The owner of the Gabrielle restaurant found sympathy but not support Tuesday night, as the Audubon-Riverside Neighborhood Association decided against supporting his plans to reopen his restaurant in the Uptowner banquet hall on Henry Clay Avenue.
Just as soon as that issue was decided, another emerged – a series of requests by Whole Foods to alter their land-use agreement with the city that many said was the impetus for the creation of ARNA years ago.
The Gabrielle issue, however, occupied most of the evening’s two-hour meeting. Chef Greg Sonnier, owner of the building, laid out his vision for an upscale restaurant on Henry Clay Avenue with about 80 seats inside and room for another 30 outdoors in good weather. Parking has been a chief concern of the immediate neighbors to the property, so Sonnier offered to have valet parking in a nearby adult day-care lot that closes at 5 p.m., the same time his restaurant would open.
“That is a perfect place to park those cars,” Sonnier said.
About a dozen people spoke in opposition to Sonnier’s plans, many focusing on either the parking or the permanent change to the neighborhood of allowing full commercial zoning on that corner. “I find it reprehensible that one individual could ruin the residential character of my neighborhood,” said nearby neighbor Trevor Wisdom.
Over the past four years, Sonnier’s plans have been vigorously opposed by the Burtheville Association of Neighbors in the blocks surrounding the property, subject to lawsuit, and supported by the city’s planning staff but rejected unanimously in December by the appointed board members of the City Planning Commission. The meeting with ARNA was thus a last-minute attempt to gain an important ally before his request is decided at Thursday’s City Council meeting.
Several of the ARNA board members voiced support for Sonnier’s restaurant in their questions. “Are we just shutting down business in the neighborhood by referring everything to parking?” asked Marilyn Feldmeier.
Ultimately, however, they said Sonnier had not given them enough opportunity to review the agreement he proposed. The board had discovered on its own that The Gabrielle was returning to the City Planning Commission in December after several years of inactivity, and voted then to oppose a zoning change for it because of a lack of information about his plans. After the planning commission turned Sonnier down, he scheduled Tuesday’s meeting with ARNA, but without any of the board members offering to reverse the board’s previous decision, he left empty-handed.
Sonnier had no comment after the meeting, but did describe plans to sell the building if he cannot put a restaurant in.
After Sonnier and his opponents left, Kristina Bradford of Whole Foods told the board that the growth of the grocery store on Magazine Street in the last 10 years had given rise to new needs, and that the store is working with the City Council to draft revisions to its current agreement to the city. The store would like to bring more trucks than the one-per-day it is currently allowed, stay open later and place merchandise such as plants in front of the store.
Bradford’s request drew fiery opposition from Robin O’Bannon, who said she was on the ARNA board when it was founded in response to the Whole Foods construction. “These provisos were written to protect what residential life we have left,” O’Bannon said, arguing that if any portions of the agreement are changed, the entire covenant should be open to review. She concluded, “Every time they meet with you, we need to know about it.”
In a meeting last fall, ARNA agreed not to oppose a request from Whole Foods to keep their store open until 10 p.m. rather than 9 p.m., based on a copy of the agreement with the city that allowed a 10 p.m. closing. O’Bannon and her neighbors, however, showed the board a certified copy of the agreement that required the store to close at 9 p.m., so the ARNA board decided to rescind that earlier statement of non-opposition and consider all of Whole Foods’ requests at once at a later meeting.
To read a recap of our live coverage of the meeting, click in the box below.