Despite its popularity with neighborhood activists and preservationists, the proposed renovation of St. Vincent’s Guest House in the Lower Garden District and addition of a new reception facility has been postponed until mid-November amid nearby neighbors’ concerns about the new project’s operations.
Developer Zachary Kupperman has been working for a year with city officials, neighbors in the Coliseum Square Association, and the Preservation Resource Center on a plan to renovate the building on the block of Magazine between Race and Orange streets, he told the City Planning Commission on Tuesday, Oct. 24. The building, originally an orphanage built in 1864, has not had any work since the 1990s and has declined since then, he said.
As part of the project, he wants to add a small one-story outbuilding that would hold both the hotel’s administrative offices and a reception hall, Kupperman said.
Two board members of the Coliseum Square Association, Banks McClintock and Eliska Plunkett, spoke at the meeting to praise Kupperman for agreeing to write a legally binding covenant ensuring that the new reception building and hotel are always used as one, and not separated into two different businesses. McClintock said that the reception activities Kupperman envisions in the new building could already take place in an outdoor tent on the grounds, so the construction of a reception building actually will reduce the impact on the neighborhood.
“My group’s recommendation is to go forward with the request because it’s allowing exactly what they have today as it’s being used,” McClintock said.
The Preservation Resource Center also fully supports the project as a “high-quality historic renovation,” said Erin Holmes.
Nearby neighbors, however, said they were concerned about having a new building so close to their homes. Gay Robertson of Orange Street said her house is the nearest residence on side property line adjacent to the new building.
“Imagine being in your living room trying to watch TV, in your bedroom trying to sleep — or, even better, imagine your kids in their bedroom trying to do their homework or study for a test, or an infant in its bedroom trying to sleep — with a reception facility only four feet away that wants to waive its hours of operation, allow live entertainment outside and not be in compliance with the city noise ordinance,” Robertson said.
Camp Street resident Andrew Yon, who lives immediately behind the building, said he strongly supports both the renovation of the hotel and even tentatively supports the construction of the new building. The only aspect he opposes, he said, is the developers’ requests to waive the standards for operating hours, live music outdoors, and to be allowed to charge for events at the door.
“I think anybody could put their imagination to work and imagine what sort of businesses they could run if they can charge people at the door for all-night music,” Yon said.
Steve Hartnett, another longtime Lower Garden District resident, echoed Yon’s sentiments. As a preservation advocate, he said, the renovation project is “a dream come true,” but he opposes the waivers on operations.
“We’re 60 feet from a whole bunch of noise coming our way if they’re granted,” Hartnett said.
In response, Kupperman reiterated that the building will actually shield neighbors from the noise of events in the existing courtyard. In fact, even the half of the reception facility closest to neighbors is for the hotel’s offices, not event space, further blocking neighbors from noise.
“You’ve got a structure that acts as a barrier that does not exist right now,” Kupperman said.
As for the hours, the hotel wants to start events earlier than 10 a.m., specifically an onsite farmer’s market at 8 a.m., and would otherwise abide by the closing hours already in the city regulations, he said. And as far as charging for events, the hotel would like to host yoga classes and similar events, and wants the ability to charge for them if neighbors want to attend, he said.
Planning commissioners had a number of questions for Kupperman as well as for their own staff members, who had actually recommended denial of the request. Commissioner Eugene Green said that while Kupperman’s plans seemed reasonable, he would have been more comfortable if they had been in writing already, rather than verbal promises.
“In our business, the business of planning, it’s difficult for us to measure the impact of your development — which is probably a very good development — on the area and on city regulations because so much has not been responded to,” Green said.
Green proposed delaying a decision on the project until the Nov. 14 meeting of the City Planning Commission, to give the developers time to add more language about the operational requests they were seeking. The developers said they would prefer to simply have those requests stricken and the rest of the project moved forward to City Council, but Green said he would prefer for the City Planning Commission to handle the issue themselves.
With that, the other commissioners voted unanimously in favor of Green’s motion to defer a decision on the project until Nov. 14.