New Orleans Municipal Auditorium (Charles Maldonado/The Lens)

Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration is once again soliciting bids from architects and engineers to convert the Municipal Auditorium into a new City Hall. 

Widespread objections to the plan compelled the city to put that process on hold in July, but its city purchasing records show it has since extended the deadline for its request for qualifications (RFQ) for architectural and engineering firms. The plan outlined in the RFQ remains the same as it was prior to July: a new City Hall in Armstrong Park. 

The move suggests the administration is pursuing Cantrell’s vision for the facility even while the City Council considers amendments to city zoning laws designed to head off the start of construction. The Mayor’s Office declined comment for this story.

The administration has access to $38 million in post-Katrina reimbursement funds that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has made available for renovating the shuttered auditorium. But the FEMA funding expires on August 29, 2023, the 18th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures that damaged the building. Using that money in time will be crucial to any renovation effort, whether it’s for a new City Hall or another use. 

Save Our Soul (SOS), a coalition of some 35 cultural organizations, neighborhood associations, and advocates opposing the relocation of City Hall to the auditorium, has been working on an alternate proposal for months. At a meeting in July, the mayor gave them 90 days to present a fully-funded option, but the city extended the RFQ 72 days later and, according to SOS Co-Chair Ausettua Amor Amenkum, has not contacted them since they met. 

The latest extension of the RFQ deadline, to Jan. 25, 2022, would give the city just 19 months to select a design contractor, draft plans and specifications for the project, pass a gauntlet of federal oversight on everything from environmental impacts to historic preservation, select a building contractor, and complete the construction that is eligible to be paid for by FEMA. The agency has expressed concern about the tight timetable to the administration, according to public records, and wrote in an email to The Lens that it “highly encourages the City to move from the planning to the design phase as soon as possible” to meet the 2023 deadline.

Progressing to the design phase could be particularly grueling, though, because the administration appears intent on commissioning blueprints for a project that — if the City Council moves ahead with the proposed zoning measures — would violate the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance.

Following a groundswell of opposition to the mayor’s plan this summer, the council began working on two fronts to prevent the project from moving forward and compel the administration to consider community input on the future of the auditorium and its environs, Louis Armstrong Park. 

First it created an Interim Zoning District (IZD), which prohibits building government offices and parking structures in the park.

Then it put wheels in motion for a text amendment to the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance that would impose new requirements for moving City Hall.

The proposed text amendment would not ban the relocation of City Hall to Armstrong Park. (That has raised concerns among the SOS coalition, which wants a permanent prohibition on the use of the auditorium as a government building.) Rather, it would require the relocation to go through neighborhood engagement, be vetted by the City Planning Commission, and approved by the council.

The IZD is not yet codified in the city’s Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance, but under city law, IZDs are treated by city land use staff as being effective as soon as they are introduced. That happened over the summer. 

The City Planning Commission on Oct. 12 recommended adoption of the text amendment. A City Council vote on that recommendation is expected soon. (If the recommendation is approved, the council would need to take one additional vote to add it to the CZO.)

How the administration will contend with these regulations remains to be seen. FEMA has already approved upwards of $2.8 million of the $38 million to pay for schematics of the city’s choice.

Asked how changes to city zoning law could affect the allocation of the rest of the money, a FEMA spokesperson said, “The implementation of new zoning ordinances or other rules are outside of FEMA’s jurisdiction.”

If the city invests months and millions of dollars in a design that proves to be a legal dead-end, its odds of completing eligible repairs by 2023 would grow even longer. The administration can appeal to FEMA for an extension of that deadline, though in the July meeting with members of Save Our Souls, Cantrell said that the soonest it could do so is November 2022, and only then if the project is “under active construction.”

Work on SOS counterproposal ongoing

Cantrell has been loath to consider other ways to renovate the auditorium. But SOS and City Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer advocate using the $38 million as soon as possible to fix up the auditorium’s “envelope” and deciding its future use later, through a community engagement process. Palmer notes that this would limit damage to the deteriorating structure, which has been open to the elements for years. The FEMA money “should be used to protect the building until we have a good pathway forward,” she said.

