The building at 7901 St. Charles Avenue was most recently used to sell French fountains and other decorative stone, but its former use as a gas station dates back to at least 1937, according to city documents. Oster Development of Old Metairie is proposing a three-story, six-unit condo building for the property — which would involve tearing down the old shop.
Don Oster of Oster Development told the City Planning Commission on Tuesday that he is aware of the neighborhood’s attachment to the building, so he looked into whether it could be moved to another site. Unfortunately, he said, the design of the building and its deteriorated condition make moving it impossible.
“The building is in disarray, and could not withstand the attempt to move it,” Oster said. “The building is full, and I do mean full, of active termites. … If I could figure out a way to move the building, I would be happy to do it.”
Oster’s plan drew the support of one nearby neighborhood group, Maple Area Residents Inc. Dorothea Martin, the president of the association, said that it seems unlikely that the building will be renovated, and that if a new use isn’t found, it will simply continue to deteriorate.
“As the streetcar goes by, you’ll be able to point to a ruin,” Martin said.
The city planning staff had recommended against the project as well, citing a number of issues. First, the zoning in that area of St. Charles only permits apartments in historic buildings, not in new construction. Second, the specific type of zoning Oster is requesting is usually reserved for much larger developments — those that take up a half a city block or more.
Neighbors, however, were upset about the size of the building on the corner of Fern Street, and the loss of the unique little building that has for so long been part of the St. Charles Avenue landscape.
“The idea of a six-unit facility on this tiny little lot is so upsetting to me,” said Courtney Bullock, a neighbor on Fern Street. “I can’t believe someone would want this as their neighbor on this cute, quaint street.”
Dennis Herlihy of the Uptown Triangle Neighborhood Association said he attended an informational meeting hosted by the developers, and the majority of the neighbors were opposed to the project there.
“The major concern was the neighborhood emotional attachment to that property and its value, seeing a developer coming in and attempting to demolish a part of our culture,” Herlihy said.
Oster said he understands neighbors’ concerns about parking, but that the condo proposal calls for 12 parking spaces on the site — two for each condo. Any commercial use of the current shop, Oster said, will surely cause more parking congestion in the neighborhood than his condo plan.
“Any use I can think of for that commercial building is going to generate a much larger parking nightmare for that neighborhood than these six condominium homes would,” Oster said.
The City Planning Commissioners were more swayed by the technical argument against the proposal made by the planning staff, which Commissioner Robert Steeg called “clear in its reasoning.” The commission voted 7-0 to deny the developers’ request, but Commissioner Kyle Wedberg urged neighbors to be realistic about the future of the property.
“At some point, a developer is going to come in front of you, and it would behoove the neighborhood to get behind some alternative use,” Wedberg said. “It sounds like the case of this structure is that it doesn’t have much longevity left as a commercial structure.”
The City Planning Commission’s recommendation will be forwarded to the City Council for a final decision.