Jul 022013
 

Owen Courreges

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.

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  • Tommy Gremillion

    In order to preserve it I see a glimpse of the rendering of an additional building that will be constructed just to the right of the WTC. This is being kept hidden in the renderings for a reason. Besides adding another ugly building It will add more clutter to the Hilton/RIverfront/Ferry landing area making the Spanish Plaza even more insignificant. The fountain at the Spanish Plaza is out most beautiful fountain in the city, but it’s in the shadows of the WTC and no one goes there. The WTC has no viable loading doc or support facility to accommodate all that a hotel needs with deliveries and the massive amounts of garbage they produce. The four wings of the building make it look larger than it is. Once inside each wing is rather small and the layout is horrific, in my opinion. I think it’s in the way of a public space that we desperately need. And what is with that stupid Ferris wheel in the proposition? Really? A Ferris wheel in that location?

    • Owen Courrèges

      Tommy,

      I don’t see the desperate need for public space at the WTC location. The CBD already has Lafayette Square, and there’s plenty of recreation space along the riverfront. Moreover, the city is having enormous difficulty maintaining public spaces as it is.

      We’d have to shoulder a major capital expense to raze the WTC and build a park, plus ongoing maintenance expenses, and we’d be taking that on at a time when there’s no money to do those things. The reason they’re even discussing a Ferris Wheel, etc., is probably to have something there to generate revenue. And in the end, the location will make it a destination for tourists more than residents.

      Nobody’s disputing that the WTC will need to be reworked somewhat if it is saved, but I don’t see issues like the layout and the lack of a loading doc as being hard fixes. If there’s a self-financed rehabilitation option in the works, I personally say that’s the only responsible option from both a fiscal and preservationist perspective.

      • Joanne Hilton

        Well Owen, this time we agree. Even though I am deep into the tourist economy, and have been for 33 years, I am sick of seeing the “gilding of the lily” that is the French Quarter riverfront, the extension of which is essentially what this effort for “green space” is. I had to laugh when I read that the Convention Center/Tourism people said it should be torn down/not developed as a hotel because we don’t need additional hotel space, WHILE PUTTING THE CONSTRUCTION OF A BIG HOTEL IN THEIR ‘MASTER’ PLAN FOR THE UPRIVER PORTION OF THE PROPERTY!!! I’m all for paying more attention to other parts of the city as tourist destinations. Help to do something with the shuttered St. John the Baptist Church, Annunciation Church, etc, in a thoughtful and respectful way, like they’ve done in old Quebec. Get involved in the redevelopment of Charity Hospital. Let private money go where private money wants to go, and public taxpayer money should go where it does the most good for EVERYBODY.

    • Owen Courrèges

      Also, make no mistake — people can talk about some other public entity or temporary commission footing the bill for the park, but at the end of the day it will be a public park supported by taxpayers.

    • Steven Belflower

      The small building on the side is featured in two of the renderings and contains the support facilities and loading dock for the W proposal.

  • Angie Peckham

    They need to do something, whatever it turns out to be. All I see when that building is mentioned are car-sized pieces of concrete plummeting from skyline. (2011)

  • Owen Courrèges

    CORRECTION: I’m now reading that some of the WTC redevelopment proposals may now be eligible for historic tax renovation credits. If so, that’s a greater argument for keeping the WTC.

    • jeffreyskooks

      Burch and Gatehouse have each included space for approximately $75 million in historic renovation tax credits in their proposals. But it isn’t clear that the building is actually eligible. It raises some question about the financial feasibility of their plans. More importantly, though, applying theses tax credits to hotel development is itself pretty much “a government-driven scheme to enrich tourist interests with taxpayer money” is it not?

      I’m no fan of the Tricentennial proposal either. But I haven’t yet seen a convincing argument for allowing either of these groups to “preserve” the building.

