Jun 152017

(image via raceandreligious.com)

By Canela Lopez

A bridge connecting two buildings at the Race & Religious wedding venue become a point of contention at Thursday’s New Orleans City Council meeting when a dispute over Historic District Landmarks Commission regulations broke out.

The owners of the property at 510 Race Street, more commonly known as Race & Religious, were found in violation of New Orleans Municipal Code 84-24 after an unauthorized bridge connecting the back service building to the main building as well as a mechanical hoistway and access door were constructed without the approval of the HDLC in 2008. After the HDLC recommended the immediate removal of the bridge on April 13, 2017, members of the Race 510 LLC appealed to the City Council asking that the bridge be granted permission to remain on the property despite the infraction.

After being purchased in 2003 by Granville Semmes, the property that consisted of a main building and separate service building underwent renovations that were permitted by the HDLC. Though several violations occurred during the process, Semmes worked with the HDLC to eliminate those concerns and the space was converted into a popular wedding venue in 2010, city planning staff said.

Elliot Perkins, Executive Director of the HDLC, said the commission recommended the immediate removal of the bridge based on its effect on the authenticity of the buildings’ 1800s-era architectural design.

“In a city that sells history to the world, it is important that its history must remain authentic,” Perkins said. “If New Orleans blurs lines on what is real and what is not, it will lose its culture and authenticity. This is the very essence of why people spend millions of dollars a year to come and visit.”

Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell recommended allowing the bridge to remain, because it was deemed safe to use by the Department of Safety and Permits.

“The bridge was constructed eight years ago and has been up for quite some time. It has only recently been cited by the HDLC which is why it is being brought before us now,” Cantrell said. “Given the age of the bridge and the importance of the bridge to the overall layout of the property, I am inclined to allow the bridge to stay given that Safety and Permits deems it is safe to use.”

Some contention arose when 510 Race land-use consultant Yolanda Rodriguez answered questions from the council members. According to Rodriguez, the reason for the lack of contracts and violation of HDLC code was due to an out of state contractor from Colorado who was hired by the company.

Councilwoman Stacy Head found issue with the discrepancy between the construction date listed for the bridge from the LLC, 2008, and the construction date recorded by the HDLC, 2009.

“When you chip away at credibility, it ultimately becomes important when you’re trying to make a judgement call,” Head said.

Rodriguez replied that some of the reason for the confusion was due to an inspection conducted by the Board of Fire and Safety in 2012 deeming the space safe to hold receptions, several years after the bridge was constructed.

Head also found fault with the out-of-state contractor being a valid reason for the property owner not obtaining the proper contracts from the HDLC.

“Just because a violation does exist and the government didn’t catch it doesn’t mean it’s OK,” Head said. “Ignorance of the law is no defense and when you hire a contractor, the contractor is supposed to follow all of the laws and if they don’t ultimately it’s between you and the contractor.”

After Head asked why the council would not vote to remove the bridge, Cantrell said the bridge was too essential to the day-to-day operations of the reception venue to remove it entirely.

“This bridge is very essential to the operations of this particular property,” Cantrell said, “So the removal of the bridge altogether would of course alleviate any ingress and egress to the other side of the property.”

After discussion about the bridge continued for several more minutes, the appeal to retain the bridge passed with a 5-2 vote in favor of the appeal.