What should be on Oak Street? planners ask

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The former yoga studio now slated to become a Mellow Mushroom pizza restaurant on Oak Street. (Robert Morris, UptownMessenger.com)

As Oak Street’s status among New Orleans “going out” destinations continues to rise, a number of residents’ groups have engaged a planning firm to help them ensure that the “mixed use” commercial corridor evolves into something more diverse than a strip of bars and restaurants.

Carrollton-Audubon Renaissance Inc., formed by residents’ groups from around the Carrollton area, is sponsoring a study by the planning firm Villavaso and Associates to help define the “neighborhood mixed use” zoning designation currently slated for Oak Street. The firm has created a complete list of the current uses of buildings on Oak Street, and planners are now meeting with individual business owners and residents to determine how they would like to see the rest of the street develop. After public hearings about their findings, they will draft language about Oak Street to be inserted into the new Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance the city is assembling now, said planner Steve Villavaso of the University of New Orleans at a meeting last week of the Carrollton Riverbend Neighborhood Association.

“We have put Oak Street under our microscope,” Villavaso said. “We have the opportunity to embed our vision and our rules in this new zoning ordinance.”

For example, most new restaurants seeking liquor licenses along Oak Street over the last year have signed agreements with the association with provisions intended to keep them from becoming bars, such as promising to maintain sales of more food than alcohol, closing around midnight or earlier, and prohibiting video poker. Those agreements have all been fairly similar, and if people along the street generally view those as fair conditions, they may be written into the zoning, Villavaso said.

“We might actually put that in the law,” Villavaso said.

Another example — illustrated at Thursday night’s meeting — was ongoing discussions with the developers of a proposed Mellow Mushroom pizza restaurant. The neighborhood is generally in favor of alcohol sales at the restaurant using its usual agreement, but neighbors are concerned that the developers’ request for regular live music could allow the establishment to one day become a performance venue.

The study will seek to find standard answers to those questions for Oak Street, Villavaso said, but the process is still in the early stages, and the planners will base their recommendations on what they hear from the Oak Street community.

“We don’t come with any preconceived judgments,” Villavaso said. “We don’t know what the right toolbox for Oak Street from 2012 to 2020 is.”

A number of the 30 or so people at the meeting said they like the current configuration of Oak Street, a combination of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, galleries, professional services and retail establishments. What they don’t want to see, they said, is Oak Street become another Frenchman Street.

“Whatever you think of Frenchman Street, it was a grand experiment that went awry,” Villavaso agreed. “The city several years ago tried to plan and control what happened on French Street, and I assure you, it went kablooie. It’s fun, but it’s all clubs, it’s all alcohol and it’s all music.”

One attendee, who declined to share his name after the meeting, said that legislation could not prevent that outcome, and that it would only happen if private developers felt comfortable coming to Oak Street. But Jerry Speir, president of Carrollton-Audubon Renaissance Inc., pointed out that a number of buildings on Oak remain vacant, and that they could potentially become the next set of bars.

“In the last few years, there’s obviously been a lot of change on Oak Street, and there’s a lot of concern at every juncture about what it’s all about,” said Speir, also a former president of the Carrollton-Riverbend association. “How do you make sure it remains mixed use, that there are daytime uses and night-time uses, and that not everything is a restaurant or a bar?”

Villavaso predicted that the City Council will vote on the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance next year, and that Carrollton must have the study complete and its recommendations in place in time in order to be heard.

“Nothing we do here is going to affect that, unless we get going here,” Villavaso said. “We have a golden opportunity to influence that.”

14 thoughts on “What should be on Oak Street? planners ask

  1. Why not put in a gym? Or a fresh food market? I live 2 blocks from Oak would love to see something like that go in. Though, I’d appreciate it if the store would stay open past 5 p.m. and not close on Sundays like all the other Oak St. stores…

    • The rent is to high. Only restraunts and bars can make it. Bars profits are 17%-24% depending if they have a cover charge. Grocery stores profits are 3%, with that, it is impossible when your rent is $5000. Make the owners of the buildings lower the rent and you can open anything you want

    • I love these ideas. Serve the neighborhood in a healthy way. I dont want a farmers market. Have a real store opened at leadt 6 days per week including evenings. Use local products. There are so many in the neighborhood that walk. It would be wonderful. I ha d not thought about it before. I wish the old meisel’s would be a local grocer with produce heavy and local items. They could be sourced by farmer’s market people and holly grove. I think we have an idea here. I love living in this area.

      • We’re trying to open a co-op grocery exactly along those lines on or very near Oak but the restrictive zoning supporting by efforts such as these make finding affordable space near impossible. Even though our neighbourhood is filled with empty storefronts, they’ve all been secretly rezoned residential and require rezoning or variances which have to be approved by CRNA. This is a huge obstacle to development in our area.

  2. This is one of the discussions that my daughter and I have almost on a daily basis as we travel along Oak st. daily since we live in the neighborhood. I would hate to see it become another Frenchman Street, I think have Maple Leaf is enough, there are always taxi cabs blocking the street and you either have to go around them or wait for them to move, so having more nightclubs would just make it worse. My daughter and I have also talked about what would make the street/neighborhood better and one thing would be to have a small grocery store, not a convenience store like they have but an actual grocery store that sold mostly local stuff, I know I would shop there. We have also discussed opening something along there ourselves. Please don’t let it become another Frenchman Street, because I know this family would definitely stop shopping and eating there.

  3. I work on Oak and what is most striking to me is that it seems to have several of the same businesses. For example there are 3 hamburger restaurants, 2 sushi places, numerous used clothing/goods stores, 2 used book stores, etc. in the few blocks b/t Carrollton and the River. While I appreciate a good burger, I don’t think we need 3 gourmet burger joints in 4 blocks. A fresh food market would be great, a music store (with instruments, strings, reeds etc.) might be nice too – anything that isn’t another burger place, yoga studio, used clothing shop, antique/junk shop, sushi restaurant or coffee shop would add diversity.

  4. I think fresh food market, local grocery, gym, and music store are all great ideas. If the goal is to make it a daytime place where families like to come, then perhaps someone should think about what would make parents want to come there. What about just an old fashioned toy store (and not the kind of overpriced children’s boutique-like stores they have on Magazine)?

  5. What do you mean that Frenchmen Street was a grand experiment that went awry? Frenchmen Street is a great spot – vibrant, fun, creative, and diverse. Yes, it has music clubs that have musicians play there into the night. It also has several restaurants and a coffee shop and tattoo parlor or 2. The city needs more places with responsible owners that offer music. If you want something else, fine, but don’t insult a fun place that generates revenue. Stop y’all’s hating on Frenchmen Street!

  6. Does anyone else find it crazy that the same people spearheading these crazy restrictions and moratoriams on restaurants and drinking establishments are the same owners of the one existing bar creating a monopoly? Maple leaf, anyone?

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