Like Mardi Gras beads on a St. Charles crape myrtle, the debate over what to do with the New Orleans World Trade Center has lingered. The problem is that the World Trade Center, built in 1967, is widely regarded as a landmark. Nevertheless, its future is in peril. The city seems determined to see it scrapped. Others are raising their voices to have it preserved.
The saga really began fifteen years ago, around 1998, when the World Trade Center of New Orleans, Inc., the group which leased the building from the city for the princely sum of $1 per year, began pushing plans to redevelop the structure. It would keep its offices in the top floors, and split the revenues from renovating the lower floors into something profitable – offices, residences, retail, or whatever else would work.
Apparently, the byzantine lease agreement between the World Trade Center and the city, together with economic turmoil (particularly in the real estate market) conspired to delay and ultimately kill the plans to redevelop the building in 2008. The Bureau of Governmental Research then issued a report urging a “clean sale” of the building, essentially telling the city to extricate itself from the morass.
By 2009, the building’s few remaining tenants were told to vamoose. In 2010, even the landmark Plimsoll Club moved across the street to Canal Place. With the building virtually emptied, plans were batted about on what to do with the site. Do we continue redevelopment efforts? Do we mothball the building until the economic situation shifts (if it ever does)? Do we just knock the sucker down and start from scratch?
Never a shrinking violet, the city quickly began throwing its weight behind that final option. Last year, the city announced that it would be buying out the lease for $2.3 million. Although lip service was given to the possibility of redeveloping the building, the reality was clear to all. The building would be razed, and the site would become a park/tourist attraction.
As Mayor Landrieu said at the time, “if it was up to me, I would tear it down.” Landrieu also hoped that “the future of the city involves an open space that invites other things that ties the river completely together.”
In other words, a place for tourists. He wants to tear down a monument to trade and economic vitality and replace it with “open space” proximate to the convention center and tourist attractions. It’s like signing the death certificate on the local economy, an official statement that we aren’t coming back and should reach for whatever tourist scraps we can.
Demolishing the World Trade Center will easily cost more than $10 million, although the building is not quite old enough to qualify for restoration tax credits, leaving it in an uncomfortable limbo where any option will likely be expensive or downright unworkable. The Associated Press has aptly dubbed it a fifty-year old “white elephant” tying up prime real estate that could generate tax revenue (or at least be productive), but every option for the site is booby-trapped.
The latest wrinkle to arise is how the preservationist movement has begun to show a keen interest in keeping the building. The Louisiana Landmarks Society has named the World Trade Center as the number one most-endangered historic structure in the city, and the “Save WTC Nola” campaign has gathered a group of developers and investors that would turn the building into a W Hotel with residential and retail units.
Save WTC Nola argues that public money shouldn’t be used to tear down an iconic building in the international style, a building that is, for all intents and purposes, the original World Trade Center – the precursor of the ill-fated twin towers in New York. I’ve been seeing their yard signs and bumper stickers all over town.
Landrieu’s designs were dealt a further setback when Governor Jindal vetoed a bill that would allow the Morial Exhibition Hall Authority to issue bonds for redevelopment, including plans to redevelop the World Trade Center. Jindal may have been influenced by the growing dissatisfaction with the city’s plans to demolish the World Trade Center in favor of a tourist wonderland proposed by the Tricentennial Commission that would include, according to the Times-Picayune, a “linear park, pedestrian mall, ‘people mover’ system, upriver street extension and relocation of power lines.”
So now you know the basic story. As you might have realized, I do not support tearing down the World Trade Center. I do not support the tourist wonderland or, more specifically, I do not support a taxpayer-supported boondoggle only intended for the benefit of tourists. I mean, they’re actually considering a “people mover.” They’re trying to install a failed 1980’s-era transit scheme from Detroit, even though it would ostensibly be redundant to the already-dubious riverfront streetcar.
Jindal isn’t my favorite politician right now, and perhaps his intentions were impure, but I’d like to take a moment to praise him for sparing us from this madness, if only temporarily.
Worse than that, however, is how the city is trying to use public money to destroy a historic building. The same city that makes draconian threats against people in rotting, cookie-cutter shotgun homes if they have the temerity to install vinyl windows is planning on knocking down a landmark on the taxpayer dime. The hoary, parental trope of “do as I say, not as a do,” scarcely begins to explain this.
Finally, I’m not convinced that it’s not economically feasible to save the World Trade Center. Redevelopment was held up by factors that had nothing to do with actual economic realities. First, the World Trade Center of New Orleans hamstrung redevelopment proposals requiring, for example, that any proposed hotel only take up half the building. Secondly, the lease with the organization itself (now terminated) was complex and apparently conspired against redevelopment.
Economic realities have also shifted. The real estate crash is starting to appear in our collective rear-view mirror, and there is actually a need for office, retail, and hotel space. New Orleans is a tourist-mecca with a low vacancy rate for Class-A office space. If nothing else, the World Trade Center would make a magnificent casino-hotel. I have great difficulty believing that self-financed redevelopment of the World Trade Center isn’t in the cards.
In the end, I really don’t care what the World Trade Center is used for, and while I would prefer to see it preserved, if its demolition were actually a capitulation to economic reality I might reluctantly lend my support to the wrecking ball. What I’m seeing here, however, if a government-driven scheme to enrich tourist interests with taxpayer money. That’s not worth the sacrifice of the New Orleans World Trade Center, not by a long shot.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.