As plans progress on what tourism officials hope will be a nearly $1 billion expansion into the Lower Garden District, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is proposing the addition of moving sidewalks to get conventioneers around the nearly mile-long facility, a new centralized hub for buses and taxis under the Pontchartrain Expressway, a realignment of several streets to improve traffic flow, and possibly an upriver extension of the riverfront streetcar line.
The Convention Center has begun seeking a developer for the expansion, which it is envisioned 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 told the Coliseum Square Association last week.
To prepare for the project, the center has been studying traffic patterns throughout the Central Business District and Lower Garden District, and it is proposing a number of changes that would improve traffic flow enough to handle the increased traffic the expansion would generate, board President Melvin Rodrigue and other officials told residents:
- The one-way section of Tchoupitoulas Street would be extended from its current end point to the area under the Pontchartrain Expressway, where it would make a loop with South Peters Street, which already is one-way down to Poydras Street. That change, the officials said, would give large trucks coming from the port easier access to the expressway on-ramps on South Peters without having to turn left across traffic on Tchoupitoulas, eliminating a major source of traffic jams. In fact, the plan would raise the capacity at three busy intersections — already rated as “failing” by traffic engineers — enough to be able to handle the increased flow from the new development, Rodrigue said.
- Magazine Street (between the Pontchartrain Expressway and Poydras Street) and Julia and St. Joseph streets (between Convention Center Boulevard and Magazine Street) would all then become two-way, to give drivers more options for navigating Tchoupitoulas Street and South Peters Street.
- Convention Center Boulevard would drop from four lanes to two lanes, one in each direction, making room for a new linear park.
- All buses and taxis serving the Convention Center would move off 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 help speed conventioneers from the meeting halls in the Central Business District part of the giant building to the newer development in the Lower Garden District. Future renovations of the building might then envelop those moving sidewalks in the assembly hall, officials said.
- Ultimately, the Convention Center would like to see the Regional Transit Authority extend the riverfront streetcar line — which now ends near the center’s upriver end — the length of the planned new development, giving visitors to the new attractions direct access back to the CBD and 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 development of another future project not directly included in this expansion: Tulane University’s major parcel along the river, currently leased to Mardi Gras World. That property was once planned to be the site of a “Riversphere” facility to include both educational and research components, and Convention Center officials said they support Tulane’s plans in that direction.
Whatever Tulane does, they said, would only be a further draw for people attending conventions to stay longer or return to New Orleans.
“What we want to do with this is make it a new experience in New Orleans,” Convention Center General Manager Bob Johnson said. “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, a “Riversphere” facility or something like 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 center’s board has issued a request for proposals and has begun hearing back from some of the top developers in the world, Rodrigue said. The responses will begin to provide more detail on exactly what will be included in the project.
The expansion will involve 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 to spend 18 months weighing different proposals to ensure the right project is chosen.
Officials estimate that construction would begin sometime in 2016. If so, the hospitality industry — which now employs around 80,000 people in the area — could grow by 12,000 to 15,000 jobs by 2018, Rodrigue said.
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