Officials of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center want to take the giant riverfront facility in a potentially controversial new direction by allowing construction of a private hotel, retail stores and restaurants on public land adjacent to the center and using Convention Center bonds to help finance the massive redevelopment.

The plan, which officials have kept quiet until now, is part of the proposed “Phase V” expansion of the state-owned Convention Center and would require authorization by the state Legislature. It also calls for redesigning Convention Center Boulevard to make it more attractive.

The Phase V cost: $184 million, with half of the money coming from the state’s construction budget and the other half from bonds issued by the Convention Center. Under current law, bonds backed by convention center revenue may not be used to finance private development.

A bill to expand the convention center includes authorization to demolish the New Orleans World Trade Center and prepare the site for a "riverfront festival park." The city has already sought proposals for redevelopment of the site, outlined in red here.
A bill to expand the Convention Center would fund demolition of the New Orleans World Trade Center and preparation of the site as a “riverfront festival park.” The city has already sought proposals for redevelopment of the site, outlined in red here.

“We want the Convention Center to have a revenue stream or to use bonds to develop that area,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in an interview.

As an adjunct to Phase V, Landrieu also wants to redevelop or redesign Spanish Plaza and the ferry landing and include long-simmering plans to redevelop the city-owned World Trade Center site.

Three companies filed bids Wednesday for the right to redevelop or demolish the abandoned World Trade Center building, a 33-story tower with an adjacent parking lot for 30 vehicles.

Phase V would be a central component of the overall plan to “turbocharge” the riverfront and make it a more popular destination for locals and tourists, Landrieu said.

The mayor said one possibility would be to create a monumental attraction on the World Trade Center site, on par with the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

“We need to do something creative for the most important piece of property in the city and the most underutilized,” Landrieu said, referring to the shuttered trade center and its riverfront site. “What we have doesn’t work now. We’re looking for exciting things.”

While Landrieu spoke expansively about his riverfront plans, Convention Center officials were tight-lipped. Refusing to answer questions about the planned expansion, they released only a short statement.

Edward Markle, a member of the Convention Center’s board, provided a few details.

“To keep the Convention Center going in the right direction, we need to plan ahead,” Markle said. “Mixed-use retail is important. So are restaurants, shops, condos and apartment complexes. We need to expand to include the private sector.”

Several prominent land owners in the Warehouse District, which abuts the Convention Center, told The Lens they know nothing about Phase V. Nor does Bryan Wagner, who stepped down from the center’s board a year ago.

“Good ideas seem bad when they’re not discussed openly,” said Wagner, who otherwise had nothing but good things to say about the Convention Center.

Legislation required to expand Convention Center

The measure that would authorize the massive expansion is House Bill 516, sponsored by state Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans. His district includes the land upriver from the Convention Center where the expansion would occur.

“Over the past several years, the Convention Center has generated hundreds of millions of dollars for the city,” Leger said in an interview. “We compete with other cities for conventions. It’s important that we stay on the cutting edge. We need to start the real work of putting shovels in the ground.”

Leger said he introduced the measure at the request of Convention Center officials. He was unable to identify where officials would get the $92 million to pay for the state’s share of the planned expansion. His bill would remove the prohibition on using Convention Center bonds to pay for private developments. It also would end the prohibition on building hotels on Convention Center property and using tax-free bonds to benefit private entities.

Subject to the Legislature’s approval, the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal wants to take $100 million from the Convention Center’s coffers for next year’s state budget. That money was originally set aside for a planned Phase IV expansion that never happened. Leger did not know whether that $100 million might pay for Phase V.

Leger’s bill has been referred to the House Ways and Means Committee but does not yet having a hearing date.

New hotel, conference center would be authorized

An official statement from the New Orleans Exhibition Hall Authority said only: “Over the last 18 months, the Authority has been developing a range of options and HB 516 and other related legislation is intended to enable the Authority to act if and when the conditions are suitable to proceed.”

Phase IV was supposed to extend the Convention Center upriver but failed to advance as the number of conventions for New Orleans declined following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Unlike Phase IV, Phase V does not call for expanding the exhibition hall. Instead, it calls for a new kitchen and restaurant facility at the upriver side of the Convention Center attached to a privately developed hotel, which could include an executive conference center.  In the 50-acre swath of underdeveloped acreage between Mardi Gras World and Tchoupitoulas Street, developers would be given the chance to build apartments, condos, retail stores and restaurants.

Phase V also calls for upgrading Convention Center Boulevard from Poydras Street to Orange Street and creating some sort of public streetcar to move people to and from the area.

State Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, said she got a briefing on Phase V a couple of months ago, before the current legislative session began. Moreno’s district includes the part of the Convention Center that is downriver from the Crescent City Connection river crossing.

She described the plan as “a whole revamp of the corridor running from the [abandoned Market Street] power plant to the World Trade Center. The center part of Convention Center Boulevard would have a walking area. It would be fantastic for that part of the city.”

Moreno added that she doesn’t have enough information yet to say whether she will support Leger’s bill.

It’s not clear how the proposed development would affect the Hilton Hotel, which is just downriver from the Convention Center. Scott Ward, the Hilton’s resident manager, did not return a phone call Thursday afternoon. The Hilton owns the surface parking lot between the hotel and the Convention Center.

J. Stephen Perry, who is president and chief executive officer of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, did not return two calls.

Spanish Plaza, ferry terminal eyed for redevelopment

Landrieu said the city might seek to redevelop Spanish Plaza for a public park. The city leases it to the Howard Hughes Corp., which is planning to recharge the struggling Riverwalk shopping arcade.

The mayor said he expected that the ferry would remain at its current site but said “we need to make the river contiguous from the Moonwalk to the [Crescent City Connection] bridge.” The ferry landing now juts into the river.

In the meantime, the New Orleans Building Corp., a city entity, will decide which of the three bidders has the right to rebuild or demolish the World Trade Center. Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni said the three bidders were Gatehouse Capital, Tricentennial Consortium and McDonnel Construction Services. He said city officials would allow media to view the proposals next week.

Stacy Head, a city council member-at-large, is one of the seven building corporation board members. She said the request for proposals deliberately set no parameters on what bidders could offer.

“It could be one of a million different things,” she said.

Christopher Kane, an attorney at Adams & Reese who also sits on the board, said he joined it because “I was sick and tired of this site basically having an obsolete building. It’s important that we get it back into commerce.”

Leger’s bill would allow the Convention Center to play a role in demolishing the World Trade Center building and preparing the land for a park there.

Tyler Bridges

Tyler Bridges covers Louisiana politics and public policy for The Lens. He returned to New Orleans in 2012 after spending the previous year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, where he studied digital journalism....