In The News › New Orleans committee to evaluate proposals for former World Trade Center site on Tuesday

New Orleans committee to evaluate proposals for former World Trade Center site on Tuesday

By Bruce Eggler

The Times-Picayune

July 01, 2013

With a five-member city evaluation committee due to gather Tuesday morning for a potentially crucial session on the future of the former World Trade Center building at the foot of Canal Street, two groups hoping to get approval to redevelop the vacant high-rise building for hotel, residential and perhaps other uses are keeping up public-relations campaigns for their proposals.

Virginia businessman James Burch’s team held a news conference at the site Monday at which local musical icon Kermit Ruffins announced he would open a jazz and supper club on the third floor as part of Burch’s package. Ruffins and his band played “When the Saints Go Marching In,” drawing a dozen or so onlookers. He said he imagines a top-of-the-line jazz club using the existing balcony, where he said he might put a barbecue grill.

Meanwhile, the second private development group, led by Gatehouse Capital Corp. of Dallas, announced it would continue its recent “Save the WTC” campaign with a rally outside City Hall an hour before the evaluation committee meets. The goal of saving the 1960s modernist-style landmark has been endorsed in recent days by the Louisiana Landmarks Society and the Preservation Resource Center.

Also on Monday, the Bureau of Governmental Research released an analysis of the three proposals the committee will consider, offering no conclusions on which is the best but pointing out that their wide disparity and in many cases lack of specificity and detail could make it hard for the committee to reach a decision.

Besides the Burch and Gatehouse proposals to renovate and redevelop the vacant 33-floor office building, the city received only one other response in April to its request for proposals on what to do with the site, considered one of the most valuable and highest-profile pieces of real estate in the city.

The Tricentennial Consortium, a coalition of the city’s major tourist and hospitality organizations and leaders, proposed to tear down the aging building and replace it with a yet-to-be-determined new “iconic structure” that would theoretically help attract new visitors to New Orleans. The new structure supposedly also would become a worldwide visual symbol of the city, similar to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis — though critics say New Orleans already has such symbols, from Jackson Square to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu has indicated he shares the tourism leaders’ vision for the site, and in his 2013 State of the City speech in May he said he would like to see the site “remade into a world-class civic space” by the city’s 300th birthday in 2018. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said.

Since then, however, the mayor has said little about the issue, perhaps to avoid being seen as trying to influence the supposedly independent evaluation committee, all of whose members are administration officials.

It consists of Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant; Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin; William Gilchrist, director of place-based planning for the administration; Jeff Hebert, executive director of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority; and Cynthia Connick, who serves as executive director of public benefit corporations.

Although the committee is expected to make a recommendation Tuesday, it might decide to defer action or perhaps refer the whole issue without a recommendation to the New Orleans Building Corp., a city agency responsible for overseeing the WTC site and several other city-owned properties. The NOBC board includes three City Council members, three private citizens appointed by the mayor and Landrieu himself, though he has not attended any of its meetings since early in his administration.

The committee might also decide to reject all the proposals and suggest seeking new ones, though there appears to be little reason to think a new request for proposals would yield any new ideas.

One problem potentially complicating the committee’s decision is Gov. Bobby Jindal’s recent veto of a bill that would have allowed the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to spend money at the WTC site. Just as the Tricentennial Consortium proposal was vague on what might be built at the site, it also was vague about the financing, beyond a plan for the Convention Center to put up $25 million. As the BGR report notes, Jindal’s veto — unless overridden, which is unlikely — “eliminated the consortium’s only firm revenue source.”

There also are many questions about the two proposals to keep the old building and convert it to new uses, including how solid their proposed financing is and how they would provide parking for hundreds of hotel guests and apartment residents.

Serious questions also have been raised about Burch’s track record as a developer. As the BGR report notes, Burch — who describes himself as the principal bishop of the Catholic Dioceses of One Spirit, an “ecumenical Christian association” — cannot point to any successfully completed projects. Since submitting his proposal in April, he has announced two “co-developers,” Steven Peer and Peter Arey, who appear to have more solid credentials, but the committee could decide not to consider information or changes submitted after the official mid-April submission date.

Since making its original proposal, the Burch group also reduced the number of planned hotel rooms from 550 to 300 and announced that the Valencia Group, a Houston-based company, would operate the planned hotel. The Gatehouse proposal calls for a 245-room W Hotel and many more apartments than the Burch proposal envisions.

All three proposals also suggest various improvements to the area around the 33-story building, such as redesigning the ferry terminal, improving access along the river and creating new attractions such as a giant Sky Wheel proposed by Gatehouse. These proposals generally would require action by other public or private entities and do not relate directly to the central issue before the evaluation committee: what to do with the former World Trade Center building itself.

As the committee deliberates, it is supposed to weigh four factors: the nature of the proposed redevelopment plan, the developers’ qualifications and financial capacity, and the proposed project’s financial feasibility. With both the exact nature and the financing of the Tricentennial Consortium proposal so much in question, it is hard to see how the committee will be able to evaluate it.

But the city’s request for proposals was itself so vague as to give committee members plenty of leeway in their decisions. The city said it was looking for a dramatic rethinking of how the valuable riverfront site is used and how it could be developed to its highest potential as a “world-class civic space” — the same words Landrieu used in May — and a “demand generator,” as well as creating jobs and providing “direct revenue to (the New Orleans Building Corp.) commensurate with the market value and proposed use of the property.”

In short, the committee can probably find justification for whatever it decides to do.

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