A proposal to rezone most of a block near Touro Infirmary for medical offices has sparked strong opposition among nearby neighbors, and the City Planning Commission agreed that the request creates too much uncertainty for the future of the neighborhood.
The request concerned six properties in the block bounded by Amelia, Coliseum, Antonine and Chestnut streets, nearly in the shadow of Touro Infirmary. One of the structures is medical, two are homes that have been changed to medical offices, and two more are still used as houses.
The block was zoned for medical services from 1950 until the new Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance was passed in 2015, changing it to residential but allowing the offices to remain in place as “legal, nonconforming uses,” unless they close for more than six months. The owners of the properties said they did not find out about the change until last year, and are now seeking to change the zoning to mixed use, which would allow medical offices and other uses.
“The request would introduce the possibility of a variety of new commercial uses,” said city planner Sabine Lebailleux during the Tuesday, June 26 meeting of the City Planning Commission. “These uses could generate larger levels of noise, traffic, and parking demands, but are generally considered compatible with residential neighborhoods as they would have to remain compatible in scale and design with the buildings in these nearby residential areas.”
Dr. Robert Ancira, one of the four applicants for the change, said he has practiced psychiatry in his building on the block for 42 years. When he said he was generally aware that the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance was being discussed in 2015, but he did not realize a major rezoning from medical service to residential was planned for his property.
“We all feel very foolish because we weren’t paying attention,” Ancira said. “None of us were notified in any way. None of us in our wildest dreams imagined that our properties that were zoned medical for 60 years would be changed.”
Anne Barnes, who has a clinic with her husband on the Amelia Street side of the block, said their building had been used for medical services since the 1970s. Not only will her family lose part of their investment in the property, but the clinic could be forced to close permanently if it ever is out of use for more than six months.
“Our patients will suffer,” Barnes said. “The home-like environment we provide is much appreciated and lessens the stress that some feel when visiting a doctor, particularly a mental-health professional. Is it wise to remove what has been a valuable asset to the city of New Orleans?”
Opponents, however, said that the mixed-use zoning sought for the block creates an uncertain future for the neighborhood.
“There is nothing to prevent those properties from becoming bars, breweries, parking lots, parking structures, et cetera,” said Molly Anne Rothenberg, one neighbor. “What is likely to happen is that at some point, Touro is likely to take over this entire block.”
The Touro-Bouligny Neighborhood Association is in strong opposition to the zoning change as well, especially for the two homes that have never had commercial uses, said Rella Zapletal. And if the owners simply want to continue their current medical practices in the other buildings, the legal non-conforming use allows them to do — and carries with the buildings if they are sold.
“Why the need for this up-zone if all the owners want to do is continue to operate as-is?” Zapletal asked. “Ms. Barnes said her parents will suffer, but they can continue to operate their psychiatry practice.”
Andrea Bland, a preservationist and developer who has restored two homes nearby, said several of the properties on the block are already “in poor repair.”
“There is a very poor track record of nuisance uses and poor maintenance — garbage, tenants that disrupt the neighborhood,” Bland said. “I’m not in favor of giving any latitude to someone who doesn’t maintain their property.”
In rebuttal, Barnes and Ancira said they wish they had paid better attention to the process in 2015, so they could have fought it then. Now, they are simply trying to restore what they feel they had, they said.
“We’re not looking to sell to Touro. We’re not looking to put a bar in,” Barnes said. “We’re not looking to do anything but do what we do, and continue to take care of the people of this city.”
The city planning staff’s report concluded that the change is not compatible with the master plan, which designates the area’s future use as residential. Commissioner Jonathan Stewart agreed, and offered a motion for the City Planning Commission to recommend denial.
“Changing the zoning opens up more opportunity to not knowing what may come in the future,” Stewart said.
“It would go long past the operation of the current situation,” agreed commissioner Kelly Brown.
The commissioners unanimously agreed with Stewart’s motion to deny the rezoning by a vote of 7-0. Their recommendation will next be forwarded to the City Council for a final decision.