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Gabrielle restaurant opening on Henry Clay?

By January 17, 2007November 11th, 2020new orleans

There’s a big squabble about Gabrielle restaurant opening up at 438 Henry Clay Avenue. Okay, maybe it’s not going to be called Gabrielle, but the owners want to open some kind of restaurant on Henry Clay and Laurel Streeet.  I live literally right next to the proposed restaurant site, which before Katrina operated sporadically as a reception hall.

A recent article by Brett Anderson in the Times Picayune called ‘Food Fight’ suggests that the Sonniers, who owned Gabrielle, are being subjected to a Kafkaesque licensing maze with City Hall, which is thwarting their effort to open at the Henry Clay location.  Otherwise, Anderson suggests, Greg Sonnier (“a James Beard nominated chef”) would already be greeting patrons and cooking them wonderful meals.

Brett Anderson is confused: the problem isn’t licensing permits, it’s zoning.  The proposed location isn’t zoned to allow a restaurant.  The reception hall operated under a restrictive zoning status, and the Sonniers want to open a full time restaurant.

I haven’t blogged about this before now because I wanted to make sure I had all
the facts.  Up ’til now I was all for having the Gabrielle’s folks open
a nice restaurant next to me, even though it would mean that I
would have trouble parking in front of my house (or possibly anywhere
near my house).  I still might be receptive to the idea of a restaurant there.  But, after talking to my neighbors, and after checking out some facts, it’s clear the Sonniers have done a  pathetic job communicating their plans for the Henry Clay location.  Unless you consider manipulating the press to be effective communication. Since the mainstream press has failed to properly describe why the neighborhood is upset, please allow me to explain.

First, the Sonniers live two blocks away from the Uptowner, and have for
many years.  Thus, they’ve had first hand knowledge of how seldom that
location was used as a
reception hall.  In the months after Katrina, during the ‘wild-west phase of community action,’ a lot of people started building things without proper permits.  Maybe the Sonniers believed that they could take advantage of that situation; perhaps that’s why they bought a reception hall thinking that they could quickly convert it to a restaurant without anyone hassling them.  Putting aside questions of common courtesy, let’s consider some rather clear-cut law.

The property they bought is not zoned ‘commercial,’ but
has what is called a ‘non-conforming use’ status. (See .e.g. Article 13 of the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance)  This is a restrictive zoning variance that strictly limits the use of the property.  In this
case, it is limited to being used as a reception hall.  Making it a restaurant would be a greater use than the zoning on that property currently allows. (See Article 13, Section 13.4.1).
Right about the time that the Sonniers bought the Uptowner (back in March of 2006) they started telling people that they were going to open a restaurant at the
new site.  The Times Picayune announced this, presumably with input from the Sonniers.   Gambit
Weekly
also did an article, and Greg Sonnier observed, in discussing his plans to move his restaurant to the Henry Clay location: “We’re gaining a bar which the old restaurant didn’t have.”  Note he didn’t say “I’ve bought a reception hall and
I hope to convince the city, and my fellow neighbors, to let me to open a
restaurant.”  Somehow, he feels entitled to operate a full scale
restaurant at 438 Henry Clay.

Greg Sonnier may be an award-winning chef, but he needs to brush up on the
law (as well as his diplomacy skills).

Brett Anderson should brush up on the law too, but he’s a food critic
and he’s more interested in having lots of
nice restaurants open (which is why he shouldn’t write an article that requires an understanding of the law).  Perhaps Mr. Anderson enjoyed his attempt to understand the law, but I didn’t and I doubt my fellow neighbors did either. We’re all having to learn a lot about the law these days. The Sonniers are learning a lot about the law too.

First, they sued the people that sold them the Henry Clay location for some kind of misrepresentation.  And I was told that there’s
another lawsuit, brought by Greg Sonnier’s mother-in-law for real estate commissions supposedly due her from the sale.  Now they’re involved
in a legal battle about the property’s zoning status.  The zoning issue is what Brett Anderson completely misses the boat on.

There are two issues: (1) did the Uptowner lose its non-conforming use so that it can’t even operate as a reception hall? and (2) will the Sonniers be allowed to change the site’s non-conforming use so that the can operate a restaurant there?

The current legal battle is about issue #1, that is: whether the property lost its non-conforming use status (See Article 13.6 and 13.4.3). The reason why there is a fight about whether the Uptowner lost its
non-conforming use status is that it hasn’t held any events since
sometime before Katrina.  And the law says, basically, that you have to
operate continuously or you lose your ‘special status’ (i.e. the so-called ‘non-conforming use’ status;  see 13.2.1 ).  Why would you have to operate continuously?  Because
the zoning laws are especially restrictive for locations that have been granted an
exception.

