The former Zara’s site on Prytania Street received initial approval to reopen a grocery store there without package liquor sales, despite a Lower Garden District neighborhood dispute over whether short-term rentals should be allowed in the building’s upper-floor apartments.
The hearing Tuesday afternoon before the City Planning Commission about the property at the corner of Prytania and Josephine spanned several issues. The owners, Liz and Robbie Blum, had spent significant time and money renovating the building — decried by many at the meeting as a former eyesore — to current Historic District Landmark Commission specifications, said their representative, Nicole Webre.
“It was undeniably an eyesore. My clients purchased it, and went through the painstaking task of renovating the property,” Webre said. “They could have reopened immediately and operated the grocery store with packaged liquor sales, but they decided to do the best thing, not for their pocketbook, but for the neighborhood and renovate the property.”
While the store was closed during those renovations, the property lost its grandfathered permission to operate as a grocery store in a residential neighborhood. To reopen a grocery in the newly-renovated building, the owners needed a zoning change, Webre said.
“They are not asking for an intensity in the use,” Webre said. “They are asking for a return of the use.”
The zoning the Blums requested — neighborhood mixed-use — was too intense for that neighborhood, however, city planning staff argued. Instead, the city planners recommended that the property be rezoned as a neighborhood business, which allowed the grocery but not alcohol sales.
A half-dozen neighbors and supporters spoke in favor of the request, saying that the return of a grocery would greatly increase the walkability of the neighborhood and that alcohol sales are likely an important part of attracting a grocery to rent the spot.
“We have loved having a neighborhood grocery,” said Karon Reese, a former vice president of the Coliseum Square Association who said she resigned from the group this summer because she believed they were being unfair to the Blums. “I haven’t spoken to one neighbor in the Lower Garden District who is in opposition of a zoning change that brings back a grocery store with liquor sales.”
Others — including the Garden District Association — spoke in opposition to the zoning change, saying it allows too much intensification on the corner. In particular, they said, the zoning change allows the Blums to operate short-term rentals on the upper floor.
“The principals of 2042 Prytania LLC made a measured decision to let the legal non-conforming use lapse with the hopes of securing a more intense HU-MU zoning designation, which would greatly increase the value of the property and permit them to operate five commercial short-term rentals of five apartments for 365 days per year,” said neighbor Stephanie Kreller.
Andrea Bland, the award-winning preservationist who renovated 1421 Josephine Street on the same block, said that the 255 reviews of the short-term rental apartments permitted in May suggest that they have already exceeded the 90 days that the Blums are currently allowed to rent them for. The mixed-use zoning, Bland said, would allow them to rent the apartments all year round.
“We are already experiencing problems in the neighborhood from the short-termers,” Bland said.
The short-term rental issue has been a sticking point in negotiations with neighbors, Webre acknowledged. After neighbors proposed a list of 18 conditions governing the property, the owners agreed to 17 of them — all except for a requirement not to rent the upper-floors as short-term rentals.
“You weren’t able to reach an agreement?” Commissioner Robert Steeg asked her.
“Right, because of the short-term rentals, which is permitted under the HU-B1 [neighborhood business] and the HU-MU [mixed-use],” Webre replied.
Several commissioners expressed frustration at the process that led to Tuesday’s hearing. Commissioner Kelly Brown said it seemed clear that the neighbors want a grocery back and don’t oppose packaged liquor, but the other uses that could be permitted within the mixed-use zoning would be unacceptable.
Commissioner Eugene Green said that people in the real-estate industry should have made a better effort to retain the non-conforming use — like the recently renovated hotels nearby — if they truly wanted to maintain what was previously there.
“If it results that there is a grocery store that somehow doesn’t sell package liquor in this city, I don’t think that means it won’t be successful,” Green said.
After more than an hour of discussion, the City Planning Commission opted to take the staff’s recommendation, voting 5-0 in favor of the neighborhood business zoning, allowing the grocery but not alcohol sales. Their decision will head to the City Council for final approval.