A proposed open-air restaurant complex on the Freret Street corridor received a thumbs-down from the City Planning Commission on Tuesday (May 23)
The large vacant lot on Freret and Upperline Street is envisioned as Bohemia Gardens, an outdoor recreational space with a bar and three restaurants featuring up-and-coming chefs, the developer told the CPC.
In its report, the Planning Commission staff objected to the project’s design, stating it did not fit the character of the neighborhood.
“The historical development pattern of the Freret Street mixed-use corridor is what makes Freret a vibrant and walkable neighborhood,” the staff states. “The proposed design strategy drastically departs from the character of Freret Street in that current layout of the structures breaks the rhythm and fabric of the street by not providing building facades to the edge of the sidewalk.”
The CPC asked the developers and their architect to bring the building facades to the sidewalk and combine the small structures into one larger building to anchor the corner of Freret and Upperline.
After meetings with the CPC staff, a redesign and three deferrals, the Bohemia group had not brought the plans into compliance. Then they ran up against the city’s deadline for a conditional use request. They need city approval before building a restaurant that’s larger than 5,000 square feet.
The developers’ representative, Chris Young, said they plan to keep working with the CPC staff. He asked the commissioners to consider approving the proposal subject to eight provisos.
Developer Billy Blatty, a prolific bar and restaurant entrepreneur, implied that his vision for the project is difficult to reconcile with the city’s requirements for a standard restaurant in a historic urban corridor.
Blatty has developed an eclectic group of projects, including Sofia Restaurant, Nagomi, the Barcadia brand, Belle’s Diner, Ampersand and Ohm Lounge. He is working with Sofia General Manager Peter Gordon, Colorado-based Andres James LLC and architect Loretta Katherine Harmon on the Freret Street project.
“Conceptually, it’s an outdoor gathering spot,” Blatty said, describing Bohemia at the CPC hearing. “It’s designed not to look industrial but to look more or less like a park disguising a restaurant concept.” Bohemia appears to be an outdoor food court, with patrons buying meals from restaurant stands and bringing them to a centralized seating area.
Blatty said they plan to install swings, hammocks, concrete ping-pong tables and a fire pit among the restaurant tables to encourage people to gather. The site also includes trees, permeable paving, raised planters, an arbor and a pergola.
The plans show seven painted steel container buildings. Three 8-by-20 foot restaurant buildings are labeled “Buddha,” “Sandwitch” and “Lea Jane.” They are vented above and would operate like stationary food trucks, the plans indicate.
An 8-by-40 container housing a bar toward the center of the development was flagged in the CPC report for exceeding the size limit for a holding bar in a standard restaurant. Three other steel containers, along LaSalle Street, would house an office, restrooms and trash bins.
The city requires six vehicle parking spaces and four bicycle spaces for a commercial development of Bohemia’s size. There’s no off-street vehicle or bike parking in the current plan, but the vehicle requirement can be fulfilled with on-street parking.
“I’m trying to massage a few elements within that [the CPC provisos], so it doesn’t become too industrial and skew away from what the intended use and project is,” Blatty said. “It’s all supposed to be spread out. It’s supposed to be inviting for families, you know, for people who live in the neighborhood, for college students.”
At least one neighbor did not find the plan inviting. Freret area resident Edward Pointer told the CPC he moved to the neighborhood because of its bars and restaurants and enjoys them daily, but this proposal makes him uncomfortable.
“I think the neighborhood would have no problem supporting a well-planned outdoor restaurant coming to that lot. I’d support that as well,” he said. “But this is not a well-planned outdoor restaurant.”
Combining restaurants, a bar and a public park raises security issues that haven’t been addressed, Pointer said. He also is concerned about noise from the outdoor establishment.
“The neighborhood is mostly elderly people and young families with little kids, and they’re out on their porches all the time,” he said. “They’re in the yards all the time and go to bed at reasonable hours right next door to it [Bohemia Gardens].”
Chris Young said the developers are willing to work with Pointer but that the reception from the neighborhood has generally been positive.
No letters of support for the project were filed, and only Pointer wrote the CPC to object. Records from the Neighborhood Participation Project in September 2022 show that 11 neighbors attended and asked about parking for both cars and bikes, litter abatement, landscaping and competition for existing businesses.
“There were comments that were made,” Young said of the NPP, “but generally the tone was that they were supportive.”
The commissioners did not ask questions or discuss the proposal before voting to deny it. “I’m not comfortable just approving on a promise and sending it to the City Council,” said Commissioner Robert Steeg as he moved to back the staff’s recommendation for denial.
The motion was seconded by Commissioner Katie Witry, who commented: “I just think it’s too over-built for the lot. I’m definitely pro-commerce and I love to see these vacant lots get activated. But I definitely am not comfortable with the design as it’s been presented to us.”
The CPC decision is a recommendation for the City Council, which will have the final say. The project is in Councilwoman Lesli Harris’ District B.
Katherine Hart is the managing editor of NOLA Messenger. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.