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Uncertain future for fast-fading WTC site

City property landlord says it makes ‘no sense’ to sell building with existing lease

Monday, January 25, 2010
By Ben Myers, Staff Writer

Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson summed up the pickle that is the World Trade Center building, which the city leases to the WTC organization, with a simple observation.

“Neither of us can afford it,” said Clarkson, who is on the board of the New Orleans Building Corp., the agency that oversees city-owned buildings.

The building, which is largely vacant, has suffered a series of failed redevelopment proposals. Most recently, New York developer Full Spectrum in 2008 withdrew its proposal to build a hotel, condominiums and space for retail and conferences. That led to litigation, which was settled in September, when the city returned a portion of Full Spectrum’s $600,000 deposit.

Clarkson and others, including the nonprofit Bureau of Governmental Research, believe the city should rid itself of largely vacant skyscraper by selling it.

“We have to get a new owner,” Clarkson said. “How it should be done, I don’t know.”

World Trade Center President Constance Willems said city ownership adds “a whole new layer of approvals that need to be obtained” before redevelopment can occur.

“That in itself, even in the best of times, is problematic,” Willems said.

But it “would make no sense whatsoever” to sell the building with the WTC’s current lease with the city, NOBC Executive Director Sean Cummings said.

The lease, under which the World Trade Center pays the city $1 year, extends through 2019. The WTC developed the building, which opened in 1967, and the lease predates the opening, Willems said. The organization, which is nonprofit, prepaid the rent.

Willems said the World Trade Center would consider altering its lease “if there is an offer we cannot refuse.” The organization recently moved the Plimsoll Club, a dining venue that it uses to host forums, to the Westin Hotel. That move was not tied to real estate, Willems said.

Cummings and Willems said negotiations are in the works, but they do not expect any public announcements for several months.

Not everyone agrees the building should be sold.

Developer Darryl Berger is co-chairman of the New Orleans Hospitality Task Force, which is promoting a new master plan for tourism in New Orleans. His company is also part of the ownership team for the Windsor Court Hotel.

Berger said he believes city control of the building is important so it can “lead a conversation about what is the very best outcome.”

The building in the past has wrongfully been viewed as “standalone,” Berger said, and the city would benefit most by integrating it into a cohesive plan for the riverfront. The task force’s master plan, which aims to attract 13.7 million visitors to New Orleans by 2018, does not advocate specific use for the WTC but it does recommend comprehensive development of private and public buildings near the river, Berger said.

“The whole central riverfront has enormous potential, much of it has not been developed,” Berger said. “That total geography gives rise to possibilities of what redevelopment could be.”•

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