Amid the rancorous debate on real estate developer Sean Cummings' Elisio Lofts proposal, it can be difficult to keep in mind what Elisio Lofts actually is. It's a residential/retail development on the northeast corner* of Elysian Fields Avenue and Decatur Street, just inside Faubourg Marigny, adjacent to the Mississippi River. And it still exists only in renderings.
The project, which is in a neighborhood zoned Historic Marigny/Treme Light Industrial (HMLI), requires a number of variances — most significantly on height — to move forward. As planned by Cummings, it will go to 74 feet at its highest. The neighborhood's maximum height for new buildings is 50 feet; nevertheless, the project was approved by the City Planning Commission (CPC). Then, earlier this month, the Historic District Landmarks Commission took no action on the variance, which legally counts as a denial.
Next, it goes to the New Orleans City Council for appeal. The council is likely to take a vote on Elisio Lofts during its Sept. 6 meeting but could vote as early as this week, says Nicole Webre, legislative director for District C Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who represents the neighborhood. (Palmer, through Webre, declined to comment on the proposal.)
That Elisio Lofts has gotten this far is a shock to Alexandre Vialou, president of the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association (FMIA), which has vigorously opposed the project. "Mr. Cummings could build a building at 50 feet. We can't understand why this city would support such a project," he says.
Vialou and FMIA worry that if Elisio Lofts is allowed to go through as planned, it will open the door to a development bonanza for expensive high-rises nearby.
"If this passes, Mr. Cummings will not need to ask for the variances he's asking for now in the future," he says.
That's not just paranoia.
The Riverfront Vision Plan, commissioned by the city in 2005 and developed with assistance from Cummings, recommends increasing maximum heights along certain major corridors near the river. That study was cited in the CPC staff report recommending approval for the Elisio Lofts.
"We see the current idea of this wall of buildings as a real kind of absurd development," Vialou says.
What Elisio Lofts is, beyond a mere development — a tipping-point project that could lead to a wall of high-rise buildings along Elysian Fields and, ultimately, the riverfront all the way to Press Street, or is a natural fit to the neighborhood's growing needs and an homage to its culture — is, it seems, a matter of perspective.
The Elisio is "a forward-looking expression of Marigny," Cummings told Gambit last week during an interview in the third-floor atrium of his building at 220 Camp St. It's a naturally lit space furnished with a coffee table, two couches and two chairs that he says he thinks of as his living room.
What Cummings' firm, ekistics Inc., has shown the public in renderings thus far is a large, three-building project that runs along Decatur Street from Elysian Fields Avenue to Marigny Street. In a medium-distance illustration, the tallest building's facade looks corrugated in parts. Closer up, it has something approaching the feel of siding. This is overlaid with smooth metal panels that, together with the windows and balconies, form an asymmetrical, Tetris-like pattern.
Such a modern development may seem out of context, backing as it does into the "Marigny rectangle," a neighborhood largely made up of one-to-two family Creole cottages, old warehouses, churches and small corner bars, restaurants and retail outlets. But Cummings sees it as a natural fit. (To quote the first line of ekistics' four-page summary, which was written by Cummings: "Simply stated, Elisio Lofts is a lyrical tribute to the human tapestry, rich texture, of the-bell-curve patterns and highly eccentric character of Marigny.")
"If you look at the architecture of the building, it's reflective of the textures and the patterns that you have throughout Marigny," he says. "And in some measure, from NOCCA (the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts) to the warehouses, to the use of wood. So: different texture, different pattern. A wide array of material: wood, metal, glass, plaster."
Cummings says the Elisio also pays homage to the neighborhood's culture. He says it was designed with African, Caribbean and European influences in mind. Finally, he says, along with loft apartments it will include retail space, artists' studios, a restaurant and a music venue — all of which fits in with the neighborhood's culture.
"We created it like that, again, because it's a response to the sort of creative artisans and entrepreneurs in the neighborhood who like to live and work in the same place," he says. "They don't want to spend money on a studio and a home. So that works well for them."
"Rich people really are different than the rest of us, aren't they?" says Gretchen Bomboy later that same day. Bomboy is passing around a petition at the Friendly Bar in the Marigny, which is hosting a packed meeting of the FMIA. The neighborhood association has started a campaign called Size Matters in opposition to the Elisio Lofts Project. (Red-and-white Size Matters signs can be spotted in front of houses and businesses throughout the neighborhood.)
So far, the Size Matters group claims to have collected more than 800 signatures online and on paper, all asking the city to stop the project. "The campaign really got underway after the City Planning Commission vote" on June 26, Vialou told Gambit.
Meanwhile, Cummings has received scores of letters of support, which were attached with submissions to city regulatory agencies. Many came from other real estate owners and developers, like Shea Embry, who owns large unused buildings and pieces of land in Faubourg Marigny or Bywater. Others, however, were from small business owners in the area, like Steve Himelfarb of Cake Cafe & Bakery. Marco Meneghini, who lives next door to the site, also wrote in support.
