Looser rules for alcohol sales on Maple Street sharply divide neighbors, businesses

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Attendees of the Maple Street Dishcrawl in July 2014 sample the fare at Little Tokyo, a Japanese restaurant in a space occupied by a college bar just a few years ago. (UptownMessenger.com file photo by Zach Brien)

Attendees of the Maple Street Dishcrawl in July 2014 sample the fare at Little Tokyo, a Japanese restaurant in a space occupied by a college bar just a few years ago. (UptownMessenger.com file photo by Zach Brien)

Whether you call it a “crackdown” or a “cleanup,” there is no doubt that Maple Street has changed dramatically over the last five years amid intense scrutiny by New Orleans city officials.

Now, a debate over whether the City Council should continue to have oversight over whether new restaurants on Maple Street are allowed to sell alcohol has split the neighborhood association and local businesses, with residents on both sides.

Is the City Council’s traditional role as a gatekeeper for alcohol sales at restaurants a crucial element of the new peace on Maple Street, or does it give neighborhoods and their elected officials too much influence over which businesses can open?

After her election in 2010, City Councilwoman Susan Guidry was immediately inundated with complaints about the behavior around the college bars on Maple Street, said her staff member Enrico Sterling, who showed the City Planning Commission a video of large crowds of young people congregating there in October of that year. Guidry was unambiguous in her response to the bars, telling them to either “comply or close,” and the results quickly followed.

Two college bars — Rocco’s and T.J. Quills — were raided by state alcohol agents in early 2011, and city officials forced both to sign strict operating agreements in order to stay open. Each has now changed its name under new ownership — T.J. Quills to the Annex and Rocco’s to Redd’s — and Redd’s raised its age of entry to 21. Another bar, The Doors, fell under similar scrutiny, and became a Japanese restaurant in 2012.

Over the same period, a wave of new restaurants opened, including Satsuma, Ba Chi Canteen, The Sammich, Waffles on Maple and even Jimmy John’s. During this time, one of the controls on alcohol sales on Maple Street was that any restaurant that wanted to sell drinks must apply for a “conditional use” from the City Council.

The new comprehensive zoning ordinance, however, would release restaurants on Maple from this requirement, allowing alcohol sales and live music performances by right in exchange for tighter restrictions. Thus, Guidry proposed a new Maple Street Overlay, which would maintain the conditional-use process for alcohol sales and live music at restaurants on the corridor.

The proposal drew the strong support of the Maple Area Residents Inc. neighborhood group, which has vocally opposed many of the alcohol sales on the corridor, and equally strong opposition from the Maple Street business owners.

David Keiffer, an architect who lives just off Maple Street, said the majority of the businesses on Maple are converted residences, and show a developmental pattern towards alcohol-serving establishments because of the “captive population” of college students nearby. If alcohol sales are allowed at restaurants by right, he said, those businesses will be able to pay higher rents and will begin displacing the other diverse shops that service the neighborhood.

“Right now we’re at a great mix,” Keiffer said. “We’re at a great mix because we have a conditional use process.”

Jerry Speir of the Carrollton Riverbend Neighborhood Association said he worries that the regulations on alcohol-serving restaurants are being stripped from the new Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance, which could threaten Maple Street further. Oak Street, he noted, has never had problems as severe as those in the Maple Street video, because it is farther from the universities, Speir said.

“We have 20,000 students within blocks of us, and they tend not to respect the neighborhood when they drink,” said nearby resident Shawn McKee.

Peter Ricchiuti, a business professor at Tulane and nearby resident, said the conditional-use process helps maintain the balance on Maple of businesses that serve the neighborhood. If more alcohol establishments are suddenly allowed, he predicted, the city will lose more in property taxes from devalued homes than it will gain in sales taxes.

“The benefit is that you screen these businesses before they come in,” said Keith Hardie of Maple Area Residents Inc.”You make sure they have limitations on them so they are appropriate to the neighborhood.”

Sherif Sakla, owner of Babylon Cafe and president of the Maple Area Business Association, blasted that screening process as discriminatory. If certain people don’t like a business for any reason, Sakla said, they can prevent it from the opportunity to sell alcohol and compete with other businesses indefinitely.

Todd Slack, a property owner of the building where The Sammich operates, said that the conditional-use process cost him nine months of operation and thousands of dollars, and that was without having to hire an attorney for it. Meanwhile, Slack argued, the regulations for alcohol-serving businesses under the new CZO will actually be more stringent than the provisos he had to agree to in his conditional use.

A number of other neighbors argued against the overlay and for ending the conditional use process as well, saying that better enforcement — not the conditional use process — was responsible for cleaning up the neighborhood. Ronnie Seaton, a former White House chef whose family operates Willie Mae’s Scotch House on St. Charles Avenue, praised the business climate on Maple and said the business owners work to keep it clean.

“When you get property owners who care about Maple Street, who follow the rules, you get no complaints,” Slack said.

The planning commissioners strongly sided with the business owners.

