The biggest transformation of New Orleans’ historic riverfront in more than 30 years is underway — with plans to build new parks, hotels, housing and businesses in various stages of development.
Public entities are driving many of the changes planned along the nearly five-mile stretch of riverfront from Poland Avenue to Jackson Avenue, although several major projects have languished or suffered lengthy delays under Mayor LaToya Cantrell.
Sprinkled among the taxpayer-financed plans are a handful of major private developments that are in some cases subsidized by taxpayers.
If everything is completed, the riverfront will include new Four Seasons and Omni hotels, a new ferry terminal, an upgraded Spanish Plaza, a major retail and commercial development just upriver of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, a refurbished Convention Center and a refashioned Convention Center Boulevard, a new park on existing wharves in the French Quarter, and several hundred apartments at the old Navy base on Poland Avenue.
“This is the most accelerated amount of activity at one time since the 1980s, when Jax Brewery was developed, Canal Place was built, the Riverwalk was created and the Convention Center was opened,” said Darryl Berger, who owns commercial property on the riverfront and is vice chair of the Port of New Orleans board.
A number of factors are behind the renewed push for development along the riverfront.
Among them are the city’s continued recovery from Hurricane Katrina nearly 15 years ago and widespread support for continuing to make the river more accessible to the public. Another was the ambition of Mayor Mitch Landrieu to launch plans to “turbocharge” the riverfront before he left office in 2018, an idea made possible partly by the port’s decreasing need for wharves in the city's historic core.
Adding to the development mix: After much discussion, the Convention Center board is moving forward with plans to renovate the giant assembly hall and develop the adjacent vacant land rather than extend the hall farther upriver.
Lots of challenges
Riverfront development, however, is fraught with complexity since it involves the city’s oldest and most expensive land. Residents of the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny and Bywater closely monitor planned developments to prevent them from damaging the historic character of their neighborhoods.
And numerous other entities have a say in what happens along the river.
Owners of land or buildings from Poland Avenue to Jackson Avenue include the port, the city, the state-owned Convention Center, Tulane University, Mardi Gras World, prominent developer Joe Jaeger Jr., the Audubon Nature Institute and the Howard Hughes Corp., which owns the Outlet Collection at Riverwalk.
The creation of Woldenberg Park and the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in the early 1990s opened up part of the river to locals and visitors on a daily basis and large throngs during such events as French Quarter Festival. But development along the river stalled after that.
Sean Cummings, a developer who owns riverfront buildings in Bywater, attempted to jump-start things when he headed the city’s New Orleans Building Corp. under Mayor Ray Nagin. In 2008, he released a plan called “Reinventing the Crescent” that was approved by the City Council and major riverfront stakeholders.
Cummings helped secure $31.5 million in federal funds to build the plan’s signature element, Crescent Park, which reclaimed 1.2 miles of abandoned wharves in Bywater and Marigny, from Mazant Street to Elysian Fields Avenue. The park was completed in 2015 under Landrieu, who otherwise didn’t push forward with "Reinventing the Crescent" until late in his term.
Landrieu by then had secured $15 million for Audubon to create the new park, and also had the money in hand to renovate Spanish Plaza and replace the ferry terminal building, considered an eyesore by many.
As a whole, Landrieu enthused, the various projects "will completely turbocharge, redefine and open up the river in a way that's never been done.”
In 2018, officials with Audubon held three public meetings with residents of Bywater, Marigny and the Quarter to solicit input.
“The overwhelming desire for redevelopment was a passive park that would provide a connection between Crescent Park and Woldenberg Park,” said Erin Holmes, executive director of Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates.
But more than two years after Landrieu’s announcement, and with Cantrell as mayor for most of that time, a private company called TCI Packaging continues to operate at the two wharves that were to be turned over to the city.
TCI won the Cantrell administration’s approval in August 2019 to extend its lease for one more year, with an additional six months for moving out, said Christian Jensen, president of Jensen Companies, which is associated with TCI.
TCI’s continued presence on the wharves means Audubon has yet to conduct one of its initial steps, an environmental assessment of the property, said Rebecca Dietz, Audubon’s general counsel and vice president of public affairs. She said Audubon expects to develop conceptual plans for public viewing and submit schematic designs to the city by August.
Despite the preference of many residents for a purely passive park, Dietz and city officials have said the planned riverfront park ought to generate revenue to pay for at least some of its operations.
No one knows exactly how much the new park would need for that. Crescent Park, which is bigger than the two wharves combined and is managed by the city’s French Market Corp., has an annual operating budget of $300,000. Various activities held there, including weddings and filming, generate some revenue.
City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, whose district includes the riverfront, has joined residents in expressing opposition to putting an amphitheater or another building on the two wharves.
"Our biggest concern is that it’s been a long time since we’ve been given an update," said Nathan Chapman, who is president of the Riverfront Neighborhood Alliance.
In the meantime, work has advanced on Spanish Plaza.
Landrieu had announced that the renovation would cost $7.5 million and be completed by April 2018, his last month in office. The job called for installing new paving, trees, lighting and plants. Tuna Construction has completed that work, but recent visits have shown that the bricks are uneven and rain leaves pools of water throughout the plaza. The company did not return phone calls about its work.
