Convention Center seeks land-use change to allow 300-foot hotel at upriver expansion

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A rendering of the riverfront after the proposed expansion of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. (via

A rendering of the riverfront after the proposed expansion of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. (via

The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center has applied for a land-use change to allow a 300-foot hotel at their planned upriver expansion, drawing questions from neighbors in nearby Coliseum Square on Monday evening.

Bob Johnson, Convention Center president and general manager, acknowledged that negotiations on the Convention Center have dragged for more than a year, but officials hope a partial land rezoning will help jumpstart the nearly $1.5 billion project. Johnson told the CSA that developers have applied to change a section of the center’s zoning law to remove height limitations. Under current regulations, developers could not build the planned 300-foot-high hotel that Johnson called “the crown jewel.”

Developers applied for a zoning overlay, and soon the City Planning Commission will consider proposed zoning changes for the vacant tract that would make it consistent with the Convention Center’s developed land. The commission will make a recommendation to the City Council after holding a public hearing on the zoning changes.

That proposed change – the only tweak from the plan announced in 2014 – was a point of contention among some CSA members.

“To me it seems like, if there’s no height limit, then you could change your plan and put up four buildings instead of just one,” member Frank Cole said.

Other members voiced similar fears during the presentation, but Johnson said the 1,200-room hotel is the only planned skyscraper. Developers are also inhibited by the cost of building anything higher, he added.

“There’s no resources locally or nationally right now to do any more floors,” Johnson said.

The hotel will be comparable to hotels such as the Sheraton and Marriott, Johnson said. The new development also includes high-end shopping, restaurants, apartments and entertainment venues on the vacant 47-acre tract of land at the upriver end of the riverfront assembly hall.

This expansion project, known as Stage IV, was first planned prior to Hurricane Katrina, but shelved amid uncertainty of the future of the city, Johnson said. The same clients that officials had to beg not to cancel bookings after Katrina, they now have to struggle to find room in the busy schedule for, so the convention center began its current work on Stage IV about two and a half years ago.

Karon Reese, CSA vice president, expressed excitement over the planned artists lofts and places for local merchants. The 300-foot hotel on the fringes of the Lower Garden District will only serve to bring in tourists and enhance the economy, Reese added.

“I think it’s a beautiful plan,” she said. “I’m in favor of what they’re doing.”

Johnson told the crowd the $1.5 billion redevelopment is necessary to keep up with other convention centers around the nation. Most major cities add an entertainment venue, museum or other tourist attraction every few years to keep the convention circuit coming back.

New Orleans hasn’t added any major attraction for at least a decade, Johnson said. That’s where the hotel development and added entertainment venues come into play.

“We decided it needed to be the new New Orleans experience,” Johnson said.

Julie Simpson, CSA president, deferred a motion to support or oppose the new development until the group can “have a lot more discussion with (the developers).”

Regardless of how the CSA votes, member Joel Dondis said it’s important the neighborhood association stay as involved as possible. First for the safety of the Lower Garden District, and secondly for the overall improvement of New Orleans.

“If we have a billion dollar investment on the finger of our neighborhood, first we want to make it the best we can for the city,” Dondis said.

Claire Byun is a freelance reporter based in New Orleans.

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