The Board of Zoning Adjustments approved plans Monday for a primarily residential mixed-use redevelopment of the former Rite Aid property at at 3401 St. Charles Avenue.
The developer asked for variances to build up to 65 feet and five stories, while zoning allows for only 40 feet and three stories. Although BZA staff members recommended that the board deny the developer’s request, the board voted 5-0 to allow a building of that height as long as the development followed eight provisions laid out in the staff report, plus another requirement that the development cannot be larger than 220,000 square feet.
Historically, the site used to hold the Ghisalberti Flats, built in 1905, which was 75 feet high. The apartment building was demolished in the 1950s, according to the Preservation Resource Center, and the Ghisalberti corner became the site of a K&B drugstore, bought out by Rite Aid in 1997. The former store has been vacant since 2018.
Owners Valerie Besthoff and Andrew Marcus, the descendants of K&B founder Sydney Besthoff, want to turn the site back into apartments. The complex includes a five-story building and a three-story townhouse, with 115 apartment units and 19,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor.
The L-shaped development would take up most of the square block, fronting Carondelet and Delachaise streets as well as St. Charles and Louisiana.
The proposal inspired a slew of public comments from neighbors — some in favor of adding more apartments and retail to the street and others vehemently opposed to the height of the building and the increased density it would bring to the neighborhood.
Shelley Landrieu, executive director of the Garden District Association, said that the height variance would set a dangerous precedent for other developers, “thus negatively affecting the ambiance of one of the city’s most beautiful and iconic boulevards.”
But Odom B. Heebe, vice president of the St. Charles Avenue Association, wrote that his organization supported the construction and believe the developers have been responsive to neighbors’ concerns. “The developers are local with long-standing ties to the City of New Orleans … the design uses quality materials with an appropriate architectural nod to the history of the existing site,” he wrote.
Architect Kenneth Gowland, owner of MetroStudio, which designed the mixed-used development, rebutted the criticisms of the proposal at the BZA meeting. He said that because the top floor of the largest building will be set back, it will look like a four-story building from the street.
He also said it was necessary to construct a higher building on St. Charles and Louisiana so that they could put lower-story townhouses on the more residential Delachaise and Carondelet streets.
“All we’re trying to do is allocate the allowable density in a matter that is consistent with the site and the historic context,” he said, adding, “We’re half a million cubic feet below what’s allowable in terms of the buildable area and we’re providing three times the amount of open permeable space than what is required at the site.”
Board member Ramiro Diaz asked if the developers had considered going through the process of creating an affordable housing planned development, which allows for higher-density buildings in exchange for renting some units below the market rate to low-income tenants. Affordable housing developments must be approved by the City Council.
Gowland said they were considering including some affordable housing, but it would be on a voluntary basis, not through that program. “Council might not approve the height variance that we’re looking for today. The BZA, in our opinion, is the appropriate forum to alleviate hardship, not the City Council,” he said.
Gowland said that the BZA “allows for a very targeted and almost surgical approach that is triggered by the unique site conditions, the site context.”
Board member Todd James agreed with this logic: “That was my bigger concern then, that if we went for a zoning change, that’s when we really start to create a spot-zoning process as opposed to us taking the ability to review this through BZA … if they’re going to shift this density towards St. Charles, we can keep and crop down the height as it goes towards Baronne.”
James ultimately motioned to approve the five-story development as long as the project was no larger than 220,000 square feet and followed all the provisions that BZA staff members had recommended in their report.
Reporter Sharon Lurye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.