      • Owen Courrèges

        jeffrey,

        If the tax credits serve a stated public goal like preservation, then it’s about more than enriching private interests. That’s the distinction. Of course, if you don’t see any merit in keeping the WTC, then the tax credits would also be a bad public subsidy. Just remember this, though — at least the tax subsidies would be a one-time cost, rather than a new ongoing expense for the city to maintain. That’s at least preferable to the Tricentennial Proposal.

  • Uptowner

    The CBD/whs district has a very low current supply of apartments/condos, which has led to the Domain Cos. development that is beginning (among others). With such high demand, all condo/apt inventory turns over extremely quickly in this submarket.
    Redeveloping the WTC into a mixed-use development makes more sense than demolition as the existing space could be utilized as condos/apts along with hotel rooms with some retail/restaurants to satisfy demand while providing construction and permanent jobs rather than using public funds to tear it down with no permanent jobs resulting (it appears Jindal has vetoed the public funds part recently, thankfully). There are very few condo/apartment developments that offer river views; this would be a huge selling point. Think about it – Jax building, One River Place, and Rice Mill Lofts are the only ones I can think of… While we don’t necessarily need another hotel, the area could use more condo inventory and the hotel provides permanent jobs (a vacant area obviously does not). I support the Gatehouse Capital project because they have developed similar projects successfully in the past. Just my two cents

    • Owen Courrèges

      Uptowner,

      That’s a good point. I do worry that the condo market is becoming oversaturated, and I’m certainly not privy to the numbers to say for sure whether it would be cost-effective, but surely there would at least be a demand for housing in the WTC. I just don’t see the pressing demand for a small riverfront park in the CBD, and I frankly don’t think the city can afford it as an ongoing obligation. Our public spaces are in deplorable condition, our streets are a nightmare, and we want to plop down a new park?

      I’ve said before that I’m sick to death of how our local officials will propose any number of “sexy” projects (mostly aimed at tourism), but when it comes to basic maintenance, all of a sudden money is scarce. How about we cancel all new projects until we actual get our existing infrastructure and public spaces in serviceable condition? I frankly believe the tourists would be more impressed with our city if they didn’t see overgrown parks and pothole-ridden streets the moment they step outside of the Quarter/CBD.

      • Uptowner

        We need job growth to continue to insure that the market doesn’t become oversaturated. The young, 20s-30s demographic is who they’re targeting here. I would assume that most competent developers are going to hire a reputable firm to perform a marketability analysis prior to taking on a development of this magnitude. I personally have a lot more faith in Gatehouse Capital, seeing that they’ve brought a number of similar projects into commerce, whereas Birch’s history raises a number of concerns (see: http://neworleanscitybusiness.com/blog/2013/06/04/burchs-wtc-site-proposal-raises-background-questions/)

        I also agree with you on the parks and general maintenance issue. We can’t maintain what we have so adding to the existing mess won’t help

  • Roland Solinski

    The People Mover thing is just a modern wrapping on the RTA’s Tchoupitoulas/Convention Center streetcar, which was a weird single-track idea. To be honest, I think it would be great, from a tourism perspective, to tear out the riverfront line altogether and move it to Conv. Ctr. Blvd, where passengers don’t have to find their way into the back door of the convention center to get to Warehouse District hotels and restaurants. Burying the high-tension wires on Conv. Ctr. Blvd is another good idea; those things are a huge eyesore.

    But yeah, by all means save the WTC, AND the historic Spanish Plaza/fountain.

    • Owen Courrèges

      Ronald,

      The Riverfront Streetcar was placed where it is based on cost considerations; putting it in Convention Center Boulevard and moving the power lines would have been extremely expensive. And why are we even talking about this? There are power lines mounted on aging wooden poles throughout the city. There are underserved transit lines everywhere. There’s already a tourist train for the Convention Center; it doesn’t need anything else!

  • Deux amours

    I don’t like the whole process of the city taking proposals with all sorts of restrictions for its surplus property. If it is not needed for city use, it should be sold outright. The city owns too much property that it cannot maintain that it has kept out of commerce for years. I think the city has been nibbling at this problem, but the books should be swept clean without further ado.

