The Fight for Habana Outpost Means a Fight for Progress, Preservation, and Cuban Sandwiches

The property in question is a blighted gas station on the corner of Esplanade Ave. and N. Rampart St. (Photo from Google maps)

The red building on Esplanade Avenue will be used for gallery and residential space, while the two buildings on N. Rampart Street will be used for the restaurant. Meenan will donate real estate on the billboards to local non-profits. (Photo from Google maps)

New Orleans, as I’ve come to learn over and over again, is a city of passion. And, whether you’ve lived here your entire life or only a few months, the passion consumes you. It’s how you officially become a New Orleanian. It’s how you know you belong – you become passionate about everything from love and culture to food and football. Fact.

There is a downside to passion, though. Well, maybe not so much a downside, rather an opposite side to the fiery-powdered-sugar-covered-Saints-fleur-de-lis-loving warm and tingly feeling inside of each of us. It’s the element that makes us want to fight at all costs to preserve this city, with enemies that have recently included the likes of an NFL commissioner, media moguls, and Mother Nature, as well as each other over life-altering topics like food trucks and go-cups. And, in true New Orleans fashion, the city is witnessing yet another fight – one that involves Cuban sandwiches and solar panels this time.

Today’s “terrorist,” as several residents of the Vieux Carré would have you believe, is Sean Meenan, a New Orleans resident who is currently at the center of controversy over the approval of his proposed restaurant, Habana Outpost, on the corner of Esplanade Avenue and N. Rampart Street. However, what opponents of the restaurant have failed to see is that the native New Yorker is exactly the type of person that we yearn to recruit to be on New Orleans’ side. He already possesses the passion, innovation, and a love of community and food that we all share as New Orleanians, in addition to the fact that he owns several properties in the city, including the abandoned gas station that is up for question in the Habana Outpost matter.

For over twelve months, Meenan and his plans for Habana Outpost have been sent back for revisions on multiple occasions from the Vieux Carré Commission over architectural and aesthetic issues, which have ranged from exterior color choices to visible rooftop solar panels, that don’t comply with the historical neighborhood’s guidelines. Meenan has obliged to each action deferred by the VCC, making revisions that comply with their guidelines and even admits that the suggestions have shaped a better plan for his restaurant. Subsequently, the residents of the neighborhood have continued to boycott the impending approval with lawsuit threats to the commission and “No Outpost” and “Save our Neighborhood” signs on their cast iron banisters.

The proposed restaurant will move forward to be reviewed by the full Vieux Carré Commission next Wednesday, after gaining approval to move forward from the Architectural Review Committee on Tuesday afternoon. At the meeting, it was decided that all the solar panels be removed from the final design, and Meenan offered to sign a legally binding agreement drafted by his own lawyer stating that the existing billboards attached to the property be used only to advertise local non-profit organizations.

If approved, the restaurant could bring many positive benefits to the area, besides the obvious fact that it brings purpose to property that has been abandoned for several decades. The restaurant would create commerce, safety, and encourage new development to the neglected intersection. However, Meenan’s ultimate goal, and more philosophical approach, is to create a dining establishment that brings together people from the community.

Meet Sean Meenan 

Sean Meenan is a French Quarter resident and the developer behind Habana Outpost. (Photo credit: Jamel Toppin)

Sean Meenan is a French Quarter resident and the developer behind Habana Outpost. (Photo credit: Jamel Toppin)

Prior to moving to New Orleans, Meenan has gained notable success through his New York-based restaurant brand, Café Habana, which was born as a way to create a communal experience in the diverse, developing NoLita neighborhood in the late 1990’s. Since opening his first Latin American inspired diner on Prince and Elizabeth Streets, he has opened establishments in Brooklyn’s Barklays Center, Malibu and Dubai, as well.

