Ausettua AmorAmenkum, co-chair of Save Our Soul coalition, speaks at a press conference in front of the Municipal Auditorium on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. (Jordan Hirsch/The Lens)

Following a spokesperson’s statement on Tuesday that Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s plan to renovate the Municipal Auditorium as a new City Hall was “dead in the water,” opponents of the project said their efforts to block it will continue until the City stops soliciting bids for its design.

In front of the shuttered auditorium on Wednesday, members of Save Our Soul (SOS), a coalition of 35 cultural organizations, neighborhood associations, and advocates organizing against the plan, called on the city to demonstrate it has abandoned the plan by removing from its online contracting portal a request for qualifications (RFQ) for architects and engineers to design a new City Hall at the Municipal Auditorium as well as a request for proposals (RFP) for project managers to oversee the job.

“As long as that RFQ is out there, then the city is actually still moving forward with plans to redevelop the Municipal Auditorium into City Hall,” said Big Chief Dow Edwards, a member of SOS.

Both bid solicitations were still live on the city’s contracting portal as of Wednesday afternoon, more than a day after Cantrell spokesman Beau Tidwell declared the project dead. 

Edwards called Tuesday’s statement — which came as a surprise to the coalition — “a step in a positive direction,” but noted that Tidwell said the City is “not moving with [the mayor’s plan] in a deliberate kind of way,” which fell short of a commitment to scrap the project for good.

Edwards and other members of the coalition are wary following their meeting with the mayor in July, in which she said, “I’m okay with no City Hall at Municipal Auditorium,” and that she would consider an alternate plan from SOS. But Cantrell offered no city assistance and in September, the city extended the deadlines for the RFQ and RFP without further contact with them.

Tidwell’s Tuesday statement came less than a week before Saturday’s municipal election, with a ballot that includes both New Orleans mayor and the New Orleans City Council. Following a groundswell of opposition to the mayor’s City Hall plan over the summer, the council in July voted unanimously on two measures designed to prevent the start of construction. While Cantrell is expected to win reelection handily, her insistence on converting the auditorium to the seat of government has been widely unpopular.

The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment from The Lens.

Clock is running on repairing building

Tidwell’s statement on Tuesday did not address concerns about the timetable for repairing the auditorium. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has made roughly $38 million available to the city to pay for renovations, but it can only be used as reimbursement for work completed by August 29, 2023, the 18th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures that damaged the facility.

The project is also time-sensitive because the auditorium itself is deteriorating. It was open to the elements for years before Hurricane Ida, and the roof appeared to suffer additional damage in the storm this August.

Tapping FEMA’s funding before it expires and heading off more structural damage will be crucial for any redevelopment plan for the building, whether for City Hall, or, as SOS proposes, for a use that honors the cultural heritage of Congo Square, the historic site the auditorium is built on.

In her July meeting with SOS, Cantrell said that FEMA would not allow the City to begin stabilizing the building until it designated its future use. However, a spokesperson for FEMA told The Lens that the agency is not imposing that requirement.

City Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer, among others, has suggested that the administration proceed with a “white box” approach, fixing the building’s envelope with available funds before 2023 while conducting community outreach for input on its ultimate use.

Cheryl Austin, Executive Director of the Greater Treme Consortium and a member of SOS, agreed, saying Wednesday that “All [the mayor] has to do is white-box it and use FEMA funds to stop further destruction of the building.”

Whether the city is ready and willing to move forward with repairs outside of the mayor’s City Hall plan remains to be seen. In the July meeting with SOS, Cantrell offered a few reasons not to do so, including the potential for vandals to damage the facility if it were not in use. Deputy CAO Ramsey Green added that the administration didn’t want to do repairs on the building “with no funded destination for what it’s going to be, because we’re going to have to trust somebody in five years to operate it, maintain it, and protect it.”

The City can apply to FEMA for an extension of the August 2023 deadline but its prospects for receiving one are unclear. The Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, which administers FEMA funding to the City, wrote to Palmer in June that getting an extension of the August 29, 2023 deadline approved by FEMA “is not a guarantee especially when the grant has been open for 18 years,” and the city “will most likely require compelling justification to be considered.”

Alternate plans

On Wednesday, members of SOS also shared more of its ongoing work on an alternate plan for the auditorium and its environs, Armstrong Park.

Austin said that all of the information the coalition has gathered — from surveys, in-person meetings, and online sessions — points toward the public’s desire to see the Municipal Auditorium redeveloped as a “site that would highlight all the culture of New Orleans.”

To translate that vision into plans, SOS is collaborating with Colloqate Design, a local multidisciplinary firm that, according to Design Principal Bryan Lee, Jr., works on “spaces of racial, social, and cultural justice in the built environment.”

Colloqate is working with hundreds of comments collected by SOS surveys and community outreach sessions, as well as feedback from previous plans for the area around Armstrong Park, including efforts to mitigate the damage caused by the construction of the nearby I-10 expressway over North Claiborne Avenue. The firm will provide SOS with visual renderings as well as a narrative history about the site.

Jackie Harris, executive director of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation and PR chair for SOS, said SOS expects to have a preliminary plan to present to the public and to elected officials by the end of the year. 

“We understand that this will not be successful without governmental support — city, state, and federal,” she said.

Harris said the coalition’s vision for Armstrong Park is in line with several of the federal government’s current funding priorities, and its plan will be designed to give local and state officials what they need to pursue resources from various federal programs.

Harris also said the coalition has met with three developers interested in the Municipal Auditorium and Armstrong Park: Edgar “Dooky” Chase IV, grandson of famed Treme restaurateurs Edgar “Dooky” Chase and Leah Chase; hotelier Michael Valentino; and Pres Kabacoff of HRI Properties, who has been eyeing Armstrong Park for years.

According to Harris, each developer intends to follow the lead of the community vision compiled by SOS in formulating any proposals for the site. Harris said each would also put together a plan for financing the project.

Ausettua AmorAmenkum, co-chair of SOS, said the coalition hoped to hear from Cantrell herself, and that she would see a community-driven plan for the auditorium and the park as “an opportunity to do the right thing.” According to AmorAmenkum, “If she’s the mayor that says, ‘I’m going to restore this as a cultural Mecca,’ her legacy would be assured forever.”