Dec 102014
 
Halpern's Furnishing Store on St. Charles Avenue, photographed in June. (Robert Morris, UptownMessenger.com)

Halpern’s Furnishing Store on St. Charles Avenue, photographed in June. (Robert Morris, UptownMessenger.com)

The micro-distillery aspect of the proposed Lula restaurant that is slated to replace the Halpern furniture store on St. Charles Avenue easily won the approval of the City Planning Commission on Tuesday, despite some concerns from neighbors about the impact of larger development plans for the block.

The commercial zoning for Halpern’s at 1532 St. Charles Avenue would allow a restaurant, but the distillery aspect requires the permission of the City Council.

“The full concept would be a micro-distillery and a restaurant in the same building — putting a whole Louisiana product in front of our customers, using Louisiana sugar cane to make a vodka, a gin, and a rum,” owner Jess Bourgeois, a veteran of Commander’s Palace and the Superior family of restaurants, told the City Planning Commission on Tuesday. “We would have a very Southern rustic menu as well.”

Attorney Quin Breland said the distillery operation will have a low impact on neighbors. Micro-distilleries are defined as producing 12,000 gallons per year, and Lula expects to produce only 3,000 gallons with just a single employee or two, Breland asid.

“The actual microdistillery footprint will be in the back of this,” Breland said. “We anticipate it will be a showpiece for the restaurant. It will be visible, but it will be a separate premises. This is not a new concept in other parts of the nation, but this is going to be something new here in Louisiana.”

The city planning staff had recommended in favor of the Lula distillery, but with 18 conditions attached governing lighting, landscaping, litter and other operations. For example, retail alcohol sales at the site are limited to the spirits created in-house, so it cannot turn into a traditional liquor store.

The only issue with those conditions raised by the Lula owners regarded signage — while standard city planning conditions prohibit signs advertising alcohol signs (such as neon beer signs), Breland said the store wants to make sure its signs can allude to the distillery operations. The planning staff has indicated they are amenable to that, Breland said.

The proposal has drawn some concern from immediate neighbors, and one of them, Derek Nettles of Melpomene, spoke Tuesday in opposition to the distillery. Part of their concerns relate to the distillery, such as who will regulate the volume of alcohol being produced, the chemicals that will be used and the “sweet smell” that owners have said the operations will emit.

“How do we know what kind of chemicals are being released in our neighborhood?” Nettles asked the commission.

Neighbors’ primary concern, Nettles said, is parking. Few neighbors have driveways, so on-street parking is crucial to them. In the long-term, they are concerned about the broader redevelopment plan for the Prytania Park Hotel, but in the short-term, they have concerns about the 21 parking spaces the restaurant proposes to use jointly with the hotel.

“We don’t know what this joint-use agreement is, who enforces it, or what prevents the hotel guests from parking in these,” Nettles said.

Breland reminded the commission that restaurant — which will require most of the parking — is already permitted by the zoning, and that Tuesday’s hearing was solely on the distillery operation, which only requires one parking space. He also noted that under the new Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance, the micro-distillery would be permitted anyway with no special permission needed.

Meanwhile, Bourgeois has described an intense regulatory process before state and federal officials as far as the licensing of the actual distillery — a thought Breland echoed to the commissioners.

“There will be plenty of sets of eyes looking at the production numbers,” Breland said.

The planning commissioners did not ask any questions about the proposal, but Commissioner Kyle Wedberg said individual businesses cannot solve the city’s parking problems. Alternative forms of transportation ought to be encouraged as often as possible, he said.

“Parking spots, while important, are not going to solve the issues of Magazine and St. Charles,” Wedberg said, praising the Lula proposal for including bicycle and scooter parking. “I think that’s smart, and I’d like to see more of that.”

The commission voted 6-0 in favor of the proposal, which will be forward to the City Council for final approval.

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