The restaurant proposed for the Magnolia Mansion at Prytania and Jackson that had proven controversial with neighbors won City Council approval in a split vote Thursday afternoon.
The Magnolia Mansion, a bed-and breakfast and apartment hotel in the historic Harris-McGinnis House (built in 1858), needed a zoning change to commercial zoning in order to add the restaurant. District B City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell began the hearing by noting the controversy around the request, but said the commercial use fits with the development of Jackson Avenue, and that the restaurant fits with the use of the building as a hotel.
“This business is a hotel,” Cantrell said. “Hotels have and operate restaurants. I’ve been serving the district for two years now, and not one time has this business come up as being a nuisance or any negative reports have been submitted to my office.”
The parking issue has been solved, Cantrell said, because Magnolia Mansion has a contract for valet parking with the same garage that serves Cheesecake Bistro. Further, Cantrell said she will require Magnolia Mansion to sign a good-neighbor agreement prior to receiving the zoning change.
Councilman Jason Williams also added his praise of the Magnolia Mansion’s owner.
“I remember what it looked like before this owner got it, and I immediately saw improvements to the aesthetic, historical nature of the building after he acquired it,” Williams said. “The idea of expanding the business enterprise to a restaurant makes sense.”
Neighbors, however, laid out a litany of objections to the proposal. Some insisted that the change will bring increased commercial activity to an area that is surrounded by condos and homes.
“We purchased property with the idea that the zoning in that area was going to protect us and take care of us,” said Fred Taylor, president of one of the condo associations on Jackson Avenue. “We really have a question whether our best interests are being served now.”
The Garden District Association is most concerned about the range of uses that the new zoning will open up, said Pauline Hardin, the group’s president. If the Magnolia Mansion burns down — as the church next door to it did a few years ago — it could be replaced by a distillery, an automobile-repair shop or a check-cashing business, she said.
“Just because people want a restaurant does not mean that’s all we have to look at,” Hardin said. “The list is very lengthy of what this property could be used as in the future, and that’s what we are opposed to.”
Frank Tessier, past president of the Garden District Association, predicted that if the zoning change is approved, it will lower property values of homes nearby, and that residents will sue the city over the decision. Delivery trucks will be noisy in the day, patrons leaving will be noisy at night, and the restaurant will draw unwanted vermin and produce garbage, Tessier said.
“You don’t want that for your quiet, expensive Garden District home,” Tessier said. “Prytania is residential. Let’s keep it residential.”
Karon Reese of the Coliseum Square Association noted that her group frequently supports new bars and restaurants that improve the neighborhood’s walkability. The Magnolia Mansion pitched their request based on the idea that the bed-and-breakfast model wasn’t enough to support the property, however, and that left the Lower Garden District group puzzled amid the strong tourist economy in the city.
“It’s hard to find a room sometimes,” Reese said. “I’m having a hard time understanding why this owner is having a hard time making it.”
Jacob Gardner, president of 1441 Condo Association on Prytania, suggested that the reason that the City Planning Commission recommended against the Magnolia Mansion in January was because owner Foaud Zeton told them that he had a positive response from his own neighborhood meetings. Instead, the attendees of those neighborhood meetings were the same people speaking in opposition to the project before the city.
“No one supported this project from the very beginning,” Gardner said. “We shouldn’t be enacting laws and inconveniencing neighbors and going against the neighborhood associations based on misrepresentations made to government bodies.”
Other neighbors, including Hilton Bell of the Lafayette Oaks condominium association, also complained that Magnolia Mansion had begun construction on the restaurant prior to going through the process with the city or engaging any neighbors.
“In order to try and develop a good-neighbor agreement, you have to have a good neighbor to begin with,” Bell said.
In January, owner Fouad Zeton appeared on his own in a confrontational dispute with a similar array of neighbors before the City Planning Commission. In Thursday’s hearing, however, Zeton did not speak himself, but was represented by former judge and mayoral candidate Michael Bagneris, as well as a number of supporters from around the neighborhood.
Bagneris pointed out that the restaurant will create about at least 30 new jobs.
“We should not overlook the positive aspect,” Bagneris said. “Economically, we should be encouraging small businesses. That’s the backbone of the nation’s economy. Employment — we are in dire need of employment.”
Rick Glasgow, a Fourth Street resident who was one of the half-dozen or so people who gave brief statements in favor of the Magnolia Mansion, said that the restaurant will fit with the commercial zoning surrounding it on Jackson Avenue, as well as the city’s Master Plan, while bringing new jobs.
“I don’t see why this council wouldn’t allow this restaurant to exist,” Glasgow said.
The City Council voted 4-2 in favor of the rezoning. Council members Stacy Head and Susan Guidry were the dissenting votes but did not speak to the issue.