Let’s assume that the Uptowner keeps its ‘non-conforming use’ status
as a reception hall (because that’s all it ever was).  The Sonniers would
still have to apply for a ‘change of use’ and get permission to operate
as a restaurant.  Here’s the law on changing the use of a building that has a ‘non-conforming use’ status:

13.4.1. General Rule.
In all districts, except the Vieux Carré Districts and the Historic Marigny/Tremé Districts, if no structural alterations are made, a nonconforming use of a building may be changed to another nonconforming use of the same or more restrictive classification, provided that the new nonconforming use is not more intensive than the prior use. Whenever a nonconforming use of a building has been changed to a more restricted use or to a conforming use, such use shall not thereafter be changed to a less restricted use.

So, there it is in black and white.  Running a full-time restaurant is obviously ‘more intensive’ than running a reception hall that only held events a few times a year.  So if the Sonniers want to change the use from a reception hall to a restaurant they’ll have to apply for a change-of-use.  The prior owners knew that they couldn’t expand their operation to a restaurant.  They Sonniers should have known that too.  When you buy property a title search is done automatically and so it’s impossible they didn’t know the property was subject to a restrictive use.  Now, they’re acting like it’s a big surprise, deflecting attention from the obvious zoning problem (which was clearly something they knew about) by complaining that they got confused by the licensing process.

Okay, so much for spin and posturing.  The bottom line is: if they want to open a restaurant then they have to ask permission to expand their use of the property.
If they apply
for a ‘change-of-use’ then are people in the neighborhood going to oppose that
application?  Obviously, many people will, especially if they live
close to the proposed site, and if they worry about parking and increased traffic in the area.  Plus, given that the Sonniers have gone about advertising their ‘new restaurant’ before they are legally entitled to open it, many neighbors are skeptical that they would address important neighborhood issues (e.g., like parking and noise).  So it isn’t hard to predict that many people will oppose their request to expand the use of the structure at 438 Henry Clay.

I’m more worried about Greg Sonnier’s lack of good will than the potential parking issues.  But, actually, the two go hand-in-hand.  And I worry about the parking problems too.  My older daughter is driving now; she
sometimes babysits and, therefore, sometimes comes home late.  If there’s a
restaurant next door is she going to be able to park by the house when
she gets home?  Is crime (which is already rampant) going to increase
around this area?  Even if the crime problem doesn’t increase, I don’t want my daughter walking from a block or two away in the dark late at night.  Is this a meaningless concern?  Apparently, Brett Anderson and the Sonniers would have us believe so.

Are you a James Beard nominated chef?  Well, then the hell with neighborhood concerns and zoning laws, just pick out a nice building and fire up the grill. New Orleans needs to rebuild, and if people in the neighborhood get fed up and move away then so what?

Surprisingly, despite everything I’ve just mentioned, I’m not definitively against the Sonniers opening a restaurant next to my
house.  I hate being one of those people that opposes something because my ‘vested interest’ is challenged by change.  We should all be open to change.  Greg Sonnier is a great chef, and I’d love to be able to bop over to a nearby restaurant and sample his great cuisine.   I loved Gabrielle’s and I don’t want to be against moving that restaurant to my neighborhood, especially not just because I happen to live right next to the proposed site.
I think it’s important (especially after Katrina) that we all take a larger view and
think beyond our own parochial interests.   But just because I’m in favor of taking a larger view that doesn’t mean that other people will.   It would be nice if Brett
Anderson would take a larger view, but he’s just a food critic and why should I expect him to care about a neighborhood that he doesn’t live in? He’s more interested in fawning over a “James Beard Award nominated chef.”  The Sonniers aren’t taking a larger view, and the small view that they have taken doesn’t even include the concerns of the people that they live next to.  It’s highly disingenuous for them to tell people like Brett Anderson that their problems with the neighborhood stem from a permitting issue with City Hall.

Sure, it’s hard to figure out how to get permits from City Hall.  We
all know that. But it’s not hard to figure out how to talk to the regular folks that live in your neighborhood. Instead of doing that, they summarily announced to fawning food critics that they were opening a full time restaurant in a place that only periodically hosted parties and wedding receptions.
The Sonniers obviously should’ve talked to their neighbors before they talked to the Times Picayune.  How much red-tape would that have involved?  Not much, but then maybe the problem isn’t about permitting and bureacracy.  Maybe the problem is about not being forthright and open with people whose lives you are affecting.

