NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A proposal to transform a long-empty but fondly remembered New Orleans office tower into luxury hotel and apartment space got a tentative nod Tuesday from an advisory panel that hopes to draw more tourists to the riverfront and pump millions into the financially strapped city's budget.
Rejected was a proposal to tear down the 33-story city-owned building, which is still referred to by the name of its best-known tenant— the World Trade Center — even though that organization left the building years ago.
Under that rejected proposal, a consortium of tourism industry leaders had hoped to replace the aging 1960s era building with public space in time to mark the city's 300th anniversary in 2018.
A proposal by Gatehouse Capital Corp. scored highest in an evaluation tabulated by the advisory panel that was appointed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu and included two deputy mayors. The panel's recommendations go next to the New Orleans Building Corp., the city agency that would negotiate a lease with Gatehouse.
Andy Kopplin, a deputy mayor and the city's chief administrative officer, said the recommendation doesn't mean the Gatehouse proposal, which includes a W hotel, is a done deal. The corporation was selected largely because of its track record on such developments.
"They clearly understand the business and have a feasible proposal," Kopplin said.
However, a competitor, Burch LLC, had more completely fleshed out its plans for including minority businesses in accord with city goals, and was offering the city more upfront lease money, Kopplin noted: an estimated $24 million vs. $10 million from Gatehouse. Burch, like Gatehouse, had proposed a luxury hotel and residential development.
"That remains to be negotiated and it could cause us to have to come back to the table if we don't see a lot of progress on those two issues," Kopplin said following the meeting.
Gatehouse won the recommendation after the five-member panel heard consultants' analyses of the proposed methods of financing and, in the case of Burch and Gatehouse, plans for the hotel and residential areas that included projected rents. Gatehouse appeared to have the edge during the discussion, in part because its rent projections were deemed more realistic. Panel members individually scored each of the three proposals on factors including the developer's performance history and financial capacity, the project's description and financial feasibility. Gatehouse finished on top when the scores were added up. Burch was second.
Panel members expressed admiration for the goals of the third-ranked Tricentennial Consortium, a group of leaders from tourism and convention-driven entities including the institute that runs the Audubon Zoo and the Aquarium of the Americas, the restaurant industry and others. In earlier meetings, Tricentennial members spoke of the riverfront as sacred ground. They cast the empty building as an impediment to sight lines and riverside foot traffic and said it should come down in favor of a structure that would become a tourist attraction and city symbol, such as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
But the public debate of recent months also brought out those with nostalgic memories dating back to the building's dedication in 1968, when it was first known as the International Trade Mart.
It was once a focal point for promotion of international trade and home to the office of the Port of New Orleans. It also was an attraction for tourists and locals who dined in its ritzy Plimsoll Club or drank in the slowly revolving rooftop lounge that provided an ever-changing view of the river and the city.
Preservationists also said the building, designed by noted architect Edward Durell Stone, should be saved.
"We believe that there is a way to combine the best of both worlds: To have a park that will commemorate the tricentennial of our city and but also to save an important monument along our riverfront," said Michelle Kimball of the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans, a preservation advocacy organization.