    • Owen Courrèges

      Deux,

      I’d really like to see the building preserved, but that’s essentially my position as well. The BGR report was right to begin with; the city just needs to sell off the WTC. I think at this point I think it would most likely be preserved given that the building is in reasonably good condition and it would be very expensive to tear it down and start over (not to mention that any other project would generate some public outcry).

      What I want to be sure of, though, is that any project to tear down the WTC doesn’t get any public financing. There’s merit to giving rehabilitation tax credits to saving the WTC, but I don’t see any in knocking it down and building something else.

      • Deux amours

        The city does have a process for designating individual buildings as historic landmarks, which would require the building to be preserved. I think city owned buildings cannot be so designated. The CBDHDLC should speak out.

  • Tommy Gremillion

    Lafayette Square? Who goes there besides the some workers for lunch, Wednesday concert goers and Mardi Gras day (a great place to pee behind the bleachers)? I thought that the idea was to bring the community back to the river. That building along with the new support facility to the right of it will cut off obstruct river access just as the the wharves did years ago. Woldenberg park in nice, but quite difficult to get to. I understand the economics of razing the WTC. I’m just looking at the general layout of the city. I think it’s awful as it had no master plan other than the Quarter.

    Paris has the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs- Élysées. Saint Louis has it’s Gateway Arch. Seattle has it’s Space needle. Toronto has it’s CN Tower. Our iconic structures are the bridges over the river and the Superdome. I just think that at this place with the fountain at Spanish Plaza, and where Rex meets Zulu every Lundi Gras, it needs a special international metropolitan atmosphere. But lets be sure we save money by keeping it and putting LED lighting on it to WOW u, and then let’s put a Ferris wheel that has it’s few blocked by tall buildings. Once again, just one man’s opinion.

    • Owen Courrèges

      Tommy,

      Bottom line: The site of the WTC is not easily accessible to locals and the idea of “bringing locals to the river” at this location has no basis. If you put a park on that site, right of the Quarter between the convention center and the aquarium, you might as well be screaming at the top of your lungs: THIS IS FOR TOURISTS. Locals will use nearby parks for recreation (aside from the occasional journey to City Park), but they are not going to huff it downtown to some relatively small riverfront park. At the very least, there’s no good reason for them to do so.

      There’s also no good reason to think that slapping a Ferris wheel in Spanish Plaza with some trees is going to turn the WTC site into our equivalent of the Champs-Elysess or the CN Tower. Those sound like flights of fancy. We already have that in the French Quarter and Jackson Square. Any attempt to artificially create that somewhere else would be a redundant failure.

      And where do you think the money for all of this comes from? We have a huge number of overgrown parks desperately in need in basic maintenance, so we’re going to create a new one at public expense that isn’t easily accessible to locals? Reckless doesn’t begin to describe it.

  • Fwilliam Adams

    Owen and all: Many many times, and across the country we have seen the government get involved with these type of developments. The outcome is often a sad shake of the head. We do not need more space dedicated to tourists. What would tourist do on this site that they can’t already do at the Moonwalk? Tourists will spend ten minutes looking at the river and then back to the Quarter for what they really want, OUR food and OUR drink. They probably have rivers in their towns and those rivers probably have barges on them. The city needs space that is useful, generates income and makes us feel proud that we the people can do something real. A monument? The current drawing looks like an upside down hurricane glass slammed in the ground by a giant tourist on his/her way out of town yelling “Thanks N’awlins, love ya!” We can develop this site. We can add all the glass and LEDs necessary to spruce it up. We are a WORLD city that needs to continue to express our connection with the world. We must continue to promote commerce through our port and our unique offerings. WE are the ICON of this city. Our musicians and chefs and cooks and Streetcar divers and hopefully one day our educators and mentors. This whole conversation is a distraction. The WTC building is one of us. We built it, we have drug it along for the past 10-15 years and we should keep it. We take care of our own.

  • Linda Cornish Rioux

    Come on NOLA, stop whoring yourself to tourists !!!