New Orleans Municipal Auditorium (Charles Maldonado/The Lens)

On Tuesday, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and members of her administration met with a coalition of community organizers called Save Our Soul, which formed to oppose her plan to relocate City Hall to the Municipal Auditorium in Armstrong Park. In tense exchanges that escalated at times to shouting, Cantrell presented the organizers with a seemingly infeasible option for pre-empting the move and signaled that, despite a groundswell of public opposition catalyzed by SOS, she’s still fighting for it.

Cantrell told the organizers repeatedly that if they wanted to see the auditorium serve as something other than City Hall they should put together a proposal themselves and bring it back to her administration in October.

“If City Hall is off the table, it’s off the table,” she said. “Then you have 90 days to identify another use” for the building. “You’ll find the money; you’ll be able to figure out how it’ll be operational; you’ll figure out how to maintain it.”

Asked if the administration would partner with the group to create that plan, Cantrell refused to offer any city resources. 

“That can come from you all,” she said, “It’s yours.” Near the end of the two-hour meeting, though, the mayor revealed that she saw this ostensible alternate route as a dead end, telling Jackie Harris of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, “It’s going to take longer than 90 days to come up with a plan and the resources associated with it.” 

Cantrell said the 90-day timeline is necessary because of deadlines imposed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has offered the City $38 million to repair the auditorium. Those funds have to be spent by August 29, 2023 — 18 years after it was damaged in flooding following Hurricane Katrina — and the City is running behind schedule. 

Today (July 21, 2021), according to FEMA, what the agency calls the “Period of Performance” for the auditorium will expire because the city has not produced the requisite “plans and specifications” for the renovation to keep it active. Though the expiration likely does not mean that FEMA will rescind the $38 million, it underscores the urgent need to move the project forward.

According to Cantrell, the city was recently granted a 90-day hold by FEMA to pause the clock. When it ends, she said, the City will have to present a plan to FEMA to initiate work on the site. 

She did not acknowledge two recent unanimous votes by the New Orleans City Council designed to prevent that from happening. One is a zoning ordinance that, for the next year, bars the administration from developing a government building in Armstrong Park. The other starts a process that could change the city’s Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance to mandate that the City Council has to approve any relocation of City Hall. 

Despite the council’s actions, the administration’s default proposal for the Municipal Auditorium remains the same: converting it to a City Hall. The proposal lives in documents the City drafted to solicit bids for two aspects of the work: a request for proposals (RFP) for a project manager, and a request for qualifications (RFQ) for architecture and engineering firms to draw up the designs for the new facility — the “plans and specifications” FEMA needs to advance the project.

According to city Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Infrastructure Ramsey Green, while the RFP and RFQ outline the conversion of the auditorium to a City Hall, their main purpose “was to allow us to spend the FEMA money to stabilize and protect the building,” which for years has remained open to the elements.

The SOS organizers asked Cantrell on Tuesday if she could withdraw or amend the RFP and RFQ. She replied that making any changes to the documents without identifying an alternate use for the facility and the resources to operate it would result in FEMA deobligating the $38 million. 

“And if that money goes, stabilization [of the building] doesn’t happen,” she said.

Cantrell said that the FEMA requirements stem from a panel’s ruling in a 2018 arbitration between the federal agency and the city. The mayor has long said that pivoting from her City Hall plan to an open-ended process for determining the auditorium’s future use would put the FEMA funding at risk, but Tuesday marked the first time she offered an explanation for why that would be so, despite months of public challenges on the matter. The Lens asked the Mayor’s Office on Tuesday to point to the relevant section of the 2018 ruling, but officials did not provide answers. 

The stipulations Cantrell described in the arbitration ruling are agreeable to the mayor and her team, who rejected City Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer’s call to start “white box” construction on the auditorium now to restore its basic functionality and let a robust system of community engagement play out before pinning down its ultimate use. 

On Tuesday, Green went on to say that the City doesn’t want to spend millions “on a building with no funded destination for what it’s going to be, because we’re going to have to trust [another administration] in five years to operate it, maintain it, and protect it.” Cantrell  said that repairing the damaged building but not returning it to use “opens itself for not only vandalization, but waste.”

Cantrell explained that City Hall was the use she put forward in the RFP and RFQ because the current seat of government at 1300 Perdido St. is in such poor condition. 

“My priority is getting city employees working in a healthy environment,” she said. She also noted it was a practical choice for fulfilling FEMA’s requirements because the City could afford it. “It’s based on what we knew we could get done, operate, and maintain,” she explained.

However, the project budget for the new City Hall currently on the city’s website, taken from the administration’s last public presentation of the project, indicates that the City is tens of millions of dollars shy of meeting the $100 to $150 million cost of its proposed buildout, even with the $38 million from FEMA. Presenting the figures in a January webinar, Director of Capital Projects Vincent Smith conceded, “We don’t have all the answers” to fund the development, he said. On Tuesday the city did not indicate that it has since secured any additional funding.

Asked about reviving the auditorium as a museum or returning it to its pre-Katrina use, Cantrell said the city couldn’t come up with the money to complete those projects, and would therefore be rebuffed by FEMA if it proposed them.

Even as Cantrell touted the benefits of the City Hall plan and recognized no viable alternatives, she characterized it as provisional, “a potential use.” But the administration’s approach to construction allows little room for abandoning the City Hall proposal in favor of another use.  

That isn’t acceptable to SOS members like Dow Edwards. Because the facility sits on Congo Square, a historic gathering place for enslaved people foundational to New Orleans’ Black cultural traditions, any architect’s drawings for an office building on the site is a desecration, Edwards said. 

Edwards said the time crunch dictating so much of the project is the result of the city spending so long working toward a single goal before considering public opinion. 

“Couldn’t we say that by the City putting all its eggs in the basket with this RFQ for the City Hall to move forward, to present that to FEMA as the option, isn’t that the reason we’re going to have problems with the deadlines?” he said.

While Cantrell didn’t say the second phase of construction would necessarily produce a new City Hall, the administration made clear that they have made preparations for no other outcome. The RFQ reflects years of resources devoted to the mayor’s plan, with conceptual drawings and a site analysis of a new City Hall in the auditorium. 

Asked about the city’s intentions after the Tuesday meeting, Smith said “The City’s plan is to move forward with the City Hall.” Asked about Cantrell’s statement that the organizers could put forward an alternate proposal, he said the situation was “fluid” and he couldn’t project an outcome.

With nerves fraying at the end of Tuesday’s gathering, artist Jean Marcel St. Jacques tried to elicit one clear takeaway from the meeting, asking the mayor pointedly, “Are you taking the RFP and the RFQ off the table?” 

“I don’t know sir,” Cantrell replied. “That’s up to you all.”