Owen Courreges: When a grocery store becomes an AirBnB

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A screen shot of a five-unit AirBnB listing at the corner of Prytania and Josephine. (via airbnb.com)

Owen Courrèges

Owen Courrèges

In the Federalist Papers, James Madison famously ruminated on the necessity of government.

“[W]hat is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” Madison asked rhetorically in Federalist No. 51. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

It is because men are not angels (indeed, far from it) that we need the controls imposed by government. Even those laws that are overly restrictive and burdensome usually find their origins in the inability of citizens to do the right thing.

Case in point: Across the street from my home in the Lower Garden District is the old Zara’s Supermarket located at 2042 Prytania Street. By early 2014, Zara’s had fallen on hard times. The business folded and the tenants in the upstairs apartments moved out.

In July of 2014, the Zara’s building was sold to a corporate entity owned by Robby and Liz Blum. The following March, the Blums met with the Coliseum Square Association to announce plans to renovate Zara’s and open up another full-service grocery in the location. They came up with a name – “Garden District Grocery” – and explained the concept in relative detail.

Renovations, however, went slowly. The planned grocery never opened, although by the beginning of 2016, the major work appeared to be completed.

It was at that time I began to notice what the Blums had done with the five apartments in the upstairs. Instead of leasing them, they began hosting them as short-term rentals on AirBnB.

I was not pleased with this development, but didn’t make a stink. Even when rowdy tourists would hang around on the upstairs porch into the wee hours on weekends, I avoided confronting anyone about it. After all, who wants to antagonize their neighbors?

Well, the Blums did. Despite the Blums’ promises of opening up a new grocery themselves, lease signs popped up in the storefront in mid-2016. The Corporate Realty listing pitches the possibilities broadly: “Convenience Store, Mixed Use, Restaurant.” This is certainly not what was pitched to the Coliseum Square Association.

The Blums also ostensibly decided that they could control all the parking adjoining their property, and to Hell with the people that actually live nearby. Despite having two freight zones that have not served any useful purpose in over three years, the Blums also decided that an old curb cut adjoining their building was, in fact, a “driveway,” and began demanding that people be ticketed who parked along it.

I wrote a column about the problem earlier this year when someone else’s vehicle was ticketed. Afterwards, I received two tickets myself. I complained to one of the Blum’s workmen who was renovating the property next door. He brusquely admitted to calling parking enforcement and boasted that they could have anybody ticketed due to what he described as their political clout.

I complained to Liz Blum directly, but received the brush off. Ultimately, I contacted the head of parking enforcement and explained the situation. The tickets were dismissed.

Around this same time, the city’s short-term rental law went into effect. On May 15, 2017, the Blums applied to the city for five unrestricted commercial short term rental permits. The city rejected the applications because the property is zoned HU-RD2, a residential classification. The applications were then converted to temporary permits, which are only valid for a total of 90 days per calendar year. Based on my personal observation of guests regularly entering and leaving and a review of their availability on AirBnB, it would appear that the units have likely already exceeded the 90 day limitation — yet they continue to be regularly occupied.

Whether due to their short term rental application or some other factor, the Blums were tipped off to the fact that they lacked any kind of commercial zoning. On May 25, 2017, they filed to begin the process of applying to have the zoning changed to HU-MU.

Just this past Tuesday, Nicole Webre, a consultant representing the Blums, appeared before the Coliseum Square Association to make the pitch for the zoning change. Webre claimed that the intention was still to have a grocery, and that the broad HU-MU classification was necessary because it offered the “most potential in terms of allowing residential on the top floor and commercial on the bottom floor.”

The Coliseum Square Association was skeptical, but still voted in favor of a motion endorsing a change to a more restrictive commercial zoning classification, HU-B1. Another public meeting will take place on site on June 26, 2017 at 6:00 p.m.

Of course, the idea that the Blums want to offer “residential” in the upstairs is belied by the fact that they’re using the old apartments as AirBnB rentals. Moreover, there does not appear to be any particular reason why the plan for a grocery would pan out. The space is presumably slated for lease to whoever can afford the rent.

I’m on the record as being generally opposed to restrictive zoning, but I also understand that the foregoing experience is part of where the drive for strict land use controls arises. When property owners act in a generally un-neighborly manner, it’s natural to prefer that they be constrained, especially when they come to the city hat in hand.

It’s also human nature to be selfish. I won’t begrudge anybody who wants to make the most economically advantageous use of their property. However, that drive has to be tempered with a healthy regard for those around you.

It would be easier for both myself and my other neighbors if the Blums were angels; then they could be trusted to act properly without supervision. Regrettably, angels are surely lacking here.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

14 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: When a grocery store becomes an AirBnB

  1. It’s great to be a libertarian and rail against all government–until something like this happens and government has the cure. Hopefully this brush with the real world will help Owen appreciate that there’s a damn good reason for the vast majority of rules and regulations we live by.

    • Tim,

      My views haven’t changed; I’m just providing nuance. Bad actors often lead to bad laws that inhibit commerce and place undue burdens on people who are generally agreeable and try to avoid causing problems. Nevertheless, many land use restrictions are necessary — I’ve consistently maintained that significant limitations on short term rentals are justified, for example.

      • “Even those laws that are overly restrictive and burdensome usually find their origins in the inability of citizens to do the right thing. Case in point: Across the street from my home…”
        So am I misreading this? You seem to be saying, Here’s a law (zoning) which is a bad law, but in this instance it’s a good law, and oh by the way, I’m the aggrieved party.
        Admit it, Owen, it’s easy to criticize government functions that you think target you or others, but you rise to defend government when it directly benefits you.

        • Tim,

          I won’t admit to any such thing. I’m still opposed to most if not all zoning in the aggregate, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have to work with the system we have as opposed to the system I want. If we’re going to have zoning (and we quite clearly do) then those who are bad actors should receive the least dispensation.

    • Tim, don’t hold your breath.

      Owen, didn’t the residential neighbors above Zara’s cause problems before? If people are being noisy, whether they are long term or short term residents, you can still file a noise complaint with the police or Garden District security. STR tenants still have to obey the same laws as everyone else.

      • Kimberlee,

        No, I never had problems with the neighbors renting the apartments above Zara’s before the building was sold. And while I could report the noise issues, I would prefer that the owners simply obey the STR law.

  2. Ad-hoc zoning changes are par for the course in today’s lawless, third-world New Orleans. The Master Plan that was created at great labor and expense is being totally disregarded by the city government.

  3. I don’t know the address off the top of my head, but there’s a Nola City website where you can look up all the permits filed for any specific address, in the case of STR permits this also includes the type of permit and details such as which dates it’s valid for.

  4. Can we still support what is right even when we personally suffer or lose money because of it? The principle of private property should overrule any concerns about zoning, rental regulations, and forced agreements with neighborhood associations, which in fact stem from hostility towards property rights. They’re not selling drugs or running a whorehouse.

    • Tulet,

      I agree in the principle of private property and I’m opposed to restrictive zoning, but at the same time, as long as our laws as they are, the worst actors shouldn’t be receiving the most special treatment.

  5. Was the house next door to Zara’s sold as well? The back lot was used for parking, as you well know. (That corner has seen some huge changes as of late.)

    • UptownLady,

      Yes, they were both sold. They aren’t using the back lot that I can tell, and they act as though the short term rentals are a good thing because the apartments would cause parking problems. It’s nonsense, but that’s what they claim.

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