Cummings first told the association he was going to develop the site in September 2011, when he led Vialou and FMIA co-vice president Donna Wakeman on a tour of his recently opened National Rice Mill Lofts building on Chartres Street. Cummings says he invited the full board, but contends many boycotted the meeting even though he didn't have a plan for the Elysian Fields site yet. FMIA members deny boycotting the meeting.
"The neighborhood association has exhibited a level of hostility towards us from the very beginning that is very difficult for me to pinpoint," Cummings says. "Exactly where it emanates from, I don't know. I'm not going to guess. I've asked, but they haven't been forthcoming. So I don't know."
The FMIA first saw the project in January, says Vialou, when Cummings presented it to the group's board of directors. "We mentioned to him that height was going to be an issue," he says. "Then ... three weeks later he came and presented his project to our general membership, which is the procedure, and again we told him. There were many comments at the meeting."
Asked why the building must be so tall, Cummings says it's not inconsistent with the neighborhood immediately surrounding the site. He points out the large electrical station just across Decatur Street, two city-owned parking lots (which are being bid out for redevelopment as structures) directly across Elysian Fields Avenue, the warehouse at 511 Marigny St. that is being redeveloped into apartments by Julian Mutter, and the Hotel de la Monnaie on nearby Esplanade Avenue, which tops out at 65 feet.
Cummings also says the extra height allows him to use the first floor of his building for retail instead of parking. He maintains that the average height of the three buildings, added together and divided by three, is 48 feet — under the maximum.
"Over the last few weeks, Mr. Cummings has been saying that his project is less than 50 feet tall. And we've been repeating what we've been saying from the beginning: He's building a building at 74 feet tall," Vialou says. "There is, in fact, a building at 74 feet."
In late January, the HDLC's Architectural Review Committee (ARC) voted 2-1 in favor of Elisio. Architect Wayne Troyer, who designed the Elisio, abstained. Architect Rick Fifield was the dissenting vote, but the committee's approval didn't become official until July. That was because Fifield asked and the HDLC staff agreed that, because the proposal required so many variances, the approval not move forward until the CPC was able to review it.
"We were engaged in a concurrent review with the Landmarks Commission and the City Planning Commission," Cummings says. "The neighborhood and its architect, Rick Fifield, asked that the concurrent review stop. He didn't want to deal with matters of architecture until the height issue had been dealt with by the city planning commission. So this stopped."
On June 26, the CPC unanimously voted in favor of Elisio Lofts, granting the project five zoning waivers on dwelling size, floor area ratio, minimum parking spots, minimum loading space requirements and, of course, height.
"The proposed development is located within a node at the intersection of a major access corridor, Elysian Fields Avenue, and the riverfront," the agency wrote. "The adopted Riverfront Vision 2005 Plan sets forth certain design criteria for development sites within such nodes that may justify additional height."
To Cummings' critics this was problematic because Cummings, then executive director of the city-run New Orleans Building Corporation (NOBC), was involved in development of the 2005 Riverfront Vision Plan. His name, as well as that of his father, John Cummings, appear in acknowledgements appended to the report. Furthermore, as president of NOBC, Cummings was tasked with implementing the first phase of the plan, "Reinventing the Crescent," a $30 million publicly funded project to redevelop the riverfront.
In the midst of that, Cummings continued buying property near the riverfront. He went before the Louisiana Board of Ethics a number of times, including in early 2008 — not long after his purchase of 501 Elysian Fields Ave. — for reapproval of his public position. The reference to the Riverfront Vision Plan in the CPC staff report is also a sticking point because the zoning recommendations that appear in the plan have been included as part of the current redraft of the city's comprehensive zoning ordinance (CZO), a law that has yet to be passed.
"We again mention that this is really a working paper," Vialou says of the 2005 riverfront plan. "It's under consideration, for the riverfront overlay in the new CZO ... but the neighborhood association is opposed to increasing height." To approve a high-rise project now, Vialou says, could excuse the city in making that accommodation permanent when the CZO is final.
Cummings actually takes some comfort in that. He believes that, despite what they say publicly, many of his critics aren't opposed to Elisio Lofts itself. They're worried about what will come next, he says.
"I think they are 1,000 percent correct to be concerned about that. And I share their concern because most real estate developers are about as popular as the mass media or George W. Bush," Cummings says. "However, we're not typical real estate developers. In fact, we don't even refer to ourselves as real estate developers. We kind of feel that we're artists with buildings."
Vialou hopes that people will follow the debate over the Elisio Lofts because of the CZO.
"The Marigny has been such a success story over the past 20 years without building these massive buildings," Vialou says. "People do feel lucky to be in the neighborhood. There are so many businesses that are already in the neighborhood. We have a sense of community."* An earlier version of this story stated Elisio Lofts was planned to be built on the southeast, not northeast, corner of Elysian Fields Avenue and Decatur Street.