Convention Center board will study redevelopment of 50-acre lot

October 27 2011 | Latest News
"The lot has remained largely vacant, with the exception of its use on occasion as a home for small festivals."

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Jaquetta White, The Times-Picayune

Four years after scrapping plans to expand onto a 50-acre lot abutting the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center- New Orleans, the facility's board decided Wednesday to revisit the task of developing space. The board voted unanimously to award a $200,000 contract to the joint venture of Manning Architects and Eskew+Dumez+Ripple to study possible uses for the vacant lot, which had been intended as the fourth phase of the convention center and would have expanded the hall's meeting space capacity from 1.1 million square feet to 1.6 million square feet.

That expansion plan was put on hold immediately following the flood of 2005 and a resulting business slump. But it was abandoned completely after the business slump was exacerbated by the national economic downturn and the fettered demand nationwide for what has become a glut of exhibit hall space.

The lot has remained largely vacant, with the exception of its use on occasion as a home for small festivals.

"We believe after meeting with some industry leaders that the time is right to start looking at the opportunities for growth in the future," said Melvin Rodrigue, chairman of the center's board.

The convention center intends to retain ownership of the land.

Under its contract, the joint architectural team's study will include an evaluation of traffic patterns in the neighborhood surrounding the space and input from people who live nearby, among other things.

Convention Center General Manager Bob Johnson said he doesn't expect the study to result in a recommendation that the center build solely meeting space at the site, but could include a plan for a combination of lodging, entertainment and restaurants.

"I think it's going to take a different character," said Johnson, whose contract was renewed through December 2014 at the meeting. "There could be a convention center expansion in the future. But all kinds of ideas may emerge. This is the first step in what promises to be a long process."

Also on Wednesday, the board of commissioners voted to award a construction contract to Citadel Builders LLC in New Orleans for renovation to the building's oldest hall.

Citadel, the "apparent low bidder" in a group of nine, will receive $36.5 million to renovate Hall A and do other updates to older areas of the center. The company's low bidder status still must be confirmed by the convention center's staff.

Construction is set to begin Dec. 5 and will take about one year to complete.

The renovation plan calls for updating a nearly three decades old portion of the meeting hall that first was used as the Great Hall of the 1984 World's Fair and housed its first convention in January 1985. It has not been renovated since, Johnson said.

Johnson said construction will convert the space from a concrete-floor exhibit hall into a more of a ballroom that could attract more of the lucrative corporate meeting group market. That segment of the convention market desires gathering spaces comparable to those found in high-end hotels, not large exhibition halls.

Construction also calls for making the center's nondescript main entrance at Convention Center Boulevard and Julia Street more inviting.

A heating system also will be added to Hall A, as well as Halls B and C, which together make up the 327,251-square-foot Phase I of the center. Heating had not previously been a concern because of the city's moderate climate in winter and the relatively few meetings held at the center in the coldest months. But as the convention center has been trying to expand its booking calendar to include January, making it a necessity.