In a city that loves to talk about itself, the changes New Orleans has made after Hurricane Katrina and the levee collapses are more and more often the subject of heated debate. With an influx of economic development, where do we relax our stringent standards for authenticity and historic preservation? Where do we uphold them? And who decides?
That's a tension District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell sought to ease May 22, when she asked a developer appealing for the right to tear down several historic (but neglected) buildings to back down, just hours before he was set to go before the New Orleans City Council.
The project, spearheaded by local developer Kishore "Mike" Motwani of Jayshree Hospitality and the Minnesota-based hospitality management company Wischermann Partners Inc., seeks to build two hotels: a Marriott Residence Inn and a Marriott Springhill Suites. It would require the demolition of small existing buildings at at 105-111 Tchoupitoulas St. and 422 Canal St. to build the 21-story hotel.
The $120 million project has been rejected twice — first by the Central Business District Historic Landmarks Commission (HDLC) and then by the Architectural Review Committee. Among the loudest voices opposing the project has been the Preservation Resource Center, whose senior advocate, Michelle Kimball, who was on edge about the council earlier this week. "You never know when you're coming on with a new City Council what might happen," she says.
As late as the day before the vote was scheduled to take place, the City Council issued few clues as to what its members might decide. Council President Stacy Head declined comment, while Cantrell, who represents the district that includes the proposed development, issued a lukewarm statement that gave no hint as to her decision. A spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu said the mayor opposes tearing down the historic buildings.
Sean O'Laughlin, vice president of development and construction for Wischermann, said it's not up to a few disgruntled neighbors to decide whether New Orleans plays host to a $120 million redevelopment project on its main street, which already is lined with high-rise national hotels. Ultimately, though, it was. According to Nicole Webre, a spokeswoman for some of the people involved in trying to scuttle the development, the City Council received more than 130 letters urging the project be stopped.
"It truly is (the leadership of the City Council) that needs to make this decision on behalf of the greater good, the city," O'Laughlin said two days before the vote was to be held. "Or, is it going to be the chosen few of immediate neighbors that will have the larger voice? I say today that I think the project is more about the street of Canal than it is about the neighbor across the way. And that is hard to say. The last person I want to be is the big, bad developer."
According to O'Laughlin, restoring the buildings simply won't work for the plans the developers have in mind. The long, slender buildings, which are roughly 20 feet wide and 100 feet long, don't meet the requirements of the Marriott or modern-day construction demands.
"You can't build higher than the existing building because they can't support anything over them," he said. "They are supported on foundations of hay bales back from the early 1800s." O'Laughlin added that "they're generally termite-infested, and they require new internal structures and beams to support what you want to do with your new project."
No one argues that the buildings proposed for demolition are dilapidated. They have been cited by the HDLC for demolition by neglect, though many opponents of the project have pointed out that Motwani is the owner who has let them fall into disrepair.
The Picayune Place Historic District, bounded by Camp, Common, Tchoupitoulas and Poydras streets, mandates buildings be limited to 70 feet high. The developers want to build a 250-foot building with a 100-foot spire on top, so they would also need a height waiver. The height is crucial to the project and non-negotiable, O'Laughlin says; that's the amount of space the project needs to generate revenue.
"That's why it has ended up at the height that it is," he said. "I think a more aggressive developer would definitely take the project taller. Because what is unique about the New Orleans market is that the hotel demand is there to support more hotel rooms. And we could easily put 500 rooms on that site." (The plans call for 373 rooms.)
Motwani has come under fire by preservationists for his many T-shirt and souvenir shops in the French Quarter, earning him a reputation that O'Laughlin calls unfair.
"He's one of your largest retailers in the city," he said. "He's one of your largest retail employers in the city. He's one of those French Quarter owners. He's created unique brands of stores. Is it not enough for a person to spend $100 million on a new project, to try to change a site or a block and still get peppered with 'He's not doing enough?'"
Gambit tried to get Motwani to speak about the project, with no success. His partners in the project have directed all media inquiries to O'Laughlin. (Motwani also did not return calls to The Advocate for a story it ran in March, nor was he quoted by The Times-Picayune in an article that appeared last week.)
