As plans progress on a nearly $1 billion expansion into the Lower Garden District, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is proposing a realignment of several streets to improve traffic flow through downtown, a new centralized hub for buses and taxis under the Pontchartrain Expressway, moving sidewalks to get conventioneers around the nearly mile-long facility, and possibly even an expansion of the riverfront streetcar to connect the upriver end of the project with the French Market, officials told neighbors Monday night.
The convention center has already begun seeking a developer for the expansion, which would include a new four-star hotel, high-end shopping, and more exhibit space on land between the Pontchartrain Expressway and the old Market Street Power Plant, officials said Monday at the August monthly meeting of the Coliseum Square Association.
To prepare for the project, the center has been studying traffic patterns throughout the Central Business District and Lower Garden District areas, and are proposing a number of changes that will improve traffic flow now enough to handle the increased traffic from the project, Convention Center board president Melvin Rodrigue and other officials told residents:
- The one-way section of Tchoupitoulas will extend from its current end point near Cochon all the way up to the area under the Pontchartrain Expressway, where it will make a loop with South Peters, which is already one-way all the way back down to Poydras. That change, officials said, will give large trucks from the port easier access to the highway on-ramps on South Peters without having to turn left across traffic on Tchoupitoulas, eliminating a major source of traffic jams for Uptown and downtown commuters alike.
In fact, the plan raises the capacity at three downtown intersections that are already rated as failing by traffic engineers to be able to handle the increased flow from the new development, Rodrigue told the Lower Garden District residents: “When we fix those problems, where you are works itself out. When we fix over here, the rest falls into place.”
- Magazine Street (between the Pontchartrain Expressway and Poydras) and Julia and St. Joseph streets (between Convention Center Boulevard and Magazine) would all then become two-way, to give drivers more options for navigating Tchoupitoulas and St. Peters.
- Convention Center Boulevard would drop from its current four lanes to one lane in each direction, making room for a new linear park.
- All buses and taxis would move off of Convention Center Boulevard to a new “intermodal” station under the expressway by Convention Center Boulevard. All passengers would load and unload from that location.
- Moving sidewalks would then help speed convention-goers from the convention halls in the Central Business District to the newer development in the Lower Garden District. Future renovations of the existing convention center might then envelop those moving sidewalks back indoors, officials said.
- Ultimately, the Convention Center is also in favor of the New Orleans RTA expanding the riverfront streetcar line all the way up the length of the project, giving visitors direct access back to the rest of the French Quarter. That decision, however, rests with the RTA, officials said. “We have told them we would grant them all the access they need from us,” Rodrigue said.
The plan leaves room for another major future component not directly included in this expansion, officials said: Tulane University’s major parcel along the river, currently leased to Mardi Gras World. That property was once considered for a “Riversphere” facility that would include educational and research components, and Convention Center officials support Tulane’s plans in that direction.
Whatever Tulane does, they said, would only be a further draw for convention-goers to return to New Orleans.
“What we want to do with this is make it a new experience in New Orleans,” said convention center general manager Bob Johnson. “It’s the old Disney theory: Every two or three years, Disney opens a new attraction and people that are familiar with Disney will go back. … It would also put Tulane’s brand in front of a million people a year.”
Further, Rodrigue said, it would give New Orleanians more access to the riverfront as well.
“Public access to the river is integral to our growth in the industry,” Rodrigue said. “It would not just be opening access for meeting goers, but opening it for residents alike.”
The Convention Center expansion is still years in the making. The Convention Center has issued a request for proposals — which will begin to provide more detail on what exact amenities will be included in the expansion project — and has begun hearing back from some of the top developers in the world, Rodrigue said. The expansion will include about $170 million of the Convention Center’s money — drawing from its reserves and from bond issues — and an anticipated $700 million from the private developer, so Rodrigue said he expects spending 18 months weighing different proposals to ensure the right project is chosen.
Officials estimate that construction would begin some time in 2016. The hospitality industry — currently employing around 80,000 people in the area — could grow by as much as 12,000 to 15,000 jobs between now and 2018, Rodrigue said.