New Orleans Municipal Auditorium (Charles Maldonado/The Lens)

The New Orleans City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved three measures designed to quash any effort to move City Hall to the Municipal Auditorium, and to protect its environs — Congo Square and Louis Armstrong Park — from other “culturally inappropriate uses.”

The first, an amendment to the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (CZO) put forward by council president Helena Moreno, establishes a thorough vetting process for any proposed relocation of City Hall anywhere in the city. Under the measure, plans to move the seat of local government will be subject to a neighborhood engagement program, a review by the City Planning Commission, and, ultimately, approval by the City Council. Additional modifications the council added to the proposal on Wednesday would specifically prohibit City Hall being moved to Armstrong Park, under the park’s current zoning designation. 

The proposed amendment will now move to the city’s Law Department, which will draft legislation for the council to consider. The council will have to take another vote on the final legal language of the proposal for it to be adopted into the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance.

The amendment responds to criticism that Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration was pressing ahead with the relocation of City Hall to the Municipal Auditorium over community objections that the project would desecrate Congo Square, a historical gathering place for enslaved people foundational to New Orleans culture.

A spokesman for Cantrell, who had backed the relocation of City Hall to the Municipal Auditorium for years, signalled early last month that the mayor had pulled her support for the project in response to community opposition, calling it “dead in the water.” 

While it appears that council action will prevent the City Hall relocation plan from becoming reality, the city has continued to advertise for contractor bids for it.

Moreno noted Wednesday that the mayor has had “unilateral control” over the location of City Hall, but, “It is essential that the community have a foundational role in deciding where the center of government should be sited,” and that the legislative branch of government should have a role in the process along with the executive.

“The proposed location of Armstrong Park and the Municipal Auditorium are unsuited as a City Hall. The community made this very clear,” she said. 

Much of that clarity has come from a coalition of three dozen cultural organizations, neighborhood associations, and advocates called Save Our Soul (SOS), which took to the streets in June to oppose the mayor’s plan and has since been developing a proposal for alternate uses of Armstrong Park based on community input.

Initially, Moreno’s proposal could have allowed City Hall to be relocated to the park after the review process. But recently, members of SOS, including Big Chief Dow Edwards, advocated for strengthening Moreno’s amendment, saying that it should not only set up a public process for approving the relocation of City Hall, but also preclude the facility from ever ending up on Congo Square.

The amendment approved Wednesday does that, specifically prohibiting “City Hall” as a permitted use of areas with certain zoning designations, including the one held by Armstrong Park. (The prohibition applies to other parks and open spaces as well.)

Edwards sees the amendment as a major victory. 

“It kind of restores faith in the democratic process,” he said. “The city council stood up and has placed City Hall back into the hands of the people.”

A second CZO amendment approved Wednesday, proposed by Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer, will prolong a short-term prohibition against government offices and related structures in the park first imposed in July to prevent the mayor’s plan from getting off the ground. According to Palmer, its extension will allow the City Planning Commission to refine the new, overlapping CZO amendments “to make sure there are no gaps” in the regulatory structure around Armstrong Park. 

A third measure approved Wednesday begins the process of creating special zoning for Armstrong Park, specifically providing that any use of it “must be determined to be ancillary to the Park’s past and present uses,” which it establishes as “a historic locale for community gathering and the conduit for the retention of African culture and spiritual practices.” The City Planning Commission will have to meet and adopt recommendations on the proposal, which will then be sent back to the council for a vote. 

Edwards said that the third measure “identifies Armstrong Park and Congo Square for what it really is and what it means to the community. This protects that space for generations to come.”

Palmer said her intent was for that protection to be memorialized in the CZO “regardless of who is sitting up here” on the council dais in the future. Palmer, who lost a campaign to remain on the council last month, said, “We all come and go, but [Congo Square] is a place that stays.”

FEMA funding on the line

The third measure approved Wednesday also speaks to the future of the Municipal Auditorium apart from the City Hall controversy, urging the administration to “stabilize, secure, and prevent further deterioration of the Municipal Auditorium…using available FEMA grant funds and any other appropriate available funding.”

The issue is urgent for two reasons. First, because roughly $38 million offered by FEMA to repair the shuttered auditorium will expire if that work isn’t completed by August 2023. Second, because the historic building’s interior is exposed to the elements and has been for years, driving the cost of renovations well beyond $38 million.

So far the city has not started repairs — in a meeting with SOS in July, the mayor falsely claimed that FEMA regulations prevented it from doing so until the city determined the auditorium’s future use. 

That use remains undefined. To this point, the Cantrell administration has only prepared for a City Hall relocation. The council has the power to nix that plan through zoning laws, but the administration is in control of creating and implementing a new plan. The Mayor’s Office is responsible for selecting proposals for the site, hiring contractors and managing the FEMA funding, which will be crucial to whatever happens next at the site.

Even though the City Council began the process of amending zoning laws to prohibit the conversion of the auditorium to City Hall over the summer, the administration proceeded to solicit bids from architects and engineers to do just that. The job is still listed as open on the city’s online purchasing portal as of this week.

Members of SOS stayed mindful of that after the city council votes on Wednesday. 

“I’m still cautious in celebrating,” Edwards said, “because we still have to revitalize [Armstrong Park], and that’s the next step.”

Jackie Harris of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, an SOS member, said the coalition wants the park to be redeveloped in a way that honors the land’s cultural history and makes it a place “where families can bring their children.”

SOS has spent months preparing a proposal for the facility’s future based on public input it has collected citywide. Referring to the widespread opposition to the mayor’s plan, Harris said, “we feel that the citizens have given us a mandate, and we’re doing their will.”

According to Harris, the coalition will be ready to present its findings to elected leaders by the end of the year, and hopes the administration will rally behind them.

“We need city, state, and federal officials to assist us in bringing this whole project to fruition,” Harris said.

How the administration may engage with the SOS plan is an open question. (The Mayor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.) In their July meeting, when SOS asked Cantrell if the city would partner with them on the proposal, she declined.

Cantrell also told SOS that turning the auditorium into a cultural center would not be financially viable, though the city appears not to have estimated the cost of such a project, which could qualify for substantial historic tax credits.

Whatever the administration decides, FEMA is encouraging the city to move quickly to avoid missing its 2023 deadline. The agency approved the mayor’s City Hall concept in January and, per its correspondence with the city, has been waiting to review “plans and specifications” for that project.

In an email to The Lens, FEMA affirmed that the city is allowed to change course and simply use the $38 million to repair the building without specifying its future use, but the Cantrell administration has not yet indicated that it will do so.

The last public remarks on the subject from the Mayor’s Office came last month, when a spokesperson said that the administration has not determined how it will meet the FEMA deadline, or what it may do next regarding the relocation of City Hall.

In any event, SOS is focused on completing its proposal for Armstrong Park to share with the public. Addressing the city council on Wednesday, the coalition’s co-chair, Ausettua AmorAmenkum, said, “We’re going to see this thing to the end.”