Loew’s Theater developer gets 75-foot height variance, but must protect interior theater

A dramatic 75-foot height variance was granted today to the owners of the Loew’s State Palace Theater by the New Orleans Board of Zoning Adjustments. The variance allows the owners to move forward with plans to construct a massive hotel tower through the middle of this historic 1920s theater on Canal Street.⁣

However, the waiver came with a preservation proviso: The building’s interior theater, which the National Park Service deemed as the most intact historic portion of the structure, must be preserved in perpetuity.⁣

What that means and how it will be interpreted is unclear; there are no current plans to restore the theater, so for now the space will be mothballed. The addition of the proviso came after preservationists stressed the importance of retaining the most historic portions of the Spanish Revival-style building.⁣

The Loew’s is surrounded by low-rise buildings that define the character of this historic commercial corridor, which otherwise is protected by a maximum building height of 120 feet. The Preservation Resource Center spoke in opposition of this height variance, arguing that allowing a 195-foot-tall building in this area would create a dangerous precedent that could allow for increased towers atop historic buildings that developers don’t deem profitable enough.⁣

The PRC’s full position is below.⁣

We applaud the owners and architects of the Loew’s State Palace Theater for their efforts to put forward a proposal that does not require demolition of the historic theater. However, we have serious reservations about redeveloping that portion of the parcel fronting Canal Street absent specific plans to restore and use the theater itself. Per the architects, this approach will render the theater portion ineligible for state and federal historic tax credits, which could otherwise offset 40 percent of the applicable costs of its interior restoration. So while preservation is ostensibly the rationale for a requested 75-foot height waver, this proposal fails to ensure that preservation will take place. We are all left to simply trust that the owners, or any possible future owners, will strive to restore the historic portions of this building. That is not enough assurance to protect this incredibly significant site, which has already suffered years of neglect. Finally, it is noteworthy that the vast majority of the buildings lining the upriver side of Canal Street for the five blocks between Rampart and Camp streets are three-, four- or five-stories tall. Regardless of the outcome, this project should not become a precedent for future developments of excessive height along this corridor. Therefore, the PRC opposes this height waiver at this time.