The former Times-Picayune building on Howard Avenue is under consideration for redevelopment as a “major amusement facility,” and its new owners received the first step of approval Tuesday from New Orleans city officials toward the rezoning that would allow such a project.
The group that bought the 9-acre site — comprised of some of the top developers in New Orleans — has requested “mixed use” zoning instead of the current “business industrial park” designation, though they revealed few details about what they plan for the location. The city planning staff initially objected to the zoning change — on the grounds that the street network couldn’t bear the traffic a mixed-use development would bring, that the uses allowed wouldn’t fit with the surroundings, and because it would encroach on a dwindling amount of industrial land near the city center — prompting a new round of meetings between developers and city officials.
That communication did not sway the city planning staff, but it did lead to the disclosure that the intended redevelopment of the site is for a “major indoor and outdoor amusement facility” — not a residential development, according to a Jan. 23 letter from the developers.
“It’s no secret. There’s a specific tenant we are working with,” said attorney Mike Sherman in Tuesday’s hearing before the City Planning Commission. “We hope it works out. We don’t know.”
Sherman did not, however, disclose the name of the tenant during the hearing, though other members of the development group also referred to a dramatic reshaping of the Earhart corridor. Barry Kern of Mardi Gras World, another partner in the Howard Avenue redevelopment, has already received approval for an indoor trampoline facility nearby on Earhart Boulevard.
Peter Aamodt, a member of Joe Jaeger’s development team, said the partners have fielded numerous calls about the property, and none of the proposals have been for the “light industrial” zoning allowed. Instead, the interest for the site is in “amusement facilities, art galleries, reception facilities, retail and other uses,” he said.
“This is one of the last swaths of underutilized land in the heart of the city,” Aamodt said. “Few if any stakeholders have envisioned a business park or business center in this area or corridor. Everyone has envisioned a very lively mixed-use corridor going forward.”
Arnold Kirschman, one of owners of the development group, said he and his partners are seeking the outcome for the site that will have the biggest impact on New Orleans.
“We are very excited about the redevelopment of this parcel of property. We want this parcel to be part of the growth but at the same time share the history that this corridor has had with the Times-Picayune,” Kirschman said. “We want people to envision not what is on the site right now, but what it could be. If we merely talk about this neighborhood as a collection of warehouses, we reduce its potential.”
Even if the developers wanted a residential project, the city’s land-use laws would allow 486 units on the site, the developers said. By contrast, the Times-Picayune at its height employed 975 people on a daily basis, with delivery trucks and even rail shipments arriving at the building on a regular basis.
“The site has proven it can handle the volume of traffic, pedestrian and vehicular,” Aamodt said.
The site can be reached by Earhart Boulevard and Howard Avenue. Moreover, the developers have already initiated conversations with Amtrak about removing the rail lines nearby to make it more-pedestrian friendly, and the rise of mixed-use development would spur those discussions along, the developers said.
“It would be a great first domino for that vision of the corridor,” said Avery Foret, another representative of the developers.
No one spoke in opposition to the project, and the developers’ arguments swayed the City Planning Commissioners, despite the city staff’s urging for the developers to accomplish their vision through a method other than a zoning change.
“I believe that this particular district is the district that gives the opportunity for an exciting sort of development,” said Commissioner Eugene Green.
The commission voted 6-1 (Walter Isaacson voted against it and Robert Steeg recused himself) to send the request to the City Council for a final decision with a positive recommendation for approval.