Irene Wimberly, mother to one of the three workers killed in the Hard Rock Hotel collapse, speaks at a June 2021 press conference. The twin sister of another killed worker, Angela Magrette, holds Wimberly's arm. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The New Orleans City Council on Thursday revoked special zoning exemptions for the site of the never-finished Hard Rock Hotel, which collapsed in October 2019 while still under construction, killing three workers and injuring 18 others. 

The lead developer of the project, Mohan Kailas, opposed that decision in a public comment, saying that it would do “irreparable harm” to the developers’ relationship with the Hard Rock Hotel. He said that the development team wanted to try again and reconstruct the building. Thursday’s unanimous vote by the City Council will almost certainly prevent that plan.

But Kailas may have more to worry about than the future of his development. After Thursday’s council meeting, Councilwoman Kristin Palmer called on the Orleans Parish District Attorney to file criminal charges against developers and contractors “responsible for the killing of three workers.”

“New Orleans workers died because these men cut corners to make money,” said a press release from Palmer issued Thursday. “We have to be serious about stopping all types of violent crime, and that includes crimes committed by wealthy developers.”

Palmer held a press conference on Thursday with the families of the three men killed in the collapse — Jose Ponce Arreola, Quinnyon Wimberly and Anthony Magrette.

The mother of Quinnyon Wimberly spoke about the trauma of losing her son, whose body couldn’t be recovered until 10 months after the collapse and was partially visible from the street until the city covered it with a tarp. 

“I just went through a second Mother’s Day without him,” Irene Wimberly said. “They should have went in and came out alive. Instead, he was in there almost 10 months. And that was horrifying for me, to know my son was in that building with his legs hanging out.”

Palmer pointed to two cases in Boston and Philadelphia where contractors were given prison sentences after people were killed in construction failures.

Palmer said she didn’t want to speculate over who, exactly, should be charged in the Hard Rock case. She said that was up to the District Attorney to decide. She also called on the New Orleans Office of Inspector General, which has been investigating the collapse, to release its findings to District Attorney Jason Williams.

“Councilmember Palmer is well aware that to date there have been no arrests by the NOPD nor has the OIG completed and published an investigative report,” Williams said in a written statement. “Since being elected as District Attorney, I have personally spoken with the Inspector General and his staff on three separate occasions to request their report and am awaiting the findings of their complete investigation to ensure that accountability and justice is served for the people impacted by the Hard Rock tragedy.”

In Palmer’s Thursday press release, she said “there is no reason that the OIG report shouldn’t be finished by now,” and said it was “just not acceptable” that the report isn’t public yet.

“This is still ongoing,” Interim Inspector General Edward Michel told The Lens on Thursday. “The Office of Inspector General does not comment on ongoing investigation. We have had conversations and will continue to have conversations with the District Attorney’s Office.”

Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office declined to comment.

‘Special treatment’

The City Council’s direct involvement with the Hard Rock development began a decade ago in 2011. The council approved a conditional use ordinance — authored by Palmer during her 2010 to 2014 stint on the council — that exempted the development site from certain zoning restrictions. 

“When these developers came to the City Council in 2011, they asked for special treatment,” Palmer said at Thursday’s press conference.

Most importantly, the ordinance allowed the developers to construct a building up to 190-feet tall, even though zoning laws for that area only allowed for a maximum of 70 feet. That entire ordinance, and the zoning exemptions within, are now revoked. If the developers want to build above the height cap, they would now need to come back to the City Council for permission. 

Palmer also noted that the project as originally proposed was much different than it turned out to be when construction began.

“What happened in subsequent years is they changed their model, they changed what the development was,” she said.

The developers originally pitched a mixed-use development with residential units, parking and retail on the first floor. In 2015, however, the city updated its zoning laws to allow hotels in that area of the city. After that, the plan changed, and in 2018 the developers announced that it had secured the Hard Rock Hotel as a tenant. 

One of the four public comments submitted on Thursday’s ordinance was from Mohan Kailas, the lead developer of the Hard Rock development team, called 1031 Canal Development LLC. In his virtually submitted comment, he urged the council to defer the ordinance, saying the developers wanted to rebuild the same project and indicating they still had a working deal with Hard Rock Hotel to move in as a tenant.

“We want to rebuild as expeditiously and safely as possible,” Kailas’ comment said. “Our goal is to build in the same confines of our original ordinance, with a new contractor and a world-renowned engineering team.”

Kailas said revoking the height cap exemption “will irreparably harm the Hard Rock deal” and could “end the deal outright.”

“It benefits no one to put this site in an indefinite limbo, killing a project with an international brand which would annually generate millions of dollars of tax revenue for the city and create hundreds of jobs,” Kailas’ comment said.

Kailas didn’t reference the collapse. At the press conference, Palmer called the comment “absurd.”

Another public comment opposing the council’s action came from Jack Capella, who said he represented a group of developers interested in taking over the project. Capella is the president of Georges Enterprises, owned by businessman John Georges. Capella clarified in an interview that Georges Enterprises wasn’t involved, although he wouldn’t say who he was representing.

“I’m under a non-disclosure agreement, but I will tell you it was a major hotel developer type of situation,” Capella said. “I’m just disappointed that an opportunity to really make an economic impact down there was missed.”

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...