Years-old plans to turn an abandoned naval base on Poland Avenue into a “resiliency center” are creeping forward as the city finalizes the details of a lease with private developers who would build the project.
The full development of the 25-acre Naval Support Activity-East Bank site next to the Industrial Canal is still years away, but the signing of a lease would be the first major step forward since the federal government turned the Bywater property over to the city in 2013.
Since then, the proposal for the site has shifted from a vision of an emergency operations center surrounded by retail and residential units to a campus for government and business initiatives focusing on the city’s recent emphasis on “resiliency,” including programs aimed at improving water management and disaster response.
“I don’t think people would have seriously talked about resilience four or five years ago,” said Cedric Grant, executive director of the Sewerage & Water Board and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s right-hand man on infrastructure projects. “A lot of this is evolving with what is happening with government and the private sector.”
The city is negotiating with EMDRC Partners LLC, which will pay the city to lease the site and develop the project.
EMDRC, which was chosen to develop the site in 2012, is a joint venture whose members include former New Orleans homeland security chief Col. Terry Ebbert and businessman Bill Ryan.
The campus includes buildings totaling 1.5 million square feet. The lease that is being negotiated would give the city control of about 80,000 square feet, Grant said.
The plan is to use that space, much of which was used by the Navy for equipment storage, to keep vital city records and equipment safe from storms.
“It’s high ground, one of the highest points in town,” Grant said. “And it’s built above that, all concrete and steel. It’s a fortress.”
The site, already used as a distribution hub during disasters, could also be used to stage first responders in the event of a disaster.
Grant said the rest of the site could be used as office space for organizations and businesses working on various programs aimed at improving the city’s ability to cope with stormwater and disasters.
Those initiatives include the ambitious Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, a $141 million federal grant to improve drainage in Gentilly and smaller-scale projects targeted at individuals.
After the lease is signed, Grant said, it will probably take about 18 to 20 months for developers to do their due diligence and then years for the full project to be built out.
The city has eyed the site since the Nagin administration, initially planning to turn the former base into an emergency operations center.
The base was originally built in 1919 and became a point of embarkation for soldiers during World War II. It was shut down in 2011 and given to the city at no cost two years later.
Given the scale of the development being proposed, Grant said the city opted to lease the base to a developer rather than have the city handle the project. “There’s no way that any government is going to be able to do that alone,” he said.
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