Months-long process culminates in neighborhood association’s decisive vote
By Jonathan Edwards
The Faubourg-St. John Neighborhood Association’s board unanimously voted to oppose letting a would-be convenience store sell alcohol in the neighborhood when they met Saturday morning.
The decisive vote comes in the wake of survey results released Wednesday showing overwhelming resident opposition to a zoning change that would allow Brother’s Food Mart, a convenience store chain with multiple locations in Greater New Orleans, to sell alcohol at the now-derelict building sitting between DeBlanc Pharmacy and the Asian Pacific Cafe.
Nearly 68 percent residents surveyed—or 158 of 233—objected to alcohol sales at Brother’s, according to the survey results.
“Right now our alcohol providers are responsible and good merchants. There is no selling to minors, no selling to those who have consumed too much and no aggressive selling of objectionable packages of alcohol,” Linda Landesberg wrote in a June 9 e-mail she posted on the Faubourg-St. John Neighborhood Association listserv.
“We have reached our limit,” wrote Landesberg, “and we don’t need to stress out the businesses we have and love with more competition from a chain store.”
Eddie Hamden, the owner of Brother’s Food Mart, has tried to work with residents, but he also needs to run a profitable business, said Joe DiRosa, Hamden’s attorney. Brother’s can sell alcohol if we get a permit, or we can install gas pumps and stay open 24 hours.
BOOZE OR GAS?
Brother’s must apply for a permit through city government and ultimately get approval from the City Council in order to sell alcohol at their Esplanade location. Support, or at least non-opposition from residents and the neighborhood association could help Hamden’s application.
Since Hamden’s property is zoned as a “neighborhood business,” he has the legal right to install gas pumps and set his hours without any permits from city government. But, DiRosa said, we wanted to be a good neighbor, so we have tried to listen to residents and address their concerns.
“The basic issue is whether or not the neighborhood would rather have a store with limited hours (6AM to 11PM) that sells the same types of liquor that is sold at Terranovas and Consecos without 6 gas pumps, or a (likely)24 hour convenience store with no liquor, but with 6 gas pumps in the parking lot near Esplanade Avenue,” explained Rocky Seydel, a lawyer and a FSJNA board member in a June 7 listserv e-mail.
Residents have expressed concern over both options. Some worry alcohol sales will result in loitering and increased crime. Cheap gasoline, others fear, will cause traffic congestion.
“Does anyone remember when Circle K had gas pumps,” asked Kenny Tassin in a June 9 FSJNA post. “I do and it was a traffic nightmare. Esplanade and Grand Route St John was always congested with cars waiting in line for the gas pumps that the parking lot is to small for.”
As national prices gas prices rose above $4 a gallon, others thought affordable gasoline would be an asset to the neighborhood.
“Competitive gas at convenient hours is not the end of the world. Heck, even a little fried food that i could buy at 11:00 pm would be quite nice. We have all the beer, wine, and liquor we need in the area. We lack competitive gas and late night convenience services,” wrote Bill Dalton on June 8.
THE 13 PROVISOS
Trying to address resident concerns, Brother’s and FSJNA negotiated a deal in February that was subject to resident opinion (hence the survey): the neighborhood association would not oppose Hamden’s application to sell alcohol if he agreed to follow 13 “provisos,” which dictated how Brother’s would operate once it opened.
The provisos would limit the store’s hours of operation and the types of alcoholic beverages it could sell to those already sold by other businesses in the area. It also forbids the installation of gas pumps.
Derek Scheerer, a city planner with the New Orleans City Planning Commission and a Faubourg-St. John resident, looked over the provisos at City Hall and called them “a wish list.”
“They can ask that these be put in, but Brother’s doesn’t have to listen to them one iota,” said Scheerer. “The neighborhood association has absolutely zero say. Only the City Council can attach provisos.”
Scheerer focused on proviso 12: “Brothers will agree to sell only the type and quality of liquor, beer and wine sold at Conseco’s and Terranova’s; including no quarts of beer and no malt liquor.”
“This is absolutely arbitrary,” he said. “I think it borders on racist. I take offense to that. It’s his business. He can see what he wants to sell. It’s very elitist.”
The City Council will not attach such a proviso, Scheerer said. They will limit the hours of operation and make sure lighting is in accordance with the law, but Hamden has the right to compete with other businesses by selling different products.
ALLEGATIONS OF RACISM
“Brothers comes into the neighborhood association meeting and says, ‘If I don’t get a liquor license, I’m going to sell Urban Wear and put in six gas pumps,’” said Elizabeth Thompson, co-owner of Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, which is located just around the corner from Hamden’s property.
“It was an ugly threat. I don’t think people would mind if it was presented in a nice way,” Thompson said. “‘I’m gonna bring homeboys into your neighborhood’—it’s such an ugly, racist way to behave.”
“The first racist punch was from Brothers, who said, ‘If we don’t get the alcohol license, we’re going to sell Urban Wear and bring young, black men into a predominantly white neighborhood. They appealed to the community’s baser instincts,” said Robert Thompson, also co-owner of Fair Grinds Coffeehouse and Elizabeth’s husband.
“I don’t think Urban Wear was part of the original business plan, but was used as a strategy to get the alcohol license,” Robert Thompson said. “I think Urban Wear was used to fan existing fears in an affluent, white community.”
“That is absolutely, utterly, completely untrue,” said DiRosa. “We tried to meet with residents. We intended on being a good neighbor. We wanted to hear what they had to say. For someone to have said that there was some racial motivations is totally offensive. That really is way, way out of bounds. The racism exists in the mind of the person who told you that.”
Seydel agrees with DiRosa. “All that stuff about racial innuendos is completely untrue and being repeated by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. I absolutely deny that,” he said. “Eddie Hamden has been very cooperative, very patient in letting us work through our process and resolve it.”
“Our business is not to make enemies,” said DiRosa. “We want to be friends with our customers.”