For many years, a prominent X-shaped office tower over the New Orleans riverside was an outstanding reminder of the city’s troubles.
Known as the World Trade Center, a 33-story building on the Mississippi River, was completed in 1967. Tenants fled during the oil bankruptcy of the 1980s. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was another devastating blow. After 2011 the building was empty.
But it is busy today, full of construction workers converting it into a Four Seasons hotel that combines a luxury hotel and condominiums and is expected to open in the spring. The $ 530 million project is said to be the largest private investment in the city’s history. It is also the most visible sign of progress on the riverbank, the rehabilitation of which has taken place in fits and starts over decades and is still far from being fully realized.
Several projects – including a new ferry terminal and parkland – are planned or in progress. The pandemic and the resulting economic downturn have delayed some efforts and undermined others. But enthusiasm for the idea of opening up the river bank doesn’t seem to be waning.
“It will be the New Orleans front porch,” said Ron Forman, president and executive director of the Audubon Nature Institute, a nonprofit that operates the city’s aquarium and zoo and is under contract to design and build a riverside park .
However, there are some questions about who the rehabilitated riverside will serve: tourists or local residents.
Waterfront projects like this are being scrutinized across the country.
Many cities owe their existence to their waterways. However, as maritime and industrial activities declined and water quality improved, the coastlines were reinvented for public use. Old port areas in cities like San Francisco and Baltimore were redesigned with parks and festival markets from the 1970s.
In recent years, however, climate change has resulted in rising sea levels and more frequent, intense storms that battered the coasts and caused catastrophic flooding. In some places, berms and flood walls are installed. In other countries, government programs are encouraging property owners to venture away from the coast in a strategy known as managed retreat.
There have also been setbacks in redeveloping the waterfront, which has created housing and amenities for the wealthy and has sometimes contributed to gentrification and displacement in inland communities, not to mention out-of-scale buildings that cut off views of the water.
“You have to be careful not to just create a linear streak of privileges,” said Anthony A. Williams, a former Washington mayor who drove redevelopment along the Anacostia River during his tenure.
New Orleans has lagged behind other cities. Proposals for redeveloping the riverbank came and went, including a post-World War II proposal by urban planner Robert Moses to ram an expressway through the riverbank. A development spurt in the 1980s brought the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. In the 1990s, Audubon created Woldenberg Park on the riverside of the Aquarium of the Americas.
It wasn’t until 2008, when the city was still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina, that a comprehensive redevelopment plan was drawn up. (The river bank is on the highest point in the city and was not flooded during the storm.)
The plan included a six-mile stretch of public space littered with development. Crescent Park, 1.4 miles of hiking trails, and picnic areas, which were completed in 2015, were a result of the plan.
But today, the public parts of the riverfront are separated – Crescent Park is separated from Moon Walk, a waterfront promenade near the French Quarter, by active wharves.
“Progress is slower than we would have liked,” said Jeffrey Schwartz, the city’s director of economic development.
The pandemic didn’t help. Audubon has suspended meetings for input to bridge the gap between Crescent Park and the Moon Walk. Residents of neighboring neighborhoods were looking for green spaces rather than tourist attractions that could lead to crowds and traffic jams, said Nathan Chapman, leader of the Riverfront Neighborhood Alliance, a coalition of community groups.
A plan for a hotel in the convention center, in which booked events were canceled, was also postponed. The Port of New Orleans has withdrawn the construction of a new cruise terminal.
The tourism that drives the economy in New Orleans has recovered. According to STR, hotel occupancy in the French Quarter and the central business district was between 10 and 45 percent during the pandemic. Hotel companies have closed hotels and laid off employees.
All of this explains the excitement in some areas for the new Four Seasons, which has brought temporary construction and promises permanent jobs in the hospitality industry.
The project is part of a multitude of activities at the foot of Canal Street, where the lengthy replacement of an obsolete ferry terminal is finally being tackled and the Spanish Plaza is being renovated.
The tower, designed by the famous New York architect Edward Durell Stone, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
It was originally referred to as the International Trade Mart and was part of the city’s efforts to promote international trade. Its shape was inspired by the four points on a compass: wings extend north, south, east and west. The rotunda at the top of the building revolved to house a cocktail lounge.
When the city took over the building in 2010, it was in poor condition. Attempts to bring it back from the dead failed. The city had just launched a call for proposals when Alan Leventhal, executive director of Beacon Capital Partners, an investment firm in Boston, caught a glimpse of the tower while visiting New Orleans in 2014.
“I thought this was a great hotel,” he said. He put together a development team led by Carpenter & Company of Cambridge, Massachusetts and Woodward Interests, a local company, and put his own money into it.
The renovation of the building, for which $ 70 million tax credits are available for monument preservation, includes restoring the facade and parts of the lobby with marble columns. Ballrooms and other amenities that are shared by hotel guests and apartment owners are housed in two low-rise buildings.
Guests will occupy the 6th through 18th floors and pay room rates that “are sure to be at the top of the market for New Orleans,” said Christian Clerc, President Global Operations at Four Seasons. The condos on the upper floors cost between $ 2 million and $ 10 million. Drew Brees, the quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, bought one.
The top of the building will no longer rotate, but an observation deck will be open to the public.
Work on the project had to be halted several times during the hurricane season and flood conditions have periodically interrupted work on the foundation and underground mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.
Development is not alone in facing climate-related challenges. Half the city is below sea level and is sinking. Since Hurricane Katrina, $ 20 billion has been spent on levees, flood walls, gates and pumps to protect New Orleans.
Developers seem unwavering. Three groups, including the one working on the Four Seasons, want to renovate 39 hectares on the river bank around the convention center as a mixed-use project.
“This is a golden opportunity to have a real impact on the city,” said Leventhal.