By R. Stephanie Bruno and Katherine Hart
The City Council is set to determine the fate of three 19th century cottages on Tchoupitoulas Street at its Thursday (Feb. 1) meeting. The owners took their demolition request to the council after the Historic District Landmarks Commission blocked it.
The doubles on the river side of the 5500 block of Tchoupitoulas are owned by Car Wash Blues, the company behind Uptown Car Wash, which surrounds the row of residential buildings.
The owners want to raze the buildings so they can expand the car wash and add higher-margin detailing services, according to co-owner Andrew Stall. Detailing is the most lucrative element of the car wash business, he said.
It’s their third demolition attempt, city records show.
“We’ve been in business for 25 years and we want to be in business for 25 more,” Stall told Uptown Messenger. “Demolishing the houses will help us to be competitive with the other car washes in town.”
Co-owner Jonathan Drennan of the construction firm J.W. Drennan LLC has filed demolition and construction plans with the city. Stall and Drennan own Car Wash Blues with real estate broker and appraiser Kevin Hilbert.
In recommending against granting the owners’ request, the HDLC staff pointed out that the buildings provide a residential screen to the otherwise industrialized portion of the block. The cottages date to the late 1800s and complement “the historic residential fabric on the lake side of Tchoupitoulas,” staff members stated.
HDLC building inspectors determined the long-neglected doubles are damaged but basically sound and could be brought back into commerce. The buildings retain many original architectural features and there’s no indication that they are beyond repair, the HDLC found.
“While it is unfortunate that Uptown Car Wash and the extensive paving that goes with it surround the remaining historic fabric — that is certainly no justification for the destruction of the buildings that remain,” the HDLC staff report states. “Tchoupitoulas is not Veterans highway, nor should we be keen on making it so.”
The commissioners agreed, voting to deny the request at their December meeting. The owners quickly filed an appeal.
Before voting to deny the demolitions, the commissioners noted the current owners have been responsible for the buildings — and their gradual deterioration — for more than a decade.
Sandra Stokes of the Louisiana Landmarks Society echoed that sentiment in a letter asking the City Council to deny the appeal. “Now is not the time to reward Car Wash Blues LLC — but rather cite them with demolition by neglect,” she wrote. “Adding insult to injury, approval would permanently remove eight housing units from the market which provided much-needed residential units as recently as last year. With some maintenance, these buildings can easily provide multiple housing units once again.”
Council member Joe Giarrusso, whose District A includes the properties, said last week that he had not yet determined whether he will support the appeal. His support or opposition will likely guide the council’s vote.
He noted that Tchoupitoulas is heavily commercial and that the properties are zoned for mixed use. “I think you have to evaluate what the zoning is with the desire of the people who live closest to it and what has historically happened there,” he said.
The HDLC’s responsibility is the preservation of historic buildings. Its guidelines state that a demolition should only be recommended when a building is in danger of collapse or doesn’t contribute to the neighborhood’s character.
Commissioners cannot consider zoning issues, market forces or the economic feasibility of a project. The City Council, however, takes a broader view of demolitions, regularly overturning the HDLC’s denials on appeal.
“I’ve certainly heard from the preservation community that wants these homes to stand,” Giarrusso said. “And what I’m waiting to see is where the near neighbors are about the homes that had been abandoned for 10 years.”
Kris Pottharst has lived a few blocks from the buildings for 44 years. She has watched Tchoupitoulas develop into a vibrant corridor, especially in the vicinity of her home.
“I love all of the small businesses that have taken up residence near me,” she said. “There are architects, tailors, restaurants, hair studios — so many different uses.”
Pottharst said she sees two issues with the proposed demolitions: The buildings could be repurposed and they are victims of demolition by neglect.
“Why would we agree to lose three intact 19th century houses in our neighborhood? If the owners balk at the expense of restoring them for residential use, why not consider them as candidates for commercial use?” she said, pointing to other successfully repurposed buildings on the corridor, such as the Main Squeeze Juice Co. corporate offices at 5521 Tchoupitoulas.
“While it is possible to repair the houses,” said Doug Kohnke, who represented the owners at the HDLC meeting, “it is nowhere near economically feasible.”
The renovation cost estimate for the three houses are in excess of $250 per square foot, he said. The cost is also a concern for Giarrusso, who noted that the property values in the neighborhood are among the highest in the city, making the purchase price potentially cost prohibitive for potential rehabbers.
Plus, Kohnke said, the residential row is surrounded on three sides by a car wash and is near a gas station and the loading dock for Winn-Dixie. Kohnke also noted that just paying the homeowners insurance on the buildings has been “a drag on the business.”
Pottharst expressed skepticism over the owners’ claim that rehabilitation is not financially viable.
“If they’re in bad shape, it’s no one’s fault but the owners. They have owned the structures for more than 10 years and have done little to improve or protect them. Why would they? It has been their desire all along to demolish them,” Pottharst said, referring to the previous applications. “Why would the city reward the behavior of property owners who can’t get a demo permit so they basically demolish them by neglect?”
The owners have not been cited for code violations, Giarrusso pointed out, let alone demolition by neglect. Records in the city’’s OneStop database back up that statement.
HDLC Deputy Director Eleanor Burke and the Audubon Riverside Neighborhood Association, however, have mentioned reports of minimum property maintenance. The owners’ demolition and construction applications may have superseded any code inspections.
The three vacant buildings were occupied by car wash employees until the men could no longer tolerate the deteriorating conditions, according to Kohnke. The last tenants left in 2021 or 2022, Kohnke told the HDLC.
Car Wash Blues has owned the two shotgun doubles since 2007, when they bought both properties for $495,000. They unsuccessfully applied for demolition in 2011, city records show.
In 2012, they acquired the remaining house on the block, a bargeboard cottage near Joseph Street, for $400,000. Two years later, the developers again applied for demolition, but the City Council denied their request.
“We don’t have a use for the buildings,” co-owner Stall said. “We bought the first two when we were approached by the previous owner, and we bought the third house a few years after that because we wanted to complete our ownership of the square.”
Car Wash Blues has owned the commercial properties on the block since 1996, Assessor’s Office records show, and now owns the entire block face.
The Audubon Riverside Neighborhood Association at first backed the developers’ plans, until learning that the buildings could be repaired, said Tori Emmerling, the association’s board member overseeing zoning issues, at the HDLC meeting.
Emmerling told association members, ARNA meeting minutes show, that supporting the demolition would send a message to developers that they can allow property to go to seed, then simply appeal to City Council to allow it to be demolished.
“I tell neighborhood associations that their input is extraordinarily important to me,” Giarrusso said. “But the people who occupy the closest space to something have the strongest say in land-use issues. The further away you get from something, the easier it is to have an opinion regarding it, even though it affects you less.”
If the council votes to back the owners’ appeal at this week’s meeting, the city can issue a permit for demolition.
The owners will also need city approval to expand the car wash. Under the area’s mixed-use (HU-MU) zoning, car washes are allowed only as a conditional use. A conditional use needs city approval to expand or intensify the business.
City records show the owners have begun the process of taking the proposed expansion to the City Planning Commission and the City Council, which gets the final word.