A proposal for a boutique hotel at the site of the former Hummingbird Grill is advancing through the city approval process.
The City Planning Commission this week voted unanimously to recommend approval of the 29,000-square-foot development at 749 St. Charles Ave. The vacant property, which once housed the Hummingbird Hotel and its legendary 24-hour diner, sits between Julia and Girod streets in the Central Business District.
Chris Sarpy, owner of the property and developer of the proposed five-story hotel, said it would have a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units, with balconies for rooms facing St. Charles Avenue, and a small lobby. There is no restaurant planned, he said.
Current zoning requirements require the development to have an off-street loading space, but the hotel’s architect, Ken Gowland of METROSTUDIO, asked the CPC for a waiver because he said it’s a smaller hotel with no need for it.
A loading space and its required modifications to the public right of way, Gowland said, would result in reduced walkability, given the curb cut interruption at the sidewalk. There also would be fewer on-street parking spaces, he said.
A CPC staff report was in favor of granting conditional-use approval for the hotel but not the waiver of the off-street loading space rule. But CPC commissioner Robert Steeg concurred with Gowland, noting the property is landlocked and with narrow frontage only along St. Charles Avenue.
“I do think there is a demonstrable hardship because there are similarly situated properties and uses that don’t have this,” he said.
There were no public comments or opposition at the meeting. The City Council has final say on the proposal, which is still in the development stages. Sarpy said it will need to undergo a “small structural redesign,” and he hopes to break ground by the end of the year. A hotel operator has not been named.
According to the Orleans Parish Assessor’s Office, Sarpy purchased the property from an entity known as Lepre Properties in January 2017 for $1,825 million. The Secretary of State’s Office lists Harahan residents Edward and Laura Lepre as managing members of Lepre Properties.
“I’ve always wanted to develop something in the CBD,” Sarpy said. “This is just a great location.”
For more than a half century, the Hummingbird Grill and its eggs, pancakes, burgers, fried chicken and coffee was popular among a wide variety of New Orleanians, including “artists, lawyers, derelicts, debutantes, drifters, cabbies, cops, and other dwellers of the dark,” according to a website dedicated to its history.
Opened by 21-year-old Harry Hillensbeck a few years after World War II, it closed in 2002 because of “the inevitable fallout of the gentrification that began in the neighborhood in the 1980s in order to accommodate the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition,” the website says. A previous hotel proposal for the site never panned out, and Sarpy demolished the building after acquiring it.
He had started working on a similar hotel concept nearby at 923 Julia Street, the site of a surface parking lot, that would have had 30 rooms with 29-off street parking spaces. Sarpy said the development team was finalizing bids to start construction when the COVID-19 pandemic brought the construction industry to a halt with supply chain disruptions and other issues.
“The project just lost momentum,” he said.
Sarpy has handled two developments on Veterans Boulevard near the Jefferson-Orleans parish line in recent years. One is a strip mall at 730 Veterans Blvd., near Dorignac’s Food Center, with tenants that include Starbucks, Moe’s Southwestern Grill and South Rivage Dental. He also developed a piece of property at 210 and 212 Veterans Blvd. where a Raising Cane’s and small retail center are located.
In 2019, Sarpy and some local investors purchased the Whole Foods Plaza at 3420 Veterans Blvd. in Metairie for $16.1 million. The deal was a reacquisition of the site, which also has a Jared Galleria of Jewelry that he developed in 2005.
Sarpy also helped redevelop a historic bus barn on Magazine Street into a Whole Foods and owns a couple of properties on Magazine Street, including one that houses Pizza Domenica.