In 2005, Meenan opened Brooklyn’s Habana Outpost, New York’s first fully solar powered restaurant that focuses on bringing together people from the Ft. Greene, Bedstuy, Clinton Hill, and Crown Heights neighborhoods by offering Saturday morning events for families and the same food that brought Café Habana to fame. The communal aspect of Habana Outpost inspired Meenan’s non-profit organization Habana Works, which offers weekend programming for children and parents, a design program that gives architecture students the opportunity to help the neighborhood through design, and initiatives that work to green the area with community gardens. In addition, as an initial investor in the popular website Etsy and an emerging cashmere company called Elder Statesman, Meenan has been responsible for helping other entrepreneurs follow their passion.  (You can read more about Meenan’s success and his passion as an entrepreneur on Forbes.)

Both physically and emotionally, though, Meenan is a New Orleanian. He purchased his home in the French Quarter long before making plans to open a second Habana Outpost location that has become a hot topic in New Orleans, and has enrolled his young son in an Uptown school. His decision is made: no matter how many hoops he has to go through to make his business work in New Orleans, he is committed to staying here with his family.

Emotionally, he understands what it is to be a New Orleans resident. He talks about the city with passion and conviction – the same love that anyone who sets foot onto the city feels.

“The reason I’m in New Orleans is to raise my son,” said Meenan, on what influenced his initial move to New Orleans. “His mother and I feel that there is no better place to raise a child, and nothing more important in the world to do than raise our child. Once we agreed on that, it was New Orleans or bust.”

With a passion for community, he saw that New Orleanians possess that same passion that had brought him so much success professionally.

“New Orleans is authentically and distinctly its own place,” he continued. “Within the United States and within the entire world, there is only one New Orleans. And part of what makes New Orleans so unique and so rich, is its culture and people.”

Going back to his son, Meenan adds that New Orleans gives his son the opportunity to be whatever he wants to be – whether it’s a brainiac, athlete (adding that his team is now The Saints – WHO DAT), the artsy type, or a funky kid who wants to grow out his hair. He also appreciates that New Orleans is large enough to give his son the big city experience, but small enough to keep an eye on him and keep him grounded.

“On a personal level, I love New Orleans for those same reasons just for myself, as well,” Meenan said with enough enthusiasm that barely allows him to take a breath. “It plays as a big city in the way that it has top caliber culture, professional teams, all kinds of offerings for things to do at night, and it’s the first place that I know of that has this kind of fusion culture. I love to learn about cities and how they became what they are, and there is always something new to learn about New Orleans.”

In the past several months, Meenan has certainly had a chance to learn a lot about New Orleans and the way things work. The veteran restaurateur has no plans on giving up, and admits that the whole process has even shaped a better design for his project and a better understanding of his new city.

“I am not mad at the process at all,” said Meenan. “While democracy can be messy, the VCC has treated me well and given me professional opinions. The architectural committee has helped me make the project better.”

He also adds that the long process has had its benefits, giving him the opportunity to realize his love for New Orleans and his properties on Esplanade and Rampart. In addition, he has already started meeting many great residents and non-profit organizations that he hopes to partner with in the near future, including Propeller, Ya-Ya, and Edible Schoolyard.

Habana Outpost Facts and Misconceptions

Meenan has been patient with the process, but admits that the biggest challenge has been clearing up several misconceptions about his proposed restaurant. Rumors and false information about his intentions and the Habana Outpost have been swirling around the media and the neighborhood association itself, mostly things that have been fabricated out of fear. So, let’s clear some things up:

Habana Outpost is an entertainment complex.

False. Habana Outpost is a Latin American inspired dining establishment focused on bringing together members from the community.

Meenan currently owns three properties on the corner of Esplanade and Rampart, which would give residents the assumption that his establishment is a complex. The original properties that were purchased are 1040 Esplanade Avenue and 1310 N. Rampart St. (the infamous vacant gas station), which were intended to be used for the restaurant’s kitchen and seating. At the request of the residents on Esplanade Ave., Meenan then purchased another building on N. Rampart St. adjacent to the gas station to be used primarily for kitchen use. The property on Esplanade Ave. will now be used as gallery space and residence instead.