How hard is that to understand?

Update 1-18-07: Yesterday as I was walking up to my house Greg Sonnier came over to introduce himself.  He didn’t know about this blog post, but just wanted to touch base and so forth.  I took the opportunity to tell him, in a very polite way, that I thought he had mishandled his communications with the neighbors. WIthout any hestitation he admitted that he had not handled the PR well, and said that he wanted to do everything he could to rectify that situation.  I have to say I was impressed with his sincerity, and his willingness to accept responsibility.

He said he wants to be a great neighbor and run his operation (which will not be a restaurant, until he gets approval from the City etc.) in a way that enhances the neighborhood.  He talked about his plan to use a valet service to handle the parking, and had ideas for addressing various other neighborhood concerns.  Obviously, actions speak louder than words, and also he has a few legal issues to resolve, but I got a good feeling from talking to him.  I’m sure other people in the neighborhood will not be so quick to discard their bad feelings, but I think we should always be willing to forgive people who make mistakes, especially if they take responsibility for them.  I still don’t like the Brett Anderson article because it is doesn’t accurately describe the problem, which needlessly inflames neighborhood passions and makes the real problem worse.

If Greg Sonnier is able to show the neighbors that he is really sensitive to their concerns then some of the folks who are against him putting a restaurant on Henry Clay might change their minds (or at least not be so adamantly opposed to the notion).  And perhaps Brett Anderson (if he is hoping that Sonnier will get to open his restaurant) would do well to be more accurate in reporting why people are upset, instead of making it seem like the neighborhood’s concerns are less important than opening up new places to eat.


P.S. If you appreciate these kinds of observations, you might want to read this as well.

13 Comments

  • bobbie brown says:

    So if you don’t have a driveway maybe you shouldn’t be allowed to own a car.

  • MOOLNOLA says:

    This is one of the most classic cases of the terrible NIMBY syndrome that I have seen here in NOLA. Clancy’s is only a few blocks away and operates with out serious inconvenience to its neighbors. (Seriously folks, lets not cry if we can’t park directly in front of our homes on a public street.) I am also forced to ask why all of these people have to park on the street. It is not that their lots are too small as to not allow driveways. It is because they, at some time, cannibalized their own driveways to expand their homes to one of those ever too familiar sprawling homes that are being squeezed on to a lot which once supported a creole cottage or shotgun double. I live in this neighborhood. I can attest to just how spoiled the people in this area can be. I guess it is the whole entitlement that comes with a larger paycheck. I hope I don’t end up so soulless when I grow up and have a couple of letters to put in front or behind my name like Dr, JD, CPA, or Mrs.

  • Mick says:

    My impression about all of this is similar to Andrea’s – that yes, the existing permit at the time of the sale indicated ‘non-conforming use’, but that the specific non-conforming use was described on the face of the permit as “table service restaurant.” The problem stems from the fact that this usage description was apparently used by Safety & Permits for many things, including restaurants and reception halls (and presumably all points in between), because the city did not have a specific categorization for a “reception hall.” I believe someone from S&P, when asked about the apparent broad range of activities allowed by this property usage description (but interpreted differently on an address-by-address basis, or so we can only conclude), was quoted as having stated that the previous owner of the location in question “knew what she could and couldn’t do”. Uh . . . OK; let’s hear it for ambiguity in the law!

    The bit about non-conforming use permits becoming null and void if more than some period of time passes without the ‘non-conforing use’ allowance being exercised is the law, true, but for someone trying to operate a business that generates revenue and employs people, one would think that waivers would be considered in this post-Katrina wasteland. It’s a different world out there, folks! But maybe it’s not if you were lucky enough to live somewhere where you didn’t end up with ten feet of water in your house, and maybe I’m more receptive to that concept because I know what it is to have lost almost everything I owned. I don’t know.

    At any rate, it seems that the assumption made by the Sonniers was not an unreasonable one, but “caveat emptor” and all that just the same. It’s an unfortunate situation regardless of where you sit, and there appears to be enough blame to go all the way around, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were ulterior motives behind some of the opposition either. Nothing surprises me in this town anymore . . . makes me wonder why I’m staying sometimes, but not enough to make me want to leave . . . yet.

