Audubon-Riverside neighborhood withholds support for Gabrielle Restaurant

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The Uptowner, 438 Henry Clay

Amid unanswered questions about the plan for the proposed Gabrielle Restaurant on Henry Clay Avenue, the Audubon-Riverside Neighborhood Association decided Tuesday evening to withhold its support as the project heads to a crucial city planning commission meeting next week.

The owner of the restaurant, Greg Sonnier, said upon hearing of the association’s decision that he has been primarily focused on preparing for the Dec. 14 hearing before the City Planning Commission, and that he had hoped to work with the neighborhood association later in the process.

After the Gabrielle’s original Mid-City location was rendered unusable by the flooding after Hurricane Katrina, Sonnier purchased The Uptowner at 438 Henry Clay Avenue in early 2006 as a place to relocate. Before he could open, however, city officials told him he would need a zoning change, and that the building could only be used as a banquet hall, not a restaurant. He began the rezoning process, but stopped when he learned of nearby neighbors’ opposition, restarted it a year later, but withdrew again when a lawsuit was filed, and is now coming before the City Planning Commission a third time.

City planning officials have already reviewed Sonnier’s current application and are recommending the Planning Commission approve it, subject to several conditions. During one of his previous attempts, Sonnier and the Audubon-Riverside Neighborhood Association worked on a draft of an agreement that would have earned the association’s approval, but board member Peggy Adams said Tuesday night that she is concerned that the city’s conditions don’t appear as strict as those the neighborhood was previously seeking.

For example, the city would restrict Gabrielle to less than 5,000 square feet of seating, Adams said. That figure troubled association members, who estimated it could mean a capacity of nearly 200 people. Further, the previous agreement would have required the restaurant provide parking, but the city deemed the restaurant small enough not to require parking.

“If they’d sign the restrivitive covenant, I’d be happy to have a nice, small Gabrielle’s,” Adams said. “Actually, I think it would be a plus.”

The Burtheville Association of Neighbors — a smaller group bounded roughly by State Street, Audubon Park, Magazine and Tchoupitoulas — has been more consistently opposed to the Gabrielle plans, and their president, Kent Blackwell, attended Tuesday’s Audubon-Riverside meeting. He said his primary issue is the “integrity of the neighborhood,” as the restaurant represents the encroachment of commercial property into an otherwise residential area.

“That neighborhood has been residential for a long, long time, and it’s our biggest fear that it won’t be if this is allowed to happen,” Blackwell said.

Audubon-Riverside members initially discussed taking some sort of conditional stance on the restaurant, declaring themselves in support only if the Gabrielle committed to the previous agreement. But without time to publicize and share those conditions with the entire association membership before next week’s hearing, they decided they had no choice but to oppose the zoning change.

Of particular concern to the association was the fact that Sonnier was neither at the meeting to discuss the project with them, nor had he even let them know that he would be returning to the planning commission. In fact, Adams said she only stumbled over notice of the rezoning hearing by accident a few weeks ago while looking up another property.

Audubon-Riverside president Ray Cannata said the letter he would write to planners would be short, saying merely that the assocation cannot support the Gabrielle concept in its current form, and noting that Sonnier had not contacted the association about this hearing. “They haven’t come to us at all,” Cannata said.

In a phone interview after the meeting, Sonnier said that he has been operating The Uptowner as a banquet hall so as not to lose that license. Contrary to the neighbors’ fears, he said the dining area only seats 70 to 80 people comfortably, so that’s all the capacity he plans for the Gabrielle.

Given the legal roadblocks he has faced in his previous attempts to reach the City Planning Commission, Sonnier said having his hearing had been his first priority. With an outpouring of letters supporting his restaurant and the planning staff’s recommendation in favor of it, he had hoped to get the commissioners’ approval next week, then reach out to the neighborhoods prior to the city council’s final decision that would have to follow.

“One of the reasons we haven’t come back [to the neighborhood association] is that we haven’t even gotten past the City Planning Commission,” Sonnier said. “I certainly don’t want to create any tension like there was the last time.”

8 thoughts on “Audubon-Riverside neighborhood withholds support for Gabrielle Restaurant

  1. I used to bike past this building and always wondered exactly what was going on. What was The Uptowner before Katrina? Was it always just a banquet hall, or was it at some point an actual restaurant?

    One thing is for sure, that is prime real estate.

    • JK – That’s a good question, and one I don’t have a specific answer to offhand. Greg Sonnier says that what he originally bought was an existing restaurant, and that the city told him after the sale that it could only be used as a banquet hall. Kent Blackwell, however, told the Audubon-Riverside association last night that “It has been used commercially over time, but to a minimum extent.”

      I suspect this point may be clarified during next week’s hearing, and if not, I’ll try to find out then. Perhaps in the meantime someone who lives nearby could shed more light on the subject.

      Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments.

  2. I’ve had the pleasure of working at this location over the past 25 years, and only knew it as a reception/banquet hall for things like Bar Mitzvahs and weddings. Although I do not live nearby, I certainly pass it often and have done house-sitting around the corner from The Uptowner, even saluted newlyweds there while acting as Best Man.
    At no time did I hear of this location housing a restaurant. I do, however, recall each event bringing a ton of vehicular traffic with it, with attendees often parking 1-2 blocks away. So I can understand ARNA’s overall resistance to this establishment becoming a full-time restaurant.

