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In July 2020, multiple Willie’s Chicken Shack locations flagrantly flaunted local regulation meant to curb the spread of COVID-19. This behavior demonstrated a clear interest in short-term profits over public health. We commend Mayor Cantrell for taking swift and prompt action against the chain by revoking their license to operate for the “remainder of the pandemic” – but the truth is that this is not the first time Willie’s has skirted City regulations.
Another Willie’s Chicken Shack opened at 601 Chartres late last fall. It was the 5th of its kind in the French Quarter and the 8th in downtown New Orleans. This location obtained designation as a “Standard Restaurant” by the Department of Safety and Permits, despite the fact that it met many of the defining characteristics of a “Fast Food Restaurant,” which are not permitted in the Vieux Carré per the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (CZO). We note that the CZO was crafted from thousands of hours of community engagement.
It was clear that this fast-food chain was exploiting imprecise language in the CZO to operate where they should not. It was further clear that this business would continue to replicate the same store ad nauseum in a neighborhood otherwise valued for its diversity of commercial offerings and experiences. Seeking to protect the Quarter’s authenticity and uphold the City’s land use regulations, VCPORA filed an appeal with the Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA) challenging the categorical designation made by Safety and Permits.
We received over 150 letters of support and boasted nearly one dozen in-person speakers. Several BZA commissioners even admitted that Willie’s probably met the defining criteria for a fast food restaurant. Despite the overwhelming evidence, we lost the appeal on the basis of murky CZO language. Now, we are challenging that decision with Civil District Court. We believe our argument still stands: Willie’s Chicken Shack is a fast food chain. It does not belong in the Vieux Carré. Its proliferation threatens the neighborhood’s unique character and encourages regulation-bending.
If you want to help stop the spread of fast food chains, donate to our appeal today. This appeal comes at an especially vulnerable time. Local businesses are going under. With the capital to survive the economic downturn, chains are poised to expand into newly vacant buildings. We could see the Quarter succumb to a wave of commercial homogenization.
If we do not take a stand and demand appropriate application of the zoning code now, we could see many other similar businesses exploiting the loopholes that made this possible. One by one, location by location, the charm and unique character of the French Quarter will erode. Locals deserve to enjoy the heart of our city.