By Katherine Hart, Mid-City Messenger
It’s been a decade since Sam Smith Jr. embarked on a lifetime goal — opening a jazz club for locals in New Orleans. And it’s been more than a year since he received the city’s approval to create a bar and restaurant with live entertainment on North Broad at the Lafitte Greenway.
Yet he found himself in front of the City Planning Commission again last week, asking for approval to put curb cuts on Lafitte Street for four off-street parking spaces. He said he didn’t understand why he was again asking for approval from the CPC.
Before the Dodie’s Place jazz club can join the burgeoning entertainment district along North Broad and the Greenway, Smith needs permits to finish his renovations. But he can’t get the permits; the conditional use approval he received last year prohiºbits creating any curb cuts on Lafitte.
“I’m just a common sense kind of guy,” Smith said. “I’m one of the only establishments putting in a parking area. So I have no understanding of why that would be eliminated. Everybody that lives along Lafitte parks on the street as it is.”
Smith’s jazz club is in an overlay district for the Greenway corridor that gives the city more control over how the land is used. It favors recreational uses and prohibits vehicle-oriented uses, such as new parking areas.
“The purpose of the prohibition along the Greenway is really to ensure that what faces the Greenway are dining areas, active uses — the sort of things that support activity along the Greenway,” city planner Stephen Kroll told the commission. New parking areas are prohibited.
CPC staff proposed that Smith either eliminate off-street parking altogether or move the lot to Toulouse Street.
“What’s unique about the Greenway,” Kroll said, “is that in most parts of New Orleans, we’re trying to preserve something that already exists here. With the Greenway, we’re trying to create something that’s very different from what exists.”
Smith’s property is not directly on the Greenway. it’s across from a strip of land that borders the linear park and contains the city’s sign shop, where stop signs and other traffic signals are manufactured.
Employee parking for the sign shop is next to the Greenway and directly across Lafitte from the planned entertainment venue.
Kroll said during the hearing that the city-owned land will eventually be converted to recreation space.
The parking area Smith is proposing is primarily for the residents of two apartments above the jazz club and restaurant, so they won’t have to compete with club patrons for parking, said Roger Bailey, the architect working with Smith.
“We really just need to protect the residents, the 24-hour residents that would live there,” Bailey said, noting that Smith is providing affordable housing.
He said that the Toulouse Street side of the property in the mixed-use district is dominated by commercial uses. “So the idea was to keep the commercial side and the residential side free of each other,” Bailey said. Outdoor seating for the jazz club and a patch of greenspace are planned for the Toulouse side.
A gas station and convenience store, a tire repair shop, a gym and warehouses can be found on Toulouse. On Lafitte, two houses and the Krewe of Nyx den sit behind Smith’s property.
Smith’s parking plan has the support of District A Councilman Joe Giarrusso. In a motion passed by the City Council in April, he directed the City Planning Commission to hold the hearing on the variance request.
Giarrusso’s motion mentions another reason why Smith chose not to turn the Toulouse Street greenspace into parking, stating that a blind spot plus a required handicap parking space on Toulouse would create conflicts between car traffic and pedestrian and bicycle traffic.
The blind spot is due to the shape of the building, said Claire Byun, Giarrusso’s land-use director. “People entering the lot can’t see people coming out to exit, and vice versa,” Byun said.
The CPC staff recommended that the commission deny the request to allow a parking lot, stating that the proposal met none of the nine criteria needed to grant a variance.
The staff’s report states in part that the parking lot would endanger public safety, would alter the essential character of the area, and is exclusively for the convenience and profit of the owner.
Despite a concern about setting a precedent for Greenway developments, the commissioners decided the public testimony showed the nine criteria were met. Their unanimous vote to grant the variance was met with applause.
Plans for the entertainment venue show a bar at Broad and Lafitte, paying homage to the Step Down Lounge that was once at the corner. A kitchen will be in the center of the building.
The Dodie’s Place music club on the Toulouse side includes a stage, sound booth, bar and large dance floor. It will open onto covered outdoor seating.
The club will be named for Smith’s sister Dodie Smith-Simmons, who created the Economy Hall traditional jazz tent for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and worked for Preservation Hall, where she met her husband, trumpeter John “Kid” Simmons. Their brother Will Smith is also a trumpeter and band leader.
The jazz club will be a significant addition to an entertainment center forming around North Broad at the Lafitte Greenway, a development that started with the Broad Theater and Broadside across from Smith’s property.
Katherine Hart is the managing editor of NOLA Messenger. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.