  3. I did leave this message with ARNA today. Hopefully, they will understand.
    Dear ARNA,
    I was notified by a reporter from the Uptown messenger of the ARNA meeting where our application request for Gabrielle restaurant at 438 Henry Clay Ave was brought up. I apologize for not being able to attend but would like to take the time to address my request for the zoning change from non-conforming use to a restaurant (table service).
    I think it best to summarize our predicament for you from the beginning in order to present the facts.
    It was our intention after Katrina to re-establish our established New Orleans business, Gabrielle Restaurant at this address. We were urged by a local realtor and a neighborhood association officer in December of 2005 to move to the Uptowner because the business there was fully licensed for a restaurant and she assured us that the neighbors would not be hostile to a business like ours. Unfortunately, we were misled into believing that all we had to do was buy The Uptowner Inc. and we would be able to operate Gabrielle Restaurant from this address because it carried all the necessary restaurant permits.
    Nine months after we purchased the business and the building, we were notified by city officials that the property could not be used for any kind of restaurant business even though the permits that the business carried was “licensed to pursue a restaurant” at this address and carried this business description since 1996. The building was equipped with a commercial range, hood and refrigeration. The property has been commercially taxed and commercially metered by the City of New Orleans. The 1st floor of the building was originally used for Seilers Mercantile Store in 1901 and according to records has always been used for a commercial enterprise.
    We were warned by city officials that if we operated any kind of restaurant business from this address; we would be cited and shut down. The building would automatically revert into a residential home. After being put on notice by those holding high positions of power and influence, I assured them that we had suspended our plans to operate Gabrielle restaurant from here. Ever since then, Mary and I have been running a limited food service operation from the Uptowner building.
    We sought to gain the approval from the neighborhood associations in the area. This action came to a peak with a well attended meeting moderated by the president of ARNA, Andrew Pilant on February 5, 2007 where an agreement with our business and the neighborhood was discussed and approved of. After the meeting, I met and spoke with the president of the Burthville Association of Neighbors and asked him where and when their meetings were so that I could address some of the concerns of his members and identify with them. I later sent him letters requesting a meeting with his neighborhood group.
    Our business, The Uptowner Inc. and the City of New Orleans were then sued by the president of the Burthville Association of Neighbors, Mike Sherman. His intervention in the City Hall process and subsequent summary judgment motion time barred the zoning process for 3 years. His motion was resolved by a Civil Court Judge in 2008 thus making the application appropriate for review by the planning commission and then voted on by the New Orleans City Council.
    May I end with what our goal is with the building and state the major points of our neighborhood agreement.
    1. The size of the restaurant shall be 85 seats and cannot be expanded to seat more than this. It can only operate as a restaurant as defined in the CZO upon approval of the zoning change.
    2. Alcoholic beverage service shall be table service only and shall be served in combination with food service. Notwithstanding the foregoing, alcohol beverage service shall be permitted at the holding bar located in the back of the restaurant (inside, off the side patio) for restaurant patrons with dinner reservations waiting to be seated.
    3. The restaurant hours shall be limited to the hours of 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Monday through Sunday; provided, however, that on New Year’s Eve only, restaurant hours may be extended to no later than 12:30 a.m.
    4. The Uptowner shall provide to the City Planning Commission a litter abatement plan detailing the location of litter storage, the frequency of litter pickup, and the clearing of all litter from the sidewalks and street rights-of-way adjacent to restaurant. The name and phone number of the owner/operator of the restaurant shall be kept on file in case of any violation. In no case shall litter be stored so that it is visible from the public right-of-way
    5. Outside live music shall be prohibited
    6. We plan to operate a well respected business that would upgrade the character of the Audubon Riverside area and promote the value of the surrounding properties.
    7. We would like to return to our livelihoods as Restaurateurs in a City we love and have always called our Home!
    Feel free to contact me with any concerns you might have regarding our business conversion.
    One of my goals is to dispel the disinformation alerts that were passed around before the last process. Please let me know if there is anything I can do from a community stand point in order to continue to be a good business neighbor.
    goodeats5673@aol.com
    Sincerely,
    Greg Sonnier
    438 Henry Clay Ave

    .

  4. Greg, Thanks for your letter. I hope we can discuss this personally soon.

    Others — Re. the questions about that property’s historic use — as far as I can tell, it seems to have been used commercially for a very long time. As long as anyone I’ve talked to can remember it was a reception and banquet hall. Every old city directory I could find today listed it with a commercial use only. For example, in 1942 (68 years ago) it was a pharmacy, and in 1945 a beauty shop.

    Ray Cannata
    ARNA president

  5. Put me in the corner of Greg Sonnier on the Gabrielle Restaurant issue at 438 Henry Clay Ave. I live about 5 blocks away. I deal with the constraints of parking issues in residential neighborhoods and I think that the witch hunt that has occurred against Greg Sonnier is terrible. I’m a big supporter of neighborhood businesses and feel that restaurants like the one he is trying to open are too important to the fabric of our city to worry about a few inconvenienced people with cars that are too big for our streets. I think the opponents to the restaurant should be reminded that there is no Constitutional right to be able to park your car in front of your house and I think that the planning commission should allow Mr. Sonnier to proceed with his plans based upon the description that he offered to ARNA board.
    Tim Lupin
    535 Arabella St.
    New Orleans 70115

  6. I live in the 700 block of Eleonore and we are all to familiar with restaurants in the hood. We have Reginellis, WOW, Taqueria, Martinique, Bistro Daisey and Pita Pit. Oh and lets not forget National Art and Hobby. Why am I telling you this? Because we LOVE them being there and in our neighborhood. Our block never has any break ins, stolen stuff or car break ins. Why because there are people on the street all time. Quit being such babies and let Gabrielle’s open their door.
    What are you afraid of, that you might have to walk an extra block to get to your front door. And what about that piece of trash 2 story house that faces Henry Clay and is across the street from Gabrielle’s. Do you think that is an asset to your block? You can tear down that house and build a parking lot for Gabrielle and then everyone will be happy.

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