The Habana Outpost is known for wild parties and heavy drinking.

With a central location, Habana Outpost is intended to be a gathering area for people in the community, offering fairly priced food and Saturday morning events for children. The Brooklyn location has an annual block party and movie nights, but no events have been proposed for New Orleans yet. The restaurant intends on being open no later than midnight and neither of Meenan’s other establishments have been sources of heavy drinking or wild partying.

At last months VCC hearing, several French Quarter residents who have visited the location in Brooklyn have attested to the quiet, family-oriented atmosphere. One resident claimed that she would go there to study while she was attending medical school.  Another neighbor, Thom Beatty, said that he recently visited the location in Brooklyn at different times of the day, and never witnessed any parties at any point.

Habana Outpost parking will create disturbance for the neighborhood’s residents.

Parking issues aren’t necessarily within the VCC’s guidelines, but Meenan has been in negotiations with parking lots within the restaurant’s two-block radius to contract out additional parking for Habana Outpost customers. Although, leases won’t be signed until the proposal is approved. In addition, the project is going to benefit from the new streetcar lines, which will provide public transportation for people traveling to the establishment and surrounding area.

“The business should compliment the residential area, not destroy it.”

The Vieux Carré Committee’s primary objective is to “protect, preserve, and maintain the distinct architectural, historic character and zoning integrity of the Vieux Carré.” Several designs have been proposed to the architectural committee for approval, and the revisions have been made to comply with the VCC’s standards. The two most challenging issues that have been difficult to negotiate are the project’s rooftop solar panels and an attached billboard.

“The removal of the solar panels is unfortunate,” said Alex Miller, an urban planner and resident of New Orleans. “Preserving the culture in New Orleans for the long term will require some adaptation.”

Additionally, the restaurant has been referred to as a chain, but the proposed New Orleans restaurant is just the second location for Habana Outpost after Brooklyn – hardly enough to call it a chain. Others might also argue that it takes about 10 units for a brand to be considered a chain, a requirement that the entire Habana umbrella has not met yet.

Moving Forward, New Orleans

Meenan is going into next week’s VCC meeting with confidence that approvals will be made so he can move forward with construction. However, it’s important to look at the broader picture, and what this says about the progress of our city. This fight isn’t about just Cuban sandwiches. It’s about business development, community, progress, entrepreneurship, culture, the environment, and historical preservation.

It’s important that we fight for our beliefs and continue to preserve New Orleans’ culture. But, our fear of becoming just another city like Cleveland or Houston can’t alter us from making progress or letting new people with new ideas in. New Orleans’ unique culture has been intact for 300 years and has been boasted as one of the main reasons why people want to be here. We won’t lose that over a solar panel that’s visible only from one neighbor’s bathroom window.

As we approach Katrina’s anniversary, the progression the city has made is evident. Old residents have returned, new residents have fallen in love with New Orleans, industries both old and new are booming, infrastructure is better, the education system is improving, and entrepreneurship is at an all time high. We work everyday to recruit more people back to New Orleans to continue to help make it better, but creating barriers for progress will only set us back again, as it has in the past.

As a city, we have returned better than ever and proved that not even Mother Nature can challenge us. However, as federal money starts to run out, the next few years will be more challenging because we have to prove that we can continue this momentum all on our own. That’s going to take more people like Meenan and cooperation from New Orleans to adapt.

“It’s important that we continue to see developers want to work in New Orleans,” added Miller. “The Habana Outpost project is an amazing asset for the neighborhood that will employ young people from the area and teach children about the environment, while creating a dining establishment that brings the community together. If the project doesn’t get approved, it will only set a bad precedent.”

Meenan’s new plans will be reviewed at next week’s Vieux Carré Commission hearing, which is set for next Wednesday, September 4 at 1:30 PM in City Council Chambers at City Hall and is open to the public. If you would like to meet Sean Meenan, join him for lunch tomorrow at Launch Pad from 12-1:00 PM. Click here for more details.