First came news that the city had dumped the team picked to redevelop the World Trade Center building and would try again to find someone to renovate the vacant riverfront structure. Then came word that construction of a new airport terminal would be delayed a little longer to accommodate a second solicitation for a contractor. Finally, the administration put on ice its plan to relocate City Hall to the former Charity Hospital building.
The recent string of setbacks to Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s ambitious list of things to do by the city’s 300th anniversary has been playing havoc with the mayor’s advance datebook for 2018, which at one time seemed likely to be dominated by a series of grand opening celebrations.
There also was the NFL’s decision to hold the 2018 Super Bowl — Super Bowl LII, for those counting — in Minneapolis rather than New Orleans.
Landrieu insisted this week that his plan to ring in the city’s tricentennial with ribbon-cuttings for a slew of signature projects is not far off track. Still, he promised he won’t rush any projects to meet the self-imposed deadline.
“Most of our projects are on time, on task and on budget,” he said. “We’ve missed a couple of them, but not by a whole lot.”
For much of his time in office, Landrieu has used 2018 — the year his second and final term in office will end — as a target date for the completion of plans great and small. The message has been that when New Orleans turns three centuries old, it would be her residents who would receive a present: the city as they’ve imagined it could be and should be.
On the gift table and ready for unwrapping would be a gleaming new airport terminal, a modern “civic complex” where a blighted hospital now stands and a “turbocharged” riverfront complete with a renovated World Trade Center.
All three ideas have stumbled recently.
In late April, the city announced that it had rejected the “best and final” offer from developer Gatehouse Capital on the former World Trade Center building because, in the city’s view, the offer “significantly undervalued” the building. Gatehouse had been selected to turn the vacant 33-story building on one of the most valuable sites in New Orleans into a hotel and riverfront apartments. Some sort of redevelopment of the dilapidated office building is key to the administration’s effort to make the riverfront a more popular destination for both locals and visitors.
But talks broke down after six months because the parties could not agree on how much Gatehouse would pay the city to lease the building. The city plans to issue a new request for proposals.
Similarly, the New Orleans Aviation Board said this week it would reissue its request for proposals to build a half-billion-dollar new terminal at Louis Armstrong International Airport. The board tossed out the results from its first round of proposals after the two finalists raised questions about the fairness of the evaluation process.
The terminal’s grand opening had been scheduled for May 2018, the month Landrieu will leave office, but now it may be delayed.
“If you think about it from a broader perspective, what you’re not doing is sitting here criticizing me for awarding the biggest contract in the city’s history to somebody that gave me a contribution … behind closed doors,” Landrieu said. Instead, the issue in his view is that the board, out of an abundance of caution and commitment to transparency, is reissuing the request for proposals. “That’s actually not bad from that perspective,” he said.
Landrieu said he believes the airport still can make the 2018 opening date. But he said he won’t let the creeping deadline allow him to rush the projects.
If opening the airport in 2018 means paying $40 million more for the work, for instance, “I’d say, ‘No, it’ll get open when it opens,’ ” he said.
“It’s going to be done. In the next three years, four years, five years it’ll be finished,” Landrieu said. “I think I can get it finished by May (2018). But if I don’t, I’m not going to say, ‘My God, I failed because we didn’t hit the exact date.’ ”
The same is true for the World Trade Center, Landrieu said.
“If the market turns on us and it’s not a good time to do it, and I think I’m giving away a city asset for less than I’m supposed to, I’m not going to do that either,” he said.
“You can’t hit your marks all the time,” Landrieu said. “But I’m not discouraged at all about the airport or the World Trade Center.”
The renovation of the former Charity Hospital building is a different story. The mayor this week tabled his plan to move City Hall and Civil District Court into the blighted building by 2018 after the state failed to set aside any money for the proposal in its capital budget.
The city had only about $150 million of the estimated $350 million needed to renovate the building. It had hoped to make up the difference with money contributed by the state, New Market Tax Credits and money from tenants who would share the space. But the judges have refused to buy into the plan, and as it has languished, the pool of tax credits has shrunk to a level that makes the project no longer feasible, Landrieu said.
“My conclusion is I can’t do it now,” he said. “Hopefully, somebody will be able to do it over the next couple of years.”
At least two other projects that the administration has supported also came to a full stop in recent months. New Orleans failed in its bid to win the Super Bowl in 2018. The Audubon Institute also was unsuccessful in getting voters to agree to a small property tax hike to pay for improvements at its properties.
Still, the mayor said the city has been “miraculously successful” at meeting its goals.
“Those three projects are just symbols of a much, much larger piece,” Landrieu said. The administration is working its way through a list of $900 million in capital projects, including the recent renovation of the Saenger Theatre, he said.
“It is a wonderfully successful rebuild in terms of the amount of money that we spend, the structures that we’re rebuilding,” he said.