Nov 152017

The exterior of the St. Vincent’s Guest House on Magazine Street. (via Google Maps)

The proposed renovation of St. Vincent’s Guest House in the Lower Garden District into a boutique hotel with a new reception hall received the approval of the City Planning Commission on Tuesday, but developers were denied permission to charge admission for events or extend operating hours there as they had requested.

Developer Zach Kupperman — a co-founder of the former Dinner Lab enterprise and owner of the redeveloped Drifter Hotel on Tulane Avenue — is planning to renovate the current St. Vincent’s Guest House at 1507 Magazine Street from an 84-room hostel into an 80-room boutique hotel, as well as add an outbuilding with a reception hall and office space. His project had won the support of the Coliseum Square Association and other groups, but when he presented it to the City Planning Commission in October, neighbors expressed concerns about some aspects of his request and commissioners delayed a decision to allow Kupperman to provide more details.

Kupperman’s primary request was for permission to add the reception facility, but he had also sought to exemptions from three specific restrictions in the city’s land-use laws. He wanted to extend the permitted hours of operation, to be able to charge an admission fee for some events, and to hold some events outside in the courtyard. The project is the result of more than 40 meetings with various groups of neighbors, Kupperman said.

“We’ve worked tirelessly to address the neighbors’ concerns and have altered our plans significantly from our original ideas to accommodate the community stakeholders,” Kupperman said. “Overall, we’ve worked with great effort and energy to collaborate with the neighbors to come up with a plan that both restores the property to its former glory and creates a project that benefits the larger community.”

He also noted that he has agreed to sign a title restriction ensuring that the reception hall is always owned and operated only by the owner of the hotel, and never divided into a separate business. That promise drew the support of the Coliseum Square Association, which represents the Lower Garden District.

“Our neighborhood would very much like to see this property redeveloped,” said Coliseum Square Association president Julie Simpson at the city planning meeting on Tuesday. “I believe the developers have addressed the three main concerns that were expressed at the most recent CPC hearing.”

Nearby neighbor Andrew Yon told the commission Tuesday that while he shares the supporters’ enthusiasm for the renovation of St. Vincent’s, however, the combination of the exemptions sought by the developers could lead to operations on the property that resemble a nightclub.

“What they were proposing could be turned into a club. We don’t want a club behind our house, and the people who live on Orange Street don’t want a club across from their front doors,” Yon said. “I’m really skeptical of this project hanging in the balance on whether or not these guys can charge at the door for that reception hall. I suspect they want open-ended use of this facility, and we’re trying to balance the overall good of the project with the impact on us and other nearby people.”

The city planning staff had recommended that the City Planning Commission deny the request outright, saying that even the hotel’s revised requests failed to address their concerns about the impact on the neighborhood. Commissioner Eugene Green said he shared those concerns and made a motion to deny the proposal, and as other commissioners chimed in with their agreement, Kupperman offered to drop the request to charge admission for events.

Green’s motion to accept the staff recommendation to reject the proposal failed on a split 3-2 vote. Commissioner Kelly Brown then suggested approval of the project as a whole, but denying the three requests for waivers on the operating conditions.

“I think it would be a tragedy for this to be a missed opportunity,” said Commissioner Royce Duplessis in support of the project.

The commission voted 5-0 in favor of Brown’s idea, with commissioners praising the developers for working through the process in good faith. Their recommendation will be forwarded to the City Council for a final decision, and the commissioners also urged the neighbors to reiterate their concerns that led to the restrictions before the City Council members.

Watch the full discussion below:

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