“The neighborhood has to be very vigilant with these businesses when they open. Enforcement has to be the key. You want to get the council offices out of the business of being the gatekeepers for what business gets to open,” said Nolan Marshall III, who offered the motion to reject the overlay and allow the alcohol sales. The council offices should focus on correcting known problems instead, he said. “That’ll be more helpful to neighborhood than trying to figure out who’s a good operator in advance.”

Commissioner Craig Mitchell said that the new CZO codifies most of the requirements that the former conditional-use process imposed. Thus, he said, whether to keep the conditional-use process is a question of how much control the neighborhood association should have over the applications.

“The concern about taking that approach is that we don’t know the adequacy of any given neighborhood association,” Mitchell said. The CZO, he said, gets the council “”out of the politics of who is entitled to have what where.”

With that, the planning commissioners voted 6-0 to reject the Maple Street Overlay and allow alcohol sales by right on the corridor under the new Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance. Their recommendation, however, will now return to the City Council for a final decision.

13 thoughts on “Looser rules for alcohol sales on Maple Street sharply divide neighbors, businesses

  1. January 24, 2013 NOLA.com
    New Orleans Draft Zoning Rules Could Stop Alcohol Permit Moratoriums
    “‘The CZO will rule, and we won’t have these moratoriums,’ Guidry said.”

    The small group Maple Area Residents, Inc by their own admission has seen significant improvement and had no complaints in over two years.

    Of the three bars on Maple Street Two have Consent Decrees requiring payments to the Maple Area Residents Inc., and the Third has a strict Good Neighbor Agreement. Both the Consent Decrees and the Good Neighbor Agreement are tied to the property so that any new tenants will also be bound by them also.

    Under the final draft of the CZO Maple Street will be zone HUB1 which does not allow for new bars as a permitted or a conditional use. There will be NO NEW BARS ON MAPLE STREET: NONE! (MARI’s 2004 campaign tag line). The CZO on its face without the overlay is a win for the Maple Area Residents, Inc.

    The City Planning Commission correctly understood this is an enforcement issue not a zoning issue and since the bars have been reigned under control with proper enforcement the same enforcement argument touted by MARI and Guidry applies to restaurants.

  2. So yet again a few people with money who donate to the right political campaigns get what they want, when they want it. Susan Guidry should be investigated because it’s typical of her to do the bidding of anything Maple Area Residents inc. You cannot tell me money is not involved there. These people represent 10% of the neighborhood but get to play mini dictators

      • “Now it goes to the full City Council”…on which Guidry sits and votes. The Planning Commission’s vote is ultimately just a recommendation. Guidry has tried to sneak approval of the overlay through the Council a couple of times already.

  3. Let the CZO do what it is designed to do. Stop the “overlay process”. Neighborhood Associations are not part of our representative government. Nobody elected them to represent us. They are just a collection of individuals with individual opinions. The best role they can serve is as facilitators of discussion.

  4. i live one block from the “4 corners” which is where the bars are on hillary and maple, i love this news… my neighbors and I spoke and agreed that we’ve never had a noise issue and we embrace these changes!!!

  5. Before conditional use, a Maple St. business-owner-in-quaint-shotgun might typically begin the workday by cleaning up the condoms and beer bottles strewn about the front yard. And that’s a fact. Laissez les bon temps rouler is a nice idea — more difficult in practice. If you live by Oak St., like at least one of the post-ers here, you might not know what it’s like by Maple. I myself don’t know what it’s like by Oak St. because I live by Maple: we’ve got thousands of transients (college students) in the neighborhood with money to spend and steam to release. It’s great that they’re “helping the economy,” and most of them are nice people under a lot of stress (from hard work and poorer prospects in the current economic environment; and check out the ongoing suicide problem at Tulane), but we don’t need a return to the old days. Not to mention that alcohol renders them vulnerable to crime on our Uptown Messenger-ed streets. (See infra.) Within a few years many Maple revelers go back where they came from and continue to work hard and play hard. Then they become the problem of, e.g., Second Avenue (NYC), another neighborhood that suffers, famously, from bar-blight. I don’t belong to any neighborhood org, but now I’m going to join one.

    • You also were (or should have been) aware of these businesses existing when you moved your business onto Maple Street, whether 5 years ago or 25. Bars marketed to college students have been on Maple Street for decades.

      Potential issues like this come with the territory when you move next to college bars and are priced into the value of your property.

  6. every negative thing you listed would be properly addressed if the 2nd was adequately staffed and patrolled. However, since it has never been people like you and Ms. Guidry have turned towards killing businesses that bring foot traffic to the street. What we need is more cops not less businesses or less college students

  7. I’m a resident. Grew up here. Actually, some of the business-owners I know on Maple Street have been around since the sixties. Of course by native standards that’s not long at all. As for the “decades” you claim for college bars on Maple St., you must know that a lot of them started up/were built in the past 10-15 years. One of these, the new Bruno’s, was built over the vociferous objections of the neighborhood. Anyway, I’m for conditional use. In a word, moderation. People who want to make money by serving alcohol to college students presumably are not. I may be wrong about that.

    • Yes that’s the NEW Brunos. The old Brunos was there for 40 years. Specific bars come and go, but that has been a neighborhood of college bars for decades.

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