Planning Commission denies zoning change for gelato shop planned to replace French Quarter laundromat

(Photo: Infrogmation | Flickr CC)
The New Orleans Planning Commission earlier this month rejected a request to change residential zoning to commercial for a building located at the intersection of Bourbon and Dumaine streets, where a recently closed neighborhood laundromat once existed.

Planning commissioners at their April 12 meeting voted unanimously, 8-0, to adopt the staff report recommending denial of property owner’s request for a zoning change that would allow a gelato shop to open in the bottom floor of the three-story building at 841 Bourbon Street, the former location for the Washing Well Laundryteria. Commissioner Robert Steeg recused himself from the vote.

Adopting the recommendation came after both sides spoke on the matter, including those in opposition, who cited a fear that a zoning change will set a precedent that would potentially allow a bar to occupy the location, disrupt quality of life and drive away residents.

“The question is not and never is what business is intending to go in, the question is where could that business going in end up,” said Commissioner Kyle Wedberg, who introduced the motion to adopt the staff recommendation.

Washing Well Laundryteria’s occupational business license was not renewed in 2019 and the application to rezone the property was filed by building owner Floris Cairo on Nov. 15, 2021, official records show. In addition, the request asked to rezone the building’s 804 and 808 Dumaine Street addresses.

The application requested a zoning change from VCR-1 residential to VCC-1 commercial, in order for the building’s bottom floor to be occupied by the gelato shop, which is owned by Yanis Kolev, a Bulgarian resident and Tulane graduate.

The April 5 preliminary staff report cited the “historic non-conforming use” policy, which allows spot zoning for businesses in certain instances where the building is “clearly distinct from surrounding properties that are nearly uniformly residential.”

Kristiana Lubomirova, who spoke on behalf of the applicant at the April 12 meeting, said the zoning change does not interfere with the Vieux Carre master plan. The staff agreed with Lubomirova, but said the policy had never been used in the district and that changing the zoning would grant preferential treatment to a parcel “not sufficiently dissimilar” to nearby properties, according to the report.

“They are policies, they are not law and they are philosophical in nature,” Lubomirova said. “And this specific spot has been in commercial use for at least 73 years, if not longer.”

Other meeting participants noted that such a zoning change is permanent and creates a path for bars to set up shop under the guise of restaurants, using liquor licenses.

Erin Holmes, executive director for the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates, cited a previous example of an ice cream parlor going out of business and replaced by a bar. Little Vic’s gelato shop, formerly at 719 Toulouse St., was replaced by The Will & The Way bar.

“Permitting deviations are rarely ever enforced,” Holmes said. “In fact, safety and permits code enforcement have a reputation for underperforming, so much so that that have been targeted by the city council to have their funding frozen until they can prove otherwise.”

One resident, a woman, who opposed the application referred to comprehensive zoning ordinance negotiations years ago in which residents were promised that businesses grandfathered into the historic non-conforming use policy would be replaced with residential units after they permanently close.

In addition, the resident noted the decline at least half a dozen laudromats in the French Quarter over her more than two decades in the district.

While “it’s a marginal business at best,” the resident said, the gelato shop would be better located at Jackson Square. Of laundromats, Lubomirova said: “It’s just simply a business that is no longer feasible.”

Lubomirova said the gelato shop turning into a bar is a “huge hypothetical.”

“They should not be held accountable or be punished for or viewed in a different light just because somebody else took their application to that zoning and turned their establishment into something else,” Lubomirova said.