PQ She had a plan to turn the building into the 'Inn at the Police Jail and Patrol Station,' a bed-and-breakfast with nine guest rooms and a community meeting space to serve the neighborhood.
Nearly everyone who spoke before the City Planning Commission this week about the proposal to convert the century-old New Orleans Police station at 2552 St. Philip Street into a bed-and-breakfast was in favor of it — including the neighbors, the commissioners and even the city staffers who said it was impossible.
Only the language of the city's land use bureaucracy stood in the way, an obstacle that proved insurmountable Oct. 28. After the City Planning Commission voted to postpone a decision on the project, District D City Councilman Jared Brossett said he is preparing to amend city law to make it possible.
The "Police Jail and Patrol Station," built in Treme at the turn of the 20th century, recently was purchased by Liz Canache, a former schoolteacher. Canache said the moment she laid eyes on the old jail, she knew she had to buy it.
The 6,291-square-foot Queen Anne- and French Renaissance Revival-style building was falling apart. The structure had crumbled around the 112-year-old facade, leaving it open to drug dealers and criminals who frequented the area, Canache said. She had a plan to turn the building into the "Inn at the Police Jail and Patrol Station," a bed-and-breakfast with nine guest rooms and a community meeting space to serve the neighborhood.
Common rooms would be designated for after-school homework help for students and Spanish classes for all ages, and Canache said she would instruct some of these classes and hire teachers to do the rest.
"The point is to bring back the neighborhood's heritage and save something from falling down, which is where the building was headed," Canache told Mid-City Messenger.
In an auction of surplus city-owned property in December, Canache and her husband Raul bought the building for $175,000. At the advice of city officials, they made the purchase under the name of a new hospitality company called Down By Law to protect them in the event someone was hurt due to the decrepit state of the structure. Next, officials told them, they would need a zoning change to allow both the bed-and-breakfast and meeting-room functions.
"We were given a road map by the city to follow, and we have followed that road map to the letter," Raul Canache said last week.
When the proposal reached the City Planning Commission, however, it stumbled badly. Staff members said they had no conceptual problem with the project — but that a number of legal issues prevent it. First, a bed-and-breakfast must be a former single- or two-family home — which the old police station never was. Second, it must be occupied by its owner.
"The proposed bed-and-breakfast does not meet these requirements because the structure was originally used as an institutional facility, not a single- or two-family residence, and because the structure is owned by a limited liability company, which cannot obtain a homestead exemption," city planners wrote.
City planning officials said they are working with the City Council on changes to the law that would allow the building to be used as a bed-and-breakfast. If they succeed, a zoning change wouldn't even be needed, as such a business is allowed in residential zones, but it would preclude using part of the building as a community meeting space, which Raul Canache described as essential to helping the business serve the neighborhood.
City Planning Commissioner Kyle Wedberg said at the group's meeting Oct. 28 that a better path back to commercial use is needed for institutional buildings being auctioned by the city.
The meeting last week featured an outpouring of support for the project. The Louisiana Landmarks Society noted that the old police station was on their 2010 list of New Orleans' nine most endangered properties, and that the Canaches would fully restore the building. A number of neighbors and members of St. Luke's Episcopal, where the Canaches attend church, also showed up to voice their support.
"Liz and Raul have become a part of our community," said church member Linda Hamilton. "It's just awesome that someone would want to come in and take over this building, rather than have it sitting blighted."
Commissioner Nolan Marshall III expressed dismay that the earliest resolution possible could be months away, but the City Planning Commission decided its only option was to postpone a decision until staffers can provide a status update at the group's next meeting.
Reached later in the week, Brossett (whose district includes the station) said he is aware of the problem and plans to introduce a change in the law to allow former institutional buildings to be used as bed-and-breakfasts. He says the neighborhood supports the inn.
"I've not heard any opposition to it," Brossett said. "It's a positive, putting a historic structure of this kind back into commerce, and I'm happy to assist in the process."
— This story was produced with our partners at Mid-City Messenger. Read more at www.midcitymessenger.com.