The Hard Rock Hotel collapse site seen behind the Saenger Theater on Oct. 19, 2019 as the city prepares for a planned implosion of the unsteady cranes.

The City of New Orleans may help 1031 Canal Street Development LLC, the developers of the ill-fated Hard Rock Hotel, make lemonade out of lemons after the disastrous October 2019 collapse of their unfinished building. The city’s insistence on implosion, which jeopardizes three adjacent buildings, could allow the developers to profit tremendously from the fatal collapse of their hotel.

Three workers were killed and dozens more were injured due to the collapse at the building site, which was plagued by shoddy construction and a questionable inspection process by Safety and Permits officials. Two victims have yet to be recovered while demolition plans continue to languish. We stand with the families and call for the victims to be returned to their loved ones.

The demolition strategies began with an implosion, then shifted to a piece-by-piece deconstruction. The plan circled back to full implosion, with the city citing safety and timeline concerns.

Now, nearly six months after this unprecedented catastrophe, the city and the developer are at loggerheads about which demolition method to use. The developer wants to deconstruct the building piece by piece. But the city wants to move forward with demolition by implosion. Many in the community are questioning the wisdom of a full implosion and how such a radical operation would impact the city.

Photo provided by Amy Stelly/VCPORA

During the crane implosion, windows were blown out and walls cracked in nearby structures. How can the public trust that another implosion will not damage even more buildings and infrastructure? The fallen cranes didn’t even land where predicted. They fell in the opposite direction, one of them impaling Rampart Street. The citizens of New Orleans need to know how the city will ensure that more buildings aren’t damaged by flying debris and the powerful pressures of an explosive blast. We also want to know if the demolition of the adjacent buildings is still on the table, under the piece-by-piece plan.

There have been repeated calls for an independent analysis to verify the claim that three structures near the site must be demolished in order to bring 1031 Canal down. Sadly, those calls have fallen on deaf ears. It’s logical to ask how the implosion of the ruin would be accomplished if the adjacent buildings weren’t controlled by the developer. Would the city resort to eminent domain to take the properties from others in support of the implosion plan? Or would they be forced to agree to conventional demolition that saves the adjacent buildings, reduces the probability of collateral damage and spares the city from legal challenges?

It should come as no surprise that 1031 Canal Street Development LLC owns the three buildings that are sitting on the chopping block. Among them are the historic W.T & Grant Department Store at 1015-19 Canal and the circa 1908 Alamo Theater, which also served as a piano and organ retailer. That building is located at 1027 Canal. The more contemporary structure at 1022 Iberville, a former post office, is also slated to go. Those buildings contribute to our unique urban fabric, and their demolition would further obliterate our history.

Analysis and visualization provided by VCPORA. Click to expand

Based on data from the Orleans Parish Assessor, almost 22,000 square feet of ground space could be added to the overall development plan if the three adjacent buildings are removed. That would result in nearly a 54 percent increase in the footprint of the site and two-thirds of the block demolished and left as cleared land. Magnify that land area by the number of buildable floors, and the boon to 1031 Canal Street Development LLC is staggering.

The land development regulations for this district do not require setbacks from the property lines. So, if the developer were allowed to implode the adjacent buildings, 1031 Canal, LLC, would be allowed to completely cover the newly cleared, three-parcel site with a huge building that could be added to whatever is rebuilt at Rampart and Canal.

Analysis and visualization provided by VCPORA. Click to expand

It’s important to note that the damage and destruction of the ill-fated hotel negates the development rights awarded by the project’s 2011 conditional use permit. That permit allowed the developers to build a building that’s bigger than the law allows. Consequently, the failed building meets the definition of a nonconforming structure according to the zoning code.

Article 25.4.A of the CZO defines nonconforming structures as:

Structures that at one time conformed to applicable zoning regulations, but because of subsequent amendments to this Ordinance no longer conform to applicable yard, height, lot coverage, or other dimensional or bulk provisions of this Ordinance, are considered nonconforming structures.

Clearly, the collapse resulted in the destruction of the 18-story hotel. And the code speaks clearly to the damage and destruction of nonconforming structures.

Article 25.4.F1 of the CZO says:

In the event that any nonconforming structure is damaged or destroyed to the extent of fifty percent (50%) or more of its replacement value at that time, then the structure may not be restored or rebuilt unless the structure, including foundation, is made to conform to all regulations of the zoning district in which it is located.

Therefore, 1031 Canal Street Development LLC will not be able to rebuild according to their original 2011 plan.

So, it’s easy to conclude that the development team would benefit financially from the demolition of the three adjacent parcels and the unification of all four building sites. Can the city promise they will not allow these three parcels to simply add to the development portfolio of a poorly managed, disastrous project? We need assurances that this is not a land grab, especially since the developers asked to demolish the three adjacent buildings once before.

Given the historic character and cultural significance of Canal Street, it seems logical, even essential, to consider alternatives which would preserve the three structures. Under the implosion plan, nearly a block would be turned into dust.

Mayor Cantrell balked at the idea of a public hearing, saying this is not a legislative issue. But the future of the site is legislative – one that requires City Council oversight. The Council has the ability and the power to make sure the developers do not benefit from this disaster. The Administration and City Council need to honor the CZO and the Master Plan and draw hard lines when 1031 Canal Street Development LLC comes back with redevelopment plans.

It’s reasonable to ask the City to ensure the continued economic viability for the businesses along Canal and Rampart Streets during this long recovery process. Foot traffic has been impeded and travel times have increased for transit, commercial and personal vehicles due to the closure of the street grid. Thousands of lives have been impacted by this disaster in the heart of our city.

Businesses, jobs and the well-being of New Orleanians are threatened, and we need to know how this nightmare is going to be fixed. The City has a duty to honor the dignity of the victims and protect the public. It also has a duty to protect our historic urban fabric and ensure future developments don’t result in this kind of tragedy.

We want to work with the city to find solutions, and we need to know what steps the City will take to make sure this will not happen again. In the words of architect Christopher Alexander, “Every increment of construction should heal and enhance the city.”

Board of Directors
Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents and Associates


From the authors’ site: “The Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents and Associates, or VCPORA, is a pioneer organization in the historic preservation movement, having been organized in the 1920s and incorporated on June 8, 1938. Dedicated in its charter to the ‘preservation, restoration, beautification and general betterment of the Vieux Carré,’ it has been continuously active in these pursuits for over 80 years.”

The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Engagement Editor Tom Wright at twright@thelensnola.org.