By R. Stephanie Bruno, Mid-City Messenger
Early last week, the stage was set for a zoning battle royale. In one corner were M2 Studio and client Christopher Haydel, whose proposal to build a two-family residence on the bank of Bayou St. John would require approval by the Board of Zoning Adjustments. In the opposite corner, more than 100 neighbors, including the Louisiana Landmarks Society, all of whom strongly oppose the granting of the desired height waiver.
Although it appeared at the outset that the conflict would involve hot-button issues such as non-resident developers, short term rentals and excessive building height, the matter concluded with a whimper rather than a bang when architect Odom Stamps, speaking on behalf of Haydel and M2 Studio, asked for and was granted a one month continuance.
At issue is the application by Christopher Haydel and M2 Studio to build a new house with a carriage house on a vacant lot at 905 Moss Street, near the Dumaine bridge. The proposed project is located in the Parkview Historic District on the square bounded by Moss, Dumaine, Hardin, and St. John Court.
As currently drawn, plans call for the two buildings to encompass 5,468 square feet of living space and for the main building to rise to 48.75 feet — 3.75 feet higher than zoning allows (plans were revised shortly before Monday’s hearing). The building’s height is what triggered the need for the Board of Zoning Adjustments to weigh in and to consider a zoning variance.
Before Stamps took the floor, Emily Hernandez of the City Planning Commission read the staff report, which explains the reasons for the BZA hearing.
“The purpose of the variance procedure is to afford an applicant relief from the requirements of the letter of this Ordinance when unnecessary hardship or practical difficulty exist,” Hernandez read. “The Board of Zoning Adjustments may authorize a variance only when the evidence presented supports a finding that (all of the nine conditions required for a variance are met).”
In a detailed analysis — which involved a survey of 37 properties in the vicinity — the staff concluded that the proposed height variance does not meet three of the conditions, all of which derive from the staff’s belief that current architectural plans can be modified to eliminate the need for an excessive height variance request.
“The special circumstances (the need for a height waiver) result from actions of the owner,” the report states, “strict adherence to the regulations do not result in a demonstrable hardship for the owner, and the purpose of the variance is based exclusively on a desire to serve the convenience of the property owner.”
The city planners suggested that architectural plans can be modified by increasing the buildings’ footprint on the large vacant lot, for example, to reduce the structure’s height and eliminate the need for a variance.
Based on the 100 written letters of opposition submitted, neighbors appear to agree with the findings of the staff. Angela Fabacher noted, “Any new structure should not be any taller than the adjacent structures in the neighborhood and should match the historic character of (the building previously on the site).”
Other letters expressed concern about the developers of the lot and the suspicion about the end use intended. Shawn O’Brien commented, “(It has) come to my attention that there is a California developer who’s requesting a variance at 905 Moss St. that would allow him to build a giant structure that is much taller than neighboring homes.” Claudia Baumgarten said, “Because one family has money and connections, should they affect the quality of life and historical value of a whole neighborhood?” And Clark Thompson stated, “This developer has not engaged the neighborhood to explain and justify their need, (and) they have not provided assurances this will not be a ‘bait and switch’ replacing residents with short term rentals.”
When Stamps had the opportunity to speak, he began by addressing some of the concerns about the project voiced by various neighbors.
“I would like to use some of this time to dispel things that were raised in the numerous collection of letters that are published with this report,” Stamps said. “This is not an out-of town developer who is coming here to do a project. I’m actually born and raised in New Orleans and attended Tulane architecture. Chris Haydel was also born and raised in New Orleans, went to school here, as did his sister. And this house (will be) their family house they’re planning to build and plan to live there. …It’s not a rental and it’s not an Airbnb.”
Both Haydel and Stamps are principals in firms located in Pasadena, California. The website for Pasadena architecture firm Stamps & Stamps states he is a New Orleans native with a Tulane degree. Haydel, who has deep roots in New Orleans, is a financial adviser with Pasadena-based Haydel Biel & Associates.
According to Stamps, the design team had done what the BZA required, which was to send letters to all of the surrounding neighbors, but had not met with the neighborhood association. Now that neighbors’ concerns have risen to the surface, Stamps said, “We’d like to meet with them and have a dialogue and see if we can make this project a little bit more palatable for the neighborhood and, hopefully, they’ll have some understanding of what we’re looking to do.”
Libby Creim of M2Studio concurred: “We have already reduced the excess height from over 7 feet to just over three feet, so we’d like to have the opportunity to try to bring that down lower.”
The design team committed to utilizing the one month deferral to meet with neighbors in an effort to resolve the conflict. And if they succeed at further reducing the height of the main structure, there may be no need to appear before the Board of Zoning Adjustments in one month’s time.
Reporter R. Stephanie Bruno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.