get everything out,” Sonnier said.

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  • Paulette

    What a wonderful opportunity for the uptown crowd – through volunteering and donations – to help make a difference in reducing recidivism.

  • BrianK

    Good for you Greg! Silly neighborhood lets a Walgreens get built, houses to be torn down constantly but won’t let you open your restaurant in an thoroughly mixed use neighborhood. Hope they like their new neighbors!

  • elsbet

    Maybe a retired judge in the neighborhood will find an opportunity to do some volunteer work in this continuation of the justice process!

  • Darrell Kocha

    Allowing these former prisoners to stay in a beautiful house in a nice neighborhood so close to Audubon Park, rather than simply kicking them to the curb, would go a long way in showing them that they really can reintegrate into society. I hope the neighbors will be welcoming to these folks who’ve paid their debt to society.

    • Owen Courrèges

      Agreed. And let’s not forget that this delivers a valuable lesson to the people who opposed a perfectly reasonable request by the Sonniers to open a restaurant there on a zoning technicality. I doubt they’ll prefer this to an upscale restaurant. Zoning is a double-edged sword like that.

  • BobB

    I’m sure Judge Eddie will welcome this wonderful criminal justice initiative.
    Great use of a R-4 zoned building. A helping hand is always appreciated.
    I’ll be eating at Kingfish regularly . What an incredible humanitarian.

  • Uptownmark

    Zoning will not allow this. Per Section 11.22-a Small group homes can not be located within 1320 feet of each other. There is a group home at the corner of Henry Clay and Annunciation approx. 400 feet from the Uptowner.

    • Owen Courrèges

      Uptownmark,

      I’m not sure that’s true. It depends on the classification of the other facility, and there is more than one under the zoning code. It could, for example, technically be a residential care facility.

      However, in checking your argument I found another major problem here: The zoning ordinance states that for group homes, ” former inmates of prisons or correctional institutions … shall be excluded as occupants.” That would seem to encompass Orleans Parish Prison, although one could argue it is aimed more at state prisons and not parish jails.

      I have to admit that I’m not sure this will work.

      • Owen Courrèges

        Yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve reviewed the issue, but I wonder if New Orleans’ zoning laws would really pass muster under the Fair Housing Act as applied to halfway houses and group homes. Municipalities have to tread lightly; if a court holds that the zoning is being used to keep those scary addicts out, it’s going to fail and the city’s going to be paying some penalties.

  • broadmoorer

    I actually love this. I hope it works out. :)

  • Moses

    Mr. Sonnier is brilliant. Given the choice of a prisoner rehab or a banquet hall – where do you think this is going to go – seriously now. A banquet hall is starting to look goooooooood. Brilliant strategy!

  • Owen Courrèges

    Jenny,

    I wouldn’t love it but I wouldn’t necessarily hate it either. It would depend on the quality of the residents and the nonprofit managing the house. Then again, that characterizes how I look at anything moving in nearby — I don’t prejudge and whine about vague, potential impacts.

  • Owen Courrèges

    JennyB,

    I’m glad he’s salvaging things after his plans for a restaurant were unfairly killed by neighborhood busybodies. In any case, I doubt he’ll be seeing big bucks from leasing the building to a nonprofit managing a halfway house.

  • Darrell Kocha

    I’ve lived near halfway houses in the past and never had any trouble. Most are simply trying to get on with their lives after learning a very difficult lesson. We should try to get to know our neighbors before prejudging them.

    • boathead12

      There’s a federal halfway house on Napoleon and Camp. They’ve never been a problem in the 15 years I’ve lived near them.

  • boathead12
  • johnson6

    Great work, Mr Sonnier! A great public service, a fantastic move to put a lovely building back into use, and an explosive missile of irony launched toward neighbors who abhorred the “awful” notion of a high-end restaurant within an unaffordable, mixed-use, high-priced neighborhood. Well done!