Panel hears pitches for New Orleans office tower
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The dilemma facing this preservation-minded city: Whether an empty riverfront office tower, still revered by at least some preservationists, should be refurbished into a luxury hotel showplace or torn down to create a purely public space, adorned with public art, which would provide better access to the Mississippi River and draw even more tourists to the city.
An advisory panel, hoping to make a recommendation in a few weeks, heard three pitches Tuesday. Two were from developers hoping to turn the old World Trade Center building into hotel and apartment space; and one was from the Tricentennial Consortium, a group of tourism and economic development entities with leaders who speak of the land next to the river as something sacred.
“Would you ever think about developing Jackson Square with a hotel or commercial development in it?” Ron Foreman, head of the institute that runs the Audubon Zoo and the Aquarium of the Americas, asked the panel.
Backers of the Tricentennial plan hope to have the building demolished and its 2-acre site, along with eight adjacent acres, transformed into public space that would include a new symbol for the city — the Gateway Arch in St. Louis was among the examples cited — that could draw even more tourists to the tourist-dependent city that celebrates its 300th anniversary in 2018.
Foreman said a new hotel might only divide up the existing tourism pie.
However, the groups pitching redevelopment of the building, formally opened as the International Trade Mart in 1968, made their projects sound like tourist draws.
A group called Gatehouse Capital pitched plans for a residential complex, a new “W” hotel and a restaurant headed by New Orleans chef John Besh.
Then came Burch LLC, with a plan including apartments, a hotel run by Valencia Group and entertainment venues headlined by trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and Irish folk musician Danny O’Flaherty.
The building was once New Orleans’ tallest structure, a standout on the city skyline, predating the Superdome.
It was a focal point for promotion of international trade and home, for a time, to the office of the Port of New Orleans. Aside from its business function, it also was an attraction for tourists and locals, many of whom flocked to its revolving rooftop lounge for an ever-changing view of the city and the river.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration’s efforts to revive the property included an agreement last year to buy out the lease of the major tenant — the trade promotion organization for which the building is named — and issue a call for proposals to redevelop the property.
Well before Landrieu was elected in 2010, past proposals and nascent deals to revive at least part of the building as a luxury hotel died over the years as complex tax incentive and financing plans fizzled.
Despite the building’s relative youth in a city that promotes its 19th- and 18th-century architecture, the ‘60s-era WTC building has loyal fans among preservationists who note that it was designed by noted architect Edward Durell Stone.
“It would be a tragedy for our 300th birthday to celebrate its demolition,” said preservationist Mary Lou Christovich.