Ernest N. Morial Convention Center looks to lure private developers for future riverfront

June 13 2014 | Latest News
By Katherine Sayre, | The Times-Picayune

The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is pinning its hopes for the future on a plan to transform the city's riverfront, turning 47 acres of unused land upriver from the Crescent City Connection into a landmark hotel with nearby retail, entertainment, housing and a waterfront public park.

Convention center President and CEO Bob Johnson said he and other officials are calling it "the neighborhood."

"Our mission is to create economic impact through meetings and conventions and develop facilities that enhance meetings and conventions," Johnson said. "We think all of this becomes an attractive component for enticing meetings and conventions and gives our attendees and meeting planners more opportunities to enjoy New Orleans."

The strategy hinges on a key factor: whether private developers are willing to invest up to $750 million - or even $1 billion - to bring "the neighborhood" to life.

Gov. Bobby Jindal this week signed into law legislation giving the Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Exhibition Hall Authority the allowance to issue bonds toward that goal.

Johnson said the convention center plans to spend between $150 million and $175 million - from a combination of bonds, cash reserves and state capital outlay money - to improve the exterior of the convention center and build infrastructure upriver to lure developers.

The center plans to revamp Convention Center Boulevard and overhaul traffic flow in and around the neighboring Warehouse District, a collection of one-way streets. Cars, port container trucks, commuters, taxis, buses and convention visitors on-foot now all converge on the four-lane Convention Center Boulevard.

Johnson said there have been several accidents and even convention attendees struck by cars.

Under the new plan, a landscaped pedestrian plaza would be built out from the 1.1 million-square-foot center, while traffic lanes would be reduced from two lanes each-way, to one lane each-way. A third lane would be dedicated to taxis and buses.

A moving walkway, such as in airport terminals, would stretch the length of the center. Johnson said plans initially included light rail, but that option was excluded because of costs. The moving walkway will address the No. 1 concern reported by visitors: how far they have to trudge down the elongated center.

A central transit hub would streamline taxi cab and bus service, he said.

The center is working with traffic consultants, the state Department of Transportation and Development, the Regional Planning Commission, and the Port of New Orleans to come up with a new traffic design, Johnson said.

Meanwhile, within the next two weeks, the center will be issuing a "request for interest" to find either a master developer or several companies interested in creating a mixed-use neighborhood on the river, he said.

The major component is a full-service hotel. While there are many limited-service hotels at different prices around the convention center, some conventions demand a connected or adjacent full-service hotel, Johnson said. "This is the biggest convention facility in the country without a headquarters hotel," he said. A growing list of competitors - Nashville, Austin, Houston, Dallas, Charlotte and others - can offer that amenity, he said.

Retail outlets, apartments or condos, dining and entertainment also are on the table, he said. The convention center also will consider building a corporate conference center - a large area of upscale meeting space for companies to bring their executives together - that would link to the hotel.

The legislation allows for the exhibition authority to issue bonds to pay for all of the infrastructure and make the area "a build-ready pad for private development," Johnson said.

The center is also in talks with Tulane University over the development of university-owned riverfront land. Johnson said he would like to see a riverfront section that combines academics and a public park and event area. Tulane has previously announced it is developing a riverfront campus.

Michael Blum, Tulane University professor and director of the Tulane-Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research, said specific plans for the campus are focused now on a Tulane River and Coastal Center to begin construction this fall and open in April. The campus will have 10,000 square feet of new space combined with 10,000 square feet of an existing warehouse. The campus will be used for research, education, public forums and a business incubator for companies focused on coastal and water issues, he said.

As for developing a riverfront park, Blum said the university is "interested in discussing those possibilities but there have been no decisions made about what the rest of the property will end up being used for."

He said the new campus will promote public engagement and increased public access to the waterfront, which ties in with the convention center's plans.

"We value what they're doing tremendously, and we certainly want to participate and be a strong partner with them," Blum said.

Private developers have grown increasingly interested in downtown New Orleans. The Howard Hughes Corp. spent $80 million turning the three-decade-old Riverwalk into an outlet mall in hopes of attracting locals, tourists, cruise ship passengers and convention visitors. The South Market District, a $200 million mixed-use development off of Loyola Avenue downtown, is under construction. The area of barren surface parking lots is being transformed into apartments, sidewalk cafés and shopping. And the conversion of old office towers into apartments has set off a housing boom.

The area the convention center hopes to develop stretches from the upriver end of the meeting hall to the Market Street power plant, which has sat unused, in the hands of developers, for several years. Plans for turning it into mega-sports store Bass Pro Shop fell through.

Commercial real estate broker Robert Hand said that riverfront area needs a large development to make it work - but people who want to come to New Orleans and spend that kind of money "are few and far between."

"You have a gorgeous opportunity, but somebody has got to out and pull in qualified people to spend $200 million to make it happen, at least, for a hotel and shopping center," Hand said.

"The city's got to put that land back into commerce first, and that will overflow to the adjacent private property owners," he said.

The convention center has been working on its plans for two years. Last year, Jindal vetoed similar legislation giving the go-ahead. That bill also included plans for redeveloping or demolishing the former World Trade Center building.

Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, who sponsored the legislation both years, said this time around, the bill was focused only on the convention center. He said he's confident private investment will come through, given New Orleans' recent economic growth, including increased sales tax revenues and job gains.

"We think that our convention center is very competitive but each and every year our competitors around the country are making major investments in their facilities and their attractions for visitors," Leger said. "We have to step up our game too."

Johnson said through the legislative process last year, he was able to gather interest from developers who have been waiting on the sidelines for the bill to be approved. There have even been talks with a marine developer on the possibility of creating a yacht marina at the site, he said.

Eight years ago, the convention center scrapped a $450 million plan to add 525,000 square feet of traditional meeting space on its upriver land. Hurricane Katrina struck, and convention center bookings evaporated as groups were scared off.

"We didn't know how long it would take to recover," Johnson said. "Groups were skittish about coming to New Orleans or committing to coming to New Orleans because of that irrational fear of hurricanes interrupting their meetings.

"My thoughts were, what can we do to make the existing facilities more attractive, so we can begin to regain our market share?"

Last year, the convention center wrapped up a $50 million renovation building The Great Hall - named after the location's original use in the 1984 World's Fair - and creating a modern entryway at the Julia Street end. That followed $93 million in interior improvements to the facility over five years.

Johnson said other than that work, and the newly renovated Riverwalk, there hasn't been much new investment along the center's corridor.

He said he hopes to see the work done, or underway, by the city's tri-centennial celebration in 2018.