Land Use

Monumental mistake: Demolishing World Trade Center to build a tourist attraction

The Gateway Arch dominates the St.Louis riverfront.


The Gateway Arch dominates the St.Louis riverfront.

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.

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  • britbone

    This article covers so many of the very real issues with the Mayor’s ill informed proposal in under 900 words. It should be manditory reading for all involved with this fiasco

  • leo Seymour

    The Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Superdome and the Tourism and Marketing Corporation have no business being developers. AMEN! WELL PUT!

  • The NOLA tourism and convention movers and shakers are CLUELESS and have NOTHING to show for themselves or efforts in the far more important part of ATTRACTING and KEEPING business with good jobs in New Orleans.

    1. When NOLA has a convention, the types that exhibit and attend the conventions are the owners, sales, marketing and leaders of their business and industry. The vast majority of them are professionals and have a college degrees. Yet, when they see Bourbon Street it makes all of New Orleans look SLEAZY and DIRTY as a place to live and work or establish a business.

    You have COAT and TIE convention attendees visiting the MAIN centerpiece of New Orleans, Bourbon St and leave with a sleazy impression of the city that doesn’t understand what it takes to run and make a business survive……i.e. alcohol and bars that you see lining all Bourbon St. make NOLA look like a row of fraternity houses and just plain anti-family and short sighted college freshmen thinking.

    2. Charging exhibitors, especially those with smaller booths over a THOUSAND DOLLARS (actually $1,500 for 3 days) for a scanning and printer device to read convention badges is PURE GREED, even if other city convention places do it.

    3. Charging exhibitors $200 for 3 days of internet access at a booth, especially a small booth that has only a single table, is also VERY GREEDY and turns off a lot of potential small businesses owners or small startups that want to exhibit at a convention located in New Orleans.

    To charge small exhibitors or one mane or small startups $1,500 for 3 days to use a scanning device for badges is more than the hotel costs, and most likely, more than the airplane ticket costs for single person.

    To charge small exhibitors with a single display table like $200 for 3 days of internet access also shows the CLUELESS BUSINESS SENSE of NOLA convention leaders.

    On one hand, Louisiana gives out 25 to 30 percent tax credits to movie, digital media and software just to get them to relocated to Louisiana but charges outrage fees just to rent a convention badge scanner and printer or get internet access inside the convention center. Heck, parking should be given a break for exhibitors when Louisiana can give out tax credits to the movie, digital media and software companies wiling to locate to NOLA. The amounts for parking, internet access and the scanning devices should be far far more reasonable, or even free, and would be miniscule compared to the tax credits given for the movie, digital media and software industry. Reminds me of all the shady and unfair parking signs, tickets and fees in the city. Just goes to show you how clueless (as well as ARROGANT) Louisiana and New Orleans is as a whole to attracting new business or to how business works.

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    2 afraid 2 follow me on Twitter? U can still bookmark me on Twitter at @AhContraire

  • The NOLA Tourism and Convention Offices and HeadQuarters should be relocated to Bourbon Street (or Glorified “Ghetto Liquor Store” Gas Station) so they can get a FEEL of how tourists and convention visitors see New Orleans.

    Perhaps there is a miscommunication on marketing New Orleans,

    Proud to call NOLA Home Type -> Tourist/Visitor

    Big Easy -> Big Sleazy
    Bourbon Street -> Barf Street
    French Market -> French Trinket
    French Quarter -> French Gutter (doesn’t it smell and look like a gutter?)

    It is, what it is.

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    2 afraid 2 follow me on Twitter? U can still bookmark me on Twitter at @AhContraire

  • Fwilliam Adams

    The Arch is a monument from a different era. It works fine now and is iconic but the writer is correct, St. Louis struggled for quite a while to build an identity for that project and it is a Federal National Monument with a nice museum attached. I doubt the Feds will pump more money our way. Go look at the MRGO dam, that is a monument to the Federal Man. New Orleans needs no icon. WE are the icon, the city and its people and its food and fun. Keep the WTC, fix it up real nice. Just fixing it up to be attractive and useful by all will be a monument to our unlikely ability to ever get anything done with it.

  • montcalm

    For the record, it’s not the World Trade Center. It’s #2 Canal Street. The name World Trade Center of New Orleans belongs to the organization, not the building and the organization relocated 2 years ago A larger issue here is the governor’s veto of the bill that also kills any chance of developing Convention Center Blvd and the undeveloped property upriver into a first class tourist, dining and shopping destination. The MCCNO has a great plan to do just that without any new or rededicated taxes that wont see the light of day with this short sighted veto. Other posters have great points regarding #2 Canal Street. Too bad a really well thought out plan for real economic development got gunned down in the process

  • Gilbert Estrada

    The writer makes many excellent points and clearly states the situation; however, to me this is still a damned, ugly building. With the aforementioned being the case, my opinion on the appearance of this structure means little. I would support the idea of saving this building if we had a shortage of condos and apartments in the CBD. But that is not the case. There is a glut of them in downtown New Orleans. I would rather see the vacant buildings on Canal Street upgraded and used for housing and shopping, but from what I’ve seen the will is not there, the demand isn’t there, and turning the old Trademart Building into condos makes very little sense. This would add a glut to the existing glut.

    I wouldn’t look to St. Louis for a solution but to cities such as London, Paris and Barcelona (among others) for creative solutions to this neglected structure.