A proposed tennis club in the Dixon area was well-received Tuesday by the City Planning Commission, but it could take a more circuitous route to approval than the developer had planned.
The project is the brainchild of Kevin Chaouat, a Frenchman who came to Xavier University six years ago on a tennis scholarship and stayed on as an assistant coach. Chaouat also coaches children and teens throughout the city, and he wants to make tennis more accessible to more people.
“Tennis has always been my passion,” Chaouat said. “And when we were looking for an opportunity to extend our program, we were challenged by the shortage of courts in the city.” He decided to develop a tennis club with world-class facilities and instruction, programs for children, and scholarships available to attract a wide range of community members to the sport.
He felt attached to the neighborhood around Xavier, he said at Tuesday’s hearing, so was thrilled to find the perfect spot for his vision: a large empty lot where a school once stood. Then he received a lesson in the zoning and permitting process.
“Upon further research,” Chaouat said, “we found that a tennis center can’t be built anywhere.”
Tennis clubs are considered country clubs by the city’s permits department, said Mike Sherman of Sherman Strategies, a land-use specialist working with Chaouat. And no zoning classification lists country clubs as a permitted use.
Sherman first tried to get the land rezoned for mixed use rather than residential. It’s in the area behind Costco that is cut off from other neighborhoods by the Palmetto Canal and overpass and by Airline Highway.
“It’s blocked by an overpass and a drainage ditch,” said Realtor Bobby Talbot. “Then if you look at the railroad tracks, there are two different fences.” Talbot knows the property well – he’s been listing it since 2006, when FirstLine Schools put it up for sale.
FirstLine had purchased the property in 2002 from the St. Theresa of the Child Jesus Roman Catholic Church, which operated the St. John Vianney Preparatory School on the site. It was briefly home to the New Orleans Charter Middle School, until Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures.
Since it’s been on the market, most of the interest in it has been commercial, Talbot said. In 2015, Louisiana Coastal Development, owned by developer James MacPhaille, purchased it to use for the Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans. Then that school chose another facility for its expansion, McPhaille said.
Speaking in support of the tennis club, McPhaille said it would be less intrusive on a residential neighborhood than a school. “I want to remind everyone that this used to be a school,” he said. “There was a gymnasium, there was a school building, there was a lot of traffic. And that did not serve the neighborhood well.”
The property is zoned in the Master Plan as residential, so the CPC staff wouldn’t accept the HUMU mixed-used designation. After negotiations, the proposal was put forward as HURM2 multifamily residential. The tennis club would be a conditional use, requiring an additional approval process.
That’s a prospect Chaouat wants to avoid. The website for his planned New Orleans Racquet Club promises a now-unrealistic early-2020 opening. “As an entrepreneur, I cannot afford to take another six months,” Chaouat said. “I don’t have the time or the money for it.”
Sherman asked the Planning Commission to allow country clubs, with specific restrictions, as a permitted, rather than conditional, use in HURM2 districts.
“The logic for that is that this tennis center is so much less intense than anything else that is already permitted in this district,” he said, “so much less intense than apartment buildings, so much less intense than the volume of cars and people and traffic that would generated by an apartment building. This are eight tennis courts. There are only so many people you can put on a court at once.”
The board followed the staff’s recommendation and voted, with five yeas and one recusal, to combine the two properties, which had been mistakenly separated and misclassified by the Orleans Parish Assessor’s Office, as HURM2 with a country club as a conditional use.
Reached after the hearing, Sherman said he and his client were pleased with the project’s reception and the board’s vote. He plans, however, to work with the city’s attorneys to switch to HUMU and allow country clubs as a permitted use.
“We’re incredibly excited about the outcome,” Sherman said, while admitting “it does send us down a different path.”
The proposal must now go to the City Council for final approval.