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.”