Lower Garden District residents first got wind of changes afoot at the site — a Schwegmann’s before it became a Robert grocery in 1999, and vacant since Hurricane Katrina — in the spring of 2015, when they learned that the property owners were negotiating with City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell to change the classification of the property in the master plan. While the exact plans for the property were unclear at the time, residents noted that the change cleared the way for a large development.
Last November, developers with Edwards Communities met directly with the Coliseum Square Association to present their plan for a four-story apartment development with a corner space for retail, a garage and several outdoor courtyards. The reaction from neighbors was mixed — some worried about the increase in residential density on the neighborhood, while others expressed relief that the plan wasn’t for a higher-intensity commercial use.
The developers appeared Jan. 25 before the City Planning Commission with two specific requests: increase the height to 60 feet — but not the number of floors — and reduce the minimum size of each unit from 1,000 square feet to 535 square feet. The city planning staff had suggested that the request be denied, saying the extra height was not justified and that the density could be achieved by other means.
Avery Foret, an attorney representing the developers, told the commissioners that the site poses unique challenges, surrounded by traditional single- and two-family homes but near the major future expansion of the Convention Center. The requested height increase will allow for higher ceilings on the ground floor, and Annunciation Street is broad enough to support a taller building, said Mike Sherman, another attorney on the development team.
“It’s zoned for higher-intensity commercial medium boxes, but in all our meetings with the neighbors, nobody is looking for a medium-box store on Annunciation,” Sherman said. “Multi-family has been well received by the community on this site.”
Most of the height will be within the 50 feet, the developers noted — the extra space is primarily for architectural details at the corners of the building.
“We could build a building in 50 feet, but we think because of our uniqueness of having 10-foot ceilings in the units, we can create better architecture if we get the condition,” said Stephen Caplinger.
Rosa Dunlap, a Constance Street neighbor of the site, spoke on behalf of the Coliseum Square Association in support of the project. She praised Edwards for seeking input on the project, for seeking a height increase solely for the architectural details, and for creating a plan that will serve working-class New Orleanians.
“This proposal is primarily residential in nature, which is less intensive than what could be developed there by right,” Dunlap said.
The project is envisioned as high-quality “workforce” housing — defined as people who make 80 to 120 percent of average medium income, the developers said. Commissioner Craig Mitchell said he understood average income in New Orleans to be around $36,000, but that the traditional definition of workforce housing is 60 percent of average income, not 80 to 120 percent.
“Is this about affordable housing, or is this about economic feasibility for the applicant?” Mitchell asked.
The developers are using the term to mean an average worker, as opposed to a luxury apartment, Sherman said. Mitchell said the city needs a better description of “workforce housing,” so that this developer’s usage does not become standard.
No one from the neighborhood spoke in opposition to the project. Banks McClintock, another member of the Coliseum Square Association, said he felt the high density was the unfortunate consequence of an inflated asking price for the property, but praised Edwards’ handling of the project and incorporation of neighbors’ comments. Another neighboring property owner sent word to the commission that he had initially been skeptical of the project, but was won over during the neighborhood’s discussions with the developers.
Marc Robert, owner of Robert Fresh Market, said his family was as enthusiastic as the rest of the neighborhood to see the property come back to life for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.
“We were brought a lot of different projects and a lot of different kinds of proposals, and I think this particular proposal is the best fit for the neighborhood,” Robert said.
Commissioner Eugene Green noted that the property has now been vacant 11 years. With the neighbors and the developers in agreement, Green said he would support it as well — particularly compared to the warehouse-type development that could have come instead.
“I think this is a high and great use for this property,” Green said.
Commissioner Walter Isaacson sought to ensure that the extra 10 feet really is used only for architectural flourishes, and not changed afterward to a fifth floor afterward. Sherman said the developers would make those guarantees in the design-review process and good-neighbor agreements, and the language of the zoning still requires only four floors.
After a discussion that lasted nearly an hour and a half, Commissioner Kyle Wedberg said the verbal assurances from the applicant should not be enough to justify the zoning change, and suggested postponing a decision to give the staff time to write in language specifying how the extra 10 feet of height could be used. That motion split the commission 4-4, and a subsequent motion by Green to accept the developer’s proposal then passed 5-3.
Their recommendation goes next to the City Council for final approval.