Constance Street “park that’s not a park” should be houses, not condos, city planners say

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Attorney Rick Richter holds up a picture of the former McDonogh No. 8 building that was on the vacant land now at 3139 Constance Street, arguing that it represents the large-scale development that should be allowed there. (photo via nola.gov)

Attorney Rick Richter holds up a picture of the former McDonogh No. 8 building that was on the vacant land now at 3139 Constance Street, arguing that it represents the large-scale development that should be allowed there. (photo via nola.gov)

A small plot of land on Constance Street in the Irish Channel long mistaken for a pocket park should be developed into single-family or double houses, not the condo building that the owner wants there, said New Orleans city planners on Tuesday.

Prior to Tuesday’s meeting of the City Planning Commission, owner Ruppert Kohlmaier had seemed to have the wind at his back in his plans for a condo building on his property at 3139 Constance Street. City officials were forthright about the bureaucratic error that had led the land to be mislabeled as a park years ago, and City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell had asked the commission to consider multi-family residential zoning for the property instead, the “most intense” use deemed possibly reasonable at the site.

At an at-times contentious meeting with the Irish Channel Neighborhood Association, recently, Cantrell had explained that she saw multi-family as a starting point for the discussion — the City Planning Commission was not allowed to recommend a higher zoning than that use, but it could recommend downward from it. Just before Tuesday’s meeting, the staff apparently did just that — recommending zoning for two-family houses on the site rather than a multi-family development — creating unexpectedly tough odds for Kohlmaier.

Attorney Rick Richter said the planning staff’s recommendation creates its own problem: the three lots on the property are slightly too small for standard two-family homes, meaning Kohlmaier will have to return to the city yet again for another whole set of variances.

“You can’t develop a double,” Richter said of the three lots on the property.

About 10 neighbors then spoke in turn, each suggesting that individual homes on the site would be more in keeping with both the properties immediately around the lot and the rest of the Irish Channel. Resident Chris Reed said he worries that Kohlmaier’s proposal could encourage a “domino effect” of other developers trying to build larger complexes further into the Channel.

Ben Sherman, who lives across Constance from the property, said that slightly-smallish doubles are actually quite common around the Channel. A multi-family development, he said, would be a glaring deviation from that pattern.

“If I opened up my front door, it would be a solar eclipse, 24 hours a day,” Sherman said.

Several residents, including Harvey Stern of the Irish Channel Neighborhood Association board, described the previous use of the property, even by Kohlmaier’s father, as a “de facto park,” with its landscaping, benches and walkways. One reason the association now supports the two-family home proposal, Stern said, is that if it can’t remain an actual green space, then it should retain as much greenery around the individual homes as possible.

“To the extent that we are a resilient city, these little neighborhood parks contribute to it, particularly with their tree canopies,” Stern said.

In his rebuttal, Richter said the whole conversation distorts the original history of the property as the large old McDonogh No. 8 school, and he held up a photo for illustration.

“This was elegant,” Richter said, arguing that if the school hadn’t burned, it would be converted today to a multi-family residential structure with more than six units. “This was the scale of this neighborhood.”

Further, he reiterated that the resulting lots will be too small for two-family homes. They will likely have to be singles, and one will be in the shadow of the Design Within Reach building.

The members of the City Planning Commission showed no interest in deviating from their staff’s recommendation, however. Commissioner Alexandra Mora said that she regrets the city’s past zoning errors, recognizes Kohlmaier’s right to build on his land and understands the challenges involved in developing such an irregular-shaped property, but that the two-family homes are the best zoning for the land now.

Robert Rivers, the planning commission director, noted that through a resubdivision or other planning efforts, the property can be developed to take advantage of the two-family zoning.

“Because a lot is substandard doesn’t mean it can’t be built on,” Rivers said. “It doesn’t preclude development on that particular property.”

With that, the commission voted 8-0 in favor of the two-family zoning. It will next go to the full City Council for a final decision.

A few other Uptown zoning items were also on Tuesday’s agenda:

  • The Veterans of Foreign Wars received easy affirmation of their plan to renovate their hall at Annunciation and Lyons streets, which will include enlarging the garage. Post members said the renovation won’t alter or intensify their use of the property in any way, and Ramsey Green of the Friends of Wisner Park praised the post’s conduct as neighbors.
  • Uptown Recycling on South Claiborne Avenue also received permission to expand their facility to cover the entire square bounded by Thalia, Willow and Erato streets, after acquiring the remaining lots on the block.
  • Bar Frances, one of the first-announced tenants of Arnold Kirschman’s redevelopment of the old Frank’s Steakhouse property at 4521 Freret Street, was slated to seek a conditional use for a cocktail lounge on Tuesday, but their request was withdrawn without explanation.

To read our live coverage of the meeting, see below.

Live Blog City Planning Commission – Aug. 25, 2015
 

7 thoughts on “Constance Street “park that’s not a park” should be houses, not condos, city planners say

  1. They are using their own error as an excuse to tighten the zoning and thus take money out of the pocket of the property owner. Revolting. There’s no reason why condos can’t go there; it abuts a commercial building, for Pete’s sake.

    • Let me try this again. This property, to our understanding, was zoned RD-2 in the 1970’s. Rupert’s father bought it sometime in the 90’s or 2000’s. The property was bought RD-2. You buy the property, you buy the zoning. The owner is using the CZO error as an excuse to relax the zoning to put money in his pocket at the expense of the neighborhood. The owner lives in Metairie. We live in the neighborhood. Now THIS is revolting.

      • Patti,

        The zoning maps showed a less restrictive zoning before — I know because I looked it up the first time around and it showed up as B1-A. If the error was made on the map (similar to the error on the new map) there’s very good reason to believe that the zoning category was not known. The city seems to have a near limitless ability to misrepresent the zoning of this particular parcel.

        The bottom line is that the city held this parcel out to have commercial zoning, and the last structure that stood there was a three-story school. Restricting it to two-family, especially when the city needs more, denser housing in Uptown, strikes me as revolting under the circumstances.

        • Owen, which designation supersedes the other? I’m guessing the RD zoning takes precedent over the B1-A, otherwise the owner and developers wouldn’t be expending so much effort shoehorning in the HU-RM2 zoning. Not included in the above article is there are absolutely NO properties zoned HU-RM2 anywhere in the immediate area. The closest property is 1 1/2 miles away. The CPC simply returned the zoning designation back to what it was, RD2, before CZO mistakenly zoned it OS-N as a public park. As far as the former school at that site is concerned, there were reports that burned down 80 or more years ago, though I can’t verify that claim. The developers efforts to repeatedly trot out pictures of the school as if it were there recently is disingenuous at best.

        • Houses would make the neighbors happy but the man has the property right to build a condo if he wants, even if he personally resides in Siberia. I do not see why Uptown needs to become more dense though, as it is already among the most dense areas of the city. Does increasing population density have some kind of secret intrinsic benefit? Perhaps there is some kind of valid argument for it, but it’s definitely not a given.

          • It’s difficult to separate out Katrina effects from the census numbers, but Irish Channel is most likely less dense than it used to be, since double shotguns have been converted to singles and household sizes get smaller when an area gentrifies (more singles and couples, less large families).

            Adding housing units to a gentrifying neighborhood in the form of a few condo buildings here and there probably won’t even be enough to offset the ongoing population loss, let alone make the neighborhood more dense.

          • In this case, the population loss would seem to be a good thing, although some of that “loss” goes back to before Katrina, with the demolition of the St. Thomas projects and relocation of its “residents” to the St. Bernard and other projects.

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