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By Gambit Weekly

July 9, 2013

New Orleans’ tercentennial is coming up in 2018, and city leaders already are preparing for the occasion. Right now much of the discussion revolves around 2 Canal Street (aka the International Trade Mart), the empty building that once held the offices of the World Trade Center and is owned by the City of New Orleans. The city put out a request for proposals (RFP) in January to redevelop the site, and three proposals were submitted by the April deadline. Each has a very different vision for the plot of land at the foot of Canal Street.

Gatehouse Capital proposes keeping 2 Canal Street and converting it into a mixed-use structure that would include a W Hotel and 280 rental units on the upper floors. The plan also calls for a nearby five-story structure that would include parking, an outdoor pool and a “live music area” overlooking the Mississippi River. Gatehouse also proposes a “Sky Wheel” — a permanent Ferris wheel over the river — as an additional tourist draw.

James H. Burch’s proposal also would include a hotel, along with “luxury office space,” 88 residential units and a variety of glitzy (if not plain gimmicky) features, including a glass “Monument to the People of New Orleans,” “a glass-enclosed studio kitchen with audience seating for the celebrity chefs of New Orleans,” a nightly “Mini Mardi Gras,” a folk music club by Danny O’Flaherty and a jazz supper club bearing the name of Kermit Ruffins.

The third plan is by a group calling itself the Tricentennial Consortium, which consists of New Orleans tourism and marketing leaders, including the Audubon Nature Institute, the Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Tourism Marketing Corporation and the Louisiana Restaurant Association. This group proposes tearing down the building and constructing “an iconic structure that will become a universally recognized symbol for New Orleans.” The new structure would be called Tricentennial Tower. Renderings show a giant glass structure that looks something like a spiral vase. It would house yet another Audubon project, a wetlands center — not far from the Aquarium of the Americas and the Audubon Insectarium.

Whatever the final decision on 2 Canal Street itself, both “iconic structures” strike us as boondoggles. Gatehouse’s “Sky Wheel” is derivative of any number of other “iconic” Ferris wheels, including the London Eye and Seattle’s Great Wheel, which opened just last year in the city’s tourism district. Las Vegas is building two giant Ferris wheels on its Strip and is considering a third. Why New Orleans would want to copy such an unoriginal idea is a mystery. Besides, New Orleans already has an iconic space on the Mississippi River. It’s called the French Quarter. No other city can duplicate it.

As for the Tricentennial Consortium’s proposal, it’s hard to improve on the description by the Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR), which called it “an unspecified iconic tourist attraction.” Even more confusing, according to the BGR: The tower concept described in the RFP is merely a “placeholder” — which makes the rendering shown to the public meaningless. The tourism leaders pushing this proposal no doubt have good intentions, but their plan lacks specificity.

The consortium’s plan was dealt a blow when Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed legislation that would have allowed the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to spend millions of dollars to facilitate it. That was the sole source of initial funding in the consortium’s RFP, and without it the entire proposal seems to be in doubt.

An initial hearing on redevelopment was held last week at City Hall. The members of the Redevelopment Committee were told to submit any questions they had by the middle of this week. Another meeting will be held at the end of July, and the committee will make its recommendation shortly after that. The city is expected to make its final decision by Sept. 1.

At last week’s meeting, both the public and committee members had a lot of questions, few of which were answered. No doubt many more questions will need to be answered between now and then, but one thing’s for sure: A 300-year-old city deserves more specificity before handing over valuable public land for a so-called “iconic structure.”

The last time New Orleans sought to create an iconic structure downtown, we got the Piazza d’Italia — and not one American in 100 would be able to identify it as a New Orleans landmark. In our view, neither a Ferris wheel, nor a mini-Mardi Gras, nor a placeholder fits the bill for a city as unique as New Orleans.

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