In his mid-April rollout of a sweeping plan to redevelop the downtown riverfront, Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke excitedly of replacing the World Trade Center at the foot of Canal Street with a monumental tourist attraction — something, he said, on a par with the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
A bit of education might dissuade the mayor from collapsing into the arms of that old-time and now thoroughly discredited style of “urban renewal.”
In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, St. Louis demolished its economic heart to build its “iconic” arch as a monument to the nation’s westward expansion. The “Gateway to the West,” designed by starchitect Eero Saarinen, stands on the site along the Mississippi River where St. Louis was founded.
The goal was to revive the struggling waterfront and to create 5,000 jobs. The appeal of creating jobs for a tourist attraction blinded officials to the reality that tourism does not equate with a solidly based and diversified economy. But it was, after all, the Great Depression, and snake-oil salesmen could be persuasive. Opposition to the project as a “boondoggle” fell on deaf ears.
In the end, after 30-some years, many delays, inflated expenses, only 100 jobs, and interest on bonds paid with public funds, the 630-foot arch that had started under President Franklin Roosevelt opened under President Lyndon Johnson. Since then, streams of tourists come but the city struggles to make the 82-acre site functional as a park.
Like other cities, including New Orleans, St. Louis went on to demolish more of the residential and commercial heart of the city to build two stadiums and endless parking structures.
St. Louis has never recovered economically. It is only now attracting a new downtown population as it converts its remaining factory and warehouse buildings to residential use. Once again, as in every downtown across the country, restoration of historic structures is the true catalyst for revitalization — a formula for renewal that almost never fails.
So, St. Louis has its iconic arch but 50 years later struggles to rebound. The rebound that is happening is incremental, as rebounds usually are, and includes a new light-rail line.
Are there lessons here for New Orleans? You bet there are.
First, New Orleans does not need an iconic sculpture on the waterfront, even assuming it could land one as beautiful as Saarinen’s arch. The French Quarter and the larger city itself are all the iconic attraction the city needs. No other American city has what New Orleans already has, having evolved organically, the only way authentic cities grow.
Every attempt by an American city to “remake” itself has failed, leading to repeated efforts to redesign the redesigned city. Crucially, New Orleans broke from this disastrous pattern with the defeat of the riverfront expressway, the scheme by New York City transportation czar Robert Moses that would have wiped out the French Quarter. It will struggle enough in the years to come to repair the damage from closing Charity Hospital and demolishing a revitalized Mid-City neighborhood to build a suburban-style hospital complex.
Demolishing a 33-story building of the scale and quality of the World Trade Center, a 1968 tower designed by Edward Durell Stone, makes no sense when developers stand ready to renew it as a hotel, office and parking structure. The environmental reasons not to demolish the tower could fill a book. Just look at what restoration and environmental reworking have done for New York City’s Empire State Building, built in 1933, Chicago’s Sears Tower (1974) and San Francisco’s Transamerica Tower (1972). Our World Trade Center stands tall among them and saving it would enhance New Orleans’ growing reputation for citizen-based rebuilding in an environmentally advanced manner.
A final point: The Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Superdome and the Tourism and Marketing Corporation have no business being developers. This is always the problem in creating legally independent organizations or authorities that, once authorized, function outside the normal scope of democratic review. If, as it seems, these entities have an excess of earned income burning a hole in their pockets, they should help the city pay for other urgent needs — such as either or both of the two federal consent decrees, one with police, one with the city jail, that the Landrieu administration keeps saying it can’t afford.
The indifference of independent authorities to public needs again brings Robert Moses to mind. Moses ran the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, his power base for decades, and as it accumulated huge bundles of money, instead of letting any of it support public transit, he would build another road or another bridge, gutting urban neighborhoods and rural landscapes alike. With all the off-budget, independent, quasi-governing bodies in New Orleans, is it any wonder the city must turn to huge fee hikes to support basic services like sewerage and water?
But while advocates of big projects focus on outsized, misguided visions, New Orleans is rebounding incrementally through innovative efforts all over town, proving once again that small and modest projects always exceed expectations while the big ones never fulfill theirs.
Roberta Brandes Gratz is an award-winning journalist, urban critic and author of three books about urban development. She is writing a book about the recovery of New Orleans after Katrina.