Two development teams presented their visions for a proposed “entertainment district” on riverfront land owned by the Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Convention Center. The Convention Center’s governing board plans to choose one of the developers at a meeting on Wednesday.
The proposals are ambitious. Each plans to create an entirely new New Orleans neighborhood on the currently vacant land, including housing, office space, retail, a new civil rights museum, entertainment space, hotels and more.
At minimum, the Convention Center will spend $26 million in public money to prepare the site for development. In addition, both developers mentioned the prospect of future public subsidies for what they plan to build on the land, including low income housing tax credits and payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, agreements.
The proposals presented to the board on Monday were originally submitted in 2019, prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Both development teams said that although the coronavirus may change certain details of their plans, they were still confident the overall model would work in the long term. Convention Center officials also stressed that the exact details of the proposals weren’t as important as picking a development team they could work with and plan with and that had the right overall vision.
Even after the Convention Center selects a development team, there is a long way to go before the project comes to fruition. There will likely be at least a year-long process of regulatory hoops that will require approval from the City Council and City Planning Commission, one of the developers said. A member of the other development team said that this project could be built over more than a decade.
“We’ve been through a lot in the last year, and a lot of people are questioning if our plan is too aggressive to transform this entire district. And we think not,” Convention Center President Michael Sawaya said. “We think this is a chance to really transform New Orleans as a destination in a big way.”
The two proposals can be found in full on the convention center’s website.
‘We’re convention center operators. That’s what we do’
The entertainment district project is part of a trio of interconnected major capital projects — also including a a $558 million capital improvement plan and a $675 million hotel — that the Convention Center had been planning for years prior to the coronavirus crisis: to surround the hotel. The capital improvement plan is the furthest underway. The Convention Center had already spent $92 million by the end of last year.
The land where the hotel and entertainment district are being planned — 47 acres total — was purchased by the Convention Center in 2000 for a planned upriver expansion of the existing convention center building. But those plans fell apart after Hurricane Katrina. Instead of simply selling or leasing the land, the convention center has for years been attempting to create a major development project that could drive up demand for the convention center.
“We’re convention center operators. That’s what we do,” Sawaya said. “We own land that didn’t get to be a new convention center. That doesn’t mean this isn’t an opportunity to really move things in a different direction.”
Through a request for proposals process, three development groups submitted proposals in late 2019. The three groups were supposed to present their proposals to the board and public in March, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed that plan. One out of the three developers that submitted proposals in 2019 — the Domain Companies — has since dropped out.
Soon after the pandemic began, there was pressure from the public and the City Council for the Convention Center to put the hotel and entertainment district plans on hold until the pandemic had lifted. A grassroots group formed, called the Coalition to Create a Fair Fund for Hospitality Workers, that wanted the convention center to release $100 million from its reserves to provide coronavirus relief to out of work hospitality workers. The Convention Center ultimately ended up donating $1 million to hospitality worker support funds.
The Convention Center board agreed in April to put its entertainment district presentations and decisions on hold until the city saw a “return to some normalcy.” Then-board Chair Melvin Rodrigue and other Convention Center officials said that they wanted to wait until they could hold in-person public meetings again.
“The main reason for postponement was because we wanted to make sure we lived up to our end of the bargain on the public meetings component,” Rodrigue said at a board meeting in late March. (Rodrigue still sits on the board, but he is no longer the board chair.)
On Monday, the board accepted emailed public comments, but they weren’t read out loud. A Convention Center official read the names of those who submitted comments and said they would be sent to all the board members.
The first presentation on Monday came from the River District Neighborhood Investors consortium, a partnership between several companies including New Orleans-based Lauricella Land Company, Dallas-based Cypress Equities and New Orleans-based JCH Development.
The second development team is made up of companies involved in the development of the new Four Seasons hotel in the former World Trade Center building at the foot of Canal Street: New Orleans-based Woodward Design+Build, Massachusetts-based Carpenter and Co., and New Orleans equity investor Alan Leventhal. The neighborhood would be called “Muse Landing District.”
Both proposals contain many of the same elements. But each group emphasized different aspects of their plans. The River District presentation stressed the primary importance of creating an equitable and sustainable residential neighborhood to form the foundation of the new neighborhood.
“We felt that a focus primarily on the entertainment segment could compromise the project’s long term financial soundness,” said Louis Lauricella of Lauricella Land Company. “This neighborhood needs to be more than just an entertainment district. Our team believes that we must first establish a strong residential foundation. Then, we will activate selected locations throughout the neighborhood with an appropriate mix of essential and nonessential retail, food and beverage, entertainment, hotel hospitality, office, medical, services and other uses.”
The River District team also announced that it was planning to buy the Market Street Power Plant, which sits near the development site, to incorporate into the district. And they said they were in talks with other property owners in the area, including the Port of New Orleans and Tulane University, to buy even more adjacent land.
Members of the Muse Landing group said they wanted to start with the entertainment pieces. The group plans to team up with ASM Global, which manages and operates the Smoothie King Center and the Superdome, to create a huge music venue and event space called “the 10th Muse Music Hall” that would “anchor” the new neighborhood, according to Monday’s presentation.
They also said that vacant land that won’t be developed for years could immediately be turned into festival grounds.
The two proposals were submitted over a year ago in 2019. The city has since endured a global pandemic. Both development teams said that while the pandemic would affect the certain design elements of the city — more housing units with space to work from home, for example — the overall, long term vision was still sound.
Also, the Convention Center’s master developer for the hotel project dropped out in October, throwing the entire project into doubt. The hotel and entertainment district were designed to work in concert with each other. Sawaya told The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate last week that a headquarters hotel “has to remain a vision for us.” But he said while the hotel project needed the entertainment district to be viable, “the developers for the entertainment district don’t rely on the hotel.”
Both development teams said on Monday that their plans would be viable with or without the Convention Center hotel.