O'Laughlin, who serves as the project's spokesman, is based in Minne-sota. Asked why he is the spokesman for a project in New Orleans that is being codeveloped by Motwani's local hospitality company, O'Laughlin said that hotel developments of this nature are his company's forte "and there isn't necessarily a local in town who can bring these brands to town. ... And there might not be a local developer that could have brought this development to town."
As for why Motwani hasn't weighed in publicly on the project, O'Laughlin chose his words carefully: "He's a large landowner, a wealthy person. He can be passionate about what he wants to do here. ... He may not understand why somebody wouldn't like this, and his passion will speak louder when he talks, and I think he's being protective at this point. He doesn't want to say something that will hurt his place and he thinks the right people are on this to help his place."
One thing on which everyone agrees is that the corner of Canal and Tchoupitoulas streets is one of the city's premier intersections.
"(It is) perhaps the most iconic landmark site location in the city," said O'Laughlin. "It is literally at the intersection of the CBD, the Convention Center and the French Quarter, and a statement should be made at that location."
Kimball agrees about the corner, but said, "Looking at it from a strict preservation point of view, this particular block in New Orleans is one of the most significant historically, in the history of New Orleans."
The standstill comes from the reluctance on both sides to compromise, O'Laughlin says. "No one has come to us to say, 'Would you consider keeping this particular facade? It's very important to us,'" O'Laughlin says. "Part of me says that just putting facade for 'facadism' may ruin what you want your building to look like, but I also say we need to get our project done, and we need to work together. And would I consider saving a facade or two? Yes, I would consider that, but I'm not the type that starts the negotiations first. I'd rather see the parties work together."
In a broader sense, the successful (at least for now) derailment of the Motwani project speaks to the rapid change in post-Katrina New Orleans — and community pushback.
With development happening all over the city, from the mixed-use development proposed for the Holy Cross neighborhood to the contended Habana Outpost restaurant at the corner of North Rampart Street and Esplanade Avenue, the neighbors who have been most successful in changing or even halting construction typically have the voices and the resources to resist those changes. In poorer or underserved communities, a project that brings redevelopment and jobs is sold as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — whereas with projects in booming areas like the CBD, it's often a question of waiting for the next proposal.
Peter Duffy Bennett, an urban planner and researcher at the University of New Orleans, points out that each proposed development in the "new New Orleans" has been different depending on who is complaining.
"It hasn't been the same story each time, and more privileged, connected, wealthier groups have had better (for them) results," Bennett said in an email. "It also is troubling that the number of voices you can gather has become the measure of whether anyone listens, not the merits of your argument. People raised a stink about the Habana Outpost for years, even though the project didn't have any issues identified by the city; it was just people who didn't like it. The loud voices won."
That, he says, is the reason for the city's Master Plan — the document organized with community input after Hurricane Katrina to create long-term, sustainable goals for New Orleans. The Master Plan requires developers to seek approval from the HDLC, and violating that procedure — as well as constantly looking for exceptions from zoning ordinances — undermines that process.
"It sets a precedent that any future project can get approved by one-time exceptions to the rules," Bennett says. "The reason why planners aren't happy about that is not that we want to tell people what to do, it's because the plan is supposed to be what the community wants. It was created through many community meetings and other forms of input."
That's a point Cantrell made in a statement she issued after asking Motwani to pull his appeal from the council agenda. "This has been a very difficult situation and one that my office and I have worked on for a long time," she said. "It has reminded me that the Council has yet to include a preservation plan as part of the city's Master Plan, which was approved in 2010. Considering how much development is now taking place and the large number of historic buildings that exist in New Orleans, we need to find a way to incorporate new construction in to the fabric of our historic sites. This is crucial and I hope over the next three months that this group will not only solve the Canal Street issue, but will provide a road map for a much-needed preservation plan."
Cantrell also said she's offered to work with Motwani and his partners on a new plan that will include the voices of residents, preservationists and other interested parties. As for Motwani, he remained silent.