The mayor has claimed FEMA won’t allow that. She laid out her position in the July meeting with SOS, saying an open-ended renovation is a nonstarter because to “unlock” the $38 million the city has to “articulate a use” of the renovated facility “that’s satisfactory to FEMA.”

The FEMA spokesperson said otherwise in an email to The Lens, saying that “the City does not have to determine the use” of the renovated building now in order to access the $38 million.

When members of SOS asked about restoring the auditorium to its pre-Katrina use, Cantrell dismissed the scenario by asserting, falsely, that the auditorium “wasn’t in use for anything when Katrina hit, it was a storage,” and that’s what FEMA considered to be its “pre-disaster condition.” 

In fact, in the weeks before the storm, the building hosted the Orleans Parish School District’s annual parent forum and a gymnastics tournament, according to reports in The Times-Picayune from that time. FEMA knew the facility had been active and assumed it would return to its pre-Katrina function. The $38 million was originally tabulated as the cost of replacing things like arena seats and dimmer boards. The administration had to seek approval to use the agency’s money to retrofit it as City Hall instead. It started the approval process in August 2020, records show, after the city held a single, web-only public information session about the project. FEMA granted its approval this January.

In the July meeting, SOS asked Cantrell to consider a future for the auditorium that centers the cultural heritage of Congo Square, which it was built on. Cantrell said the city couldn’t afford to build a museum or cultural center, but her City Hall project, running an estimated $120 million, was financially viable. 

It does have one distinct fundraising advantage: If the current City Hall moves, the city can lease that real estate to generate revenue. Calculating the benefit of this option relative to others is difficult, though. The administration has not provided an estimate of how much such a lease would bring in. But an alternate project that retained more of the original character of the auditorium could qualify for 20% state and federal historic tax credits, which the City Hall plan is ineligible for. While the total cost of turning the auditorium into a municipal office building is more than $100 million, according to city estimates, the Cantrell administration does not appear to have performed an estimate on how much it would cost to turn it into a cultural center, so it’s not clear which would be more expensive.

Cantrell told SOS that FEMA would only consider an alternate proposal for the auditorium if the city identified funding sources sufficient to “fully renovate, fully operate, and maintain” it. The administration’s own budget projections for the City Hall project fall short of that standard, showing a $66 million gap between secured funding and the estimated cost of renovation alone 

Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Infrastructure Ramsey Green said the city would add $16 million in bond funding to FEMA’s $38 million; the project could qualify for other federal support as well, but the administration has not shared those figures. 

FEMA nevertheless signed off on the concept. In an email to The Lens the agency affirmed that the city can raise funds in “phases” whether for a city hall, cultural center, or something else, and FEMA “doesn’t require the city to identify future revenue sources for the operation and maintenance of the facility.” 

Despite the seemingly impossible conditions the mayor imposed on SOS to create its own counterproposal without city assistance, the coalition is making headway.

As Jarrett Cohen, an SOS member and president of the Historic Faubourg Treme Association told the City Council, “This challenge that we’ve been asked to try to tackle is not reasonable, but we’re not going to back down from it.”

They held community meetings and conducted a survey to solicit ideas and opinions about the auditorium and Armstrong Park more broadly. The survey, of 363 people as of the last update in August, asked respondents to choose “the best future use” of the auditorium. Sixty-three percent chose “cultural center/complex,” 27% chose returning the facility to its pre-Katrina function (including cultural events and performances), and two percent chose converting it to City Hall.

Amor Amenkum says the coalition’s work was delayed by Hurricane Ida and COVID restrictions but, when it is complete, SOS “will share its findings and plan with the citizens of New Orleans,” including the mayor and City Council.

SOS is looking for funding, too, and members have expressed interest in a public-private partnership to the mayor and City Council, invoking the Audubon Nature Institute as a possible model for managing Armstrong Park.

Cheryl Austin, an Organizing Member of SOS and Executive Director of the Greater Treme Consortium, told the council, “We are looking for collaboration with the mayor’s administration. … We recognize that we can’t do anything without the city, and we don’t want to.”