  • matt says:

    re: “getting away” w/ not having a parking lot.

    newsflash, folks: you do not live in the suburbs! this is not veteran’s blvd (thank god). we do not have Olive Gardens & Chili’s — thus, we do not have parking lots..

    is this a terrible thing? no. i live in the marigny, we have plenty of restaurants, in residential areas, w/ NO PARKING LOTS. guess what? we get by just fine. in fact, our neighborhood is considered to have “bohemian charm”. most of us *welcome* it. besides the necessity of thriving non-tourism commerce to the economy, increased traffic makes the area *safer*, not more dangerous. w/ legitimate, classy businesses come people.. w/ people comes foot traffic.. w/ foot traffic comes safety (in numbers). sorta a no-brainer.

    you cant have you cake & eat it too — if you want a safe neighborhood, and (big picture) a city w/ a thriving non-tourism economy, then you *need business*. even if its next door. EOS.

  • kl says:

    the zoning definitely did not indicate restaurant. it indicated “non-conforming use” as explained by ernie. and it’s clear that non-conforming use specifically prohibits any intensification of use. legally they should not even have non-conforming use after such a long hiatus from use. but even if they did, the zoning law makes it clear that they cannot intensify the use from a once a week catering hall into a full service restaurant.

  • Andrea says:

    Ernie, I had understood that the Sonniers *did* check the zoning and/or license for their building when they bought it, and that the zoning and/or license (I’m a lawyer, too, and I’m never sure if these writers are talking about one or the other) specifically indicated that the building could be used as a “restaurant.” The Sonniers did not confirm that this actually meant that they could operate as a restaurant — they just made the assumption — but I don’t think that this was entirely unreasonable. It just turned out that “restaurant” really meant “catering hall.”

  • Monkeydad says:

    A classic blunder in property acquisition in the People’s Republic of Orleans: buying before ensuring that the intended business is a permitted use. Shoulda looked before they lept. Caveat emptor.

    Other pernts (as they used to say in working class Mid City when I was a kid, before the Volvo driving crowd took over): Where does that leave the property, and by extension the neighbors? Unless Mr. Sonnier sells the place to someone contemplating a reception hall business (I honestly don’t know the prospects for a business like that in New Orleans – last wedding reception there to which I was invited was in 1975), what happens to it? Does the building remain vacant? Or do the neighbors hope that someone will convert it to a home, or perhaps tear it down, and put up a tasteful single family residence conforming to the CZO (assuming it has no historic value)?

    I’m not taking their side in this. Mr. Sonnier can always vote with his feet, and those who say good riddance will read about his departure in a Chris Rose column, and rejoice while others mourn yet another loss. My point is leaving that property empty may make parking easier in the short term, but long term is not what the CZO was intended to accomplish, nor what the neighborhood should want.

  • Since Sonnier decided to abandon his home and restaurant in MidCity at a time when we desperately needed him (the Isle of Denial did/does not) – I wouldn’t feel sorry for him if he remained a wandering James Beard chef for the next 40 years.

  • Ed says:

    Ernie your missing the point (which is understandable foor a lawyer). I want my smoked duck. By the way, can you save me a parking spot in front of your house? Thanks.

  • dangerblond says:

    Very interesting. I’m going to drive over there and look, so don’t be surprised if you see the Exploder cruising your block. Two things strike me. 1) I’ll bet he got that building for a very cheap price, much less than a comparable building in an area zoned for commercial use, and I hope he’s not suing the seller for not disclosing the contents of public zoning records. That dog definitely won’t hunt. 2) I’m assuming there is no off-street parking for the building. I think that is completely irresponsible and unneighborly to open a people-intensive business with no parking lot of your own. Plus, restaurants have big staffs and they all have cars. I don’t know about your area, but most people Uptown don’t have driveways. He shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that.

    I’m with you – I wouldn’t mind having a good restaurant next door. But this guy seems like the type of person for whom other people don’t exist. There are award-winning chefs in this town who are nice people, too. May you become neighbors with one of them instead.

  • Steve says:

    Ernie,

    Good post. You know I live in the neighborhood now too, about a block away from the proposed restaurant. Your post clears some things up, but I’m not sure that the city is totaly blameless in this fucked up series of transactions. I know that Eddie Sapir, also a neighbor, has been running around doing all he can to torpedo the restaurant, including, apparently, using his contacts down at city hall. I have also heard that he, as a silent partner at Monkey Hill, plans to expand that into a restaurant. Hmm . . . competition? Of course, that is all just rumor and hearsay. That said, I think I would like another restaurant in the area, I think it would add to the neighborhood. Of course, I don’t live right next door. Do you think you would have bought your house if there had been a working reataurant next door at the time? Just curious.

  • I really do admire your ability to take a look at the larger view and subjugate your own “vested interest”, as you put it. I wish more people could be as open to change as you are.

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