The new fountain is not yet operational.
The reasons for the delay in finishing the job are not clear, although high river conditions halted work for a time last year and again this year.
In an email, a City Hall spokesperson said the work will be completed in late March or early April.
Cantrell’s press office did not respond to requests for an interview with an administration official.
New ferry terminal, someday
Other work on Spanish Plaza is planned. The Howard Hughes Corp. has shut down the two restaurants on Spanish Plaza and will replace them with one owned by Al Copeland Jr. and the other by the Rizzuto family, which owns other restaurants, said Frank Quinn, the Riverwalk’s general manager.
Occupying the downriver end of Spanish Plaza is the ferry terminal, which was last renovated in 1981 and is “past its useful life,” Angele Young, a spokeswoman for the Regional Transit Authority, which operates the ferry, said in an email.
Landrieu anticipated that a new terminal would be in place by April 2019, but the old structure remains, principally because of the insistence by Palmer and Algiers residents that the new terminal provide a pedestrian bridge over the Public Belt rail line to Canal Street for passengers who want to avoid lengthy delays from passing trains. An average of six trains pass the site per day, according to Matt Gresham, a port spokesman.
Young said the transit agency is planning to install elevators on either side of the tracks. She did not respond to requests for more details.
The RTA’s revamped plans call for a terminal that will cost $27 million and pave over the portion of the river that juts inland underneath the ferry terminal — to allow people to walk from Spanish Plaza to Woldenberg Park along the riverfront, Young said.
Unlike the existing facility, the new terminal will be ground-level, Young said, adding that the projected completion date is the summer of 2022, or three years later than Landrieu anticipated.
Adjacent to Spanish Plaza, work progresses on the new Four Seasons, which will consist of 341 hotel rooms and 92 private residences on the top floors of the former World Trade Center office tower.
Just upriver of the Hilton parking lot is the Convention Center, which is spending $550 million in taxpayer money to upgrade its meeting rooms, ballrooms and bathrooms; to build a transportation center to service buses, taxis and ride-share vehicles; and to narrow Convention Center Boulevard from four to two lanes to create a “pedestrian park” alongside the center.
Work on the road and pedestrian park is expected to wind up this fall, around the same time as major work on the center’s interior begins, said Tim Hemphill, a spokesman.
New hotel, other projects
Just upriver of the Convention Center, officials are planning a 1,200-room Omni Hotel that will cost about $675 million. Officials say it’s needed to boost the low occupancy levels of the meeting spaces at the upriver end of the massive Convention Center and to provide additional lodging during giant conventions. Critics question the public subsidy to develop the hotel and question whether it will generate enough additional guests to be profitable.
Surrounding the hotel site are 39 acres of vacant land that Convention Center officials also want to develop. Three finalists are due to submit their plans for a mixed commercial and residential development on Wednesday.
Tulane University owns and operates a research center on the river just across the railroad tracks from the upriver end of the Convention Center and also owns the adjacent ground underneath Mardi Gras World — the equivalent of six football fields of land in all.
The university may decide to expand its research center but is taking a “wait and see” approach for now, said Patrick Norton, Tulane’s chief financial officer.
Joe Jaeger is also keeping a close eye on what emerges for the vacant Convention Center land because he owns the abandoned Market Street power plant, with its two giant, iconic smoke stacks, adjacent to the center's land. He said he believes the old power plant could be converted into an entertainment venue tied to the development on Convention Center land.
“I think this is an opportunity to create something special that would bring people to New Orleans and take pressure off the French Quarter,” Jaeger said.
Upriver from Mardi Gras World to Jackson Avenue, the city owns the riverfront land that once housed working wharves. This land, now fenced off, could one day become a park or multistory housing with prime riverfront views. City officials have yet to announce any plans for it.
Back downriver, the Hampton Inn is building a four-story, 133-room hotel at Elysian Fields Avenue and Decatur Street in the Marigny neighborhood that is scheduled to open in mid-2021, said Edward Suffren, the attorney for the developer.
In Bywater, developers are hoping to begin construction in July on the Crescent Hotel across from the mid-park entrance to Crescent Park. The hotel would have 18 suites (mostly three- and four-bedroom units) with a projected opening date of mid-2021, said David Fuselier, the project’s developer.
Several blocks downriver, owners of a 93-room hotel to be called ARRIVE also hope to begin construction in mid-2020, said Ted Kelso, the local developer along with Andy Ryan.
Across Mazant Street, developers are moving forward with plans to build a 136-unit complex on a vacant square block owned by the Housing Authority of New Orleans, said Nicole Webre, a consultant on the project. About one-third of the units would be market-rate and the other two-thirds would be affordable housing, Webre said. The developers hope to break ground by the end of the year.
Jaeger also owns the development rights at the former naval base, now owned by the city, on Poland Avenue next to the Industrial Canal. His plan calls for a mixture of market-rate and affordable housing, 315 units total, in the building closest to Poland Avenue, with the goal of developing two other buildings on the site later. Jaeger is seeking financing from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. He hopes to break ground in September and to complete the project 20 months later.
“Everyone says it’s a great location for workforce housing, for people who are being priced out of historic neighborhoods,” said Palmer.