When I came to New Orleans more than a decade ago and first drove by the present City Hall, I guffawed. The boring lackluster modern design of it should be expected for municipal buildings built in 1957. The pebble concrete exterior is darkened with decades of mold and dirt. A yearly pressure wash was never in the budget, apparently. Add to that the incredibly tacky and poorly installed neon signage that crowns it, which equals cringe-level architecture. The city is forced to lease additional space in nearby buildings to accommodate workers. Perhaps it is time for a new City Hall.
A few large vacant buildings could be renovated to house the city government. The phallic shaped eyesore Plaza Tower, located at 1001 Howard Ave., comes to mind.
Recently, shards of the neglected facade that have come crashing to the ground only highlighted the urgency to do something with the building. This month, proposals have been brought forth for high end condos and hotel space. Hopefully it will come to fruition, unlike previous proposals. It’s in the best location, not far from the existing municipal buildings.
Purchase use the old Charity Hospital and renovate that. The building is not only structurally sound, but a beautiful example of Art Deco design built in 1939. Sure it would be costly to renovate it to current standards, but it would be preserving a historically significant structure that is important to the appeal of New Orleans.
The mayor is proposing to move City Hall to the vacant Municipal Auditorium in Treme next to Congo Square. The square was sanctioned as a location for enslaved Africans to congregate in 1817 and was considered by many in the Afro-Caribbean community as a “sacred place.” If New Orleans is the birth place of jazz music, then Congo Square would be the birthing table. The significance of the site cannot be overstated.
There is a strong opposition from the Treme community with concerns of the municipal building changing the essence of Congo Square and Armstrong park area, as well as the neighborhood over all, should it be converted into City Hall’s new location. Nearly 1,000 parking spaces would be added, including a five-story, 700-space parking garage.
There have been comparisons made to the construction of the I-10 overpass that runs over Claiborne Avenue in 1966. The overpass destroyed a tree lined commercial district in the predominately black neighborhood. Opposition to the project had no political clout to prevent it. There is still bitterness in Treme over what was lost to progress and to deaf ears.
The proposal has gotten a lot of push back on social media from residents’ objection to the idea. Latoya Cantrell has tried to smokescreen the controversy by pointing to other infrastructure projects involving a few street repairs and the Sewerage and Water Board working with Entergy to update the power sources for the pumping stations.
The Municipal Auditorium was built in 1930 and had many uses over the decades, from concerts to basketball and hockey games. It was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and has been vacant ever since. The 7,800 seat auditorium is just that, an auditorium. The amount of re-design and modification to turn the large open space into a multi floor efficient office space would be staggering. It could be done, but at the cost of destroying the interior beauty.
Certainly one appeal to the city is 40 million dollars that FEMA had earmarked for the building following Katrina. It wouldn’t cover the entire cost of renovation but would be a nice offset. Local governments love that federal money.
Cantrell’s proposal has brought a heated backlash from the Treme community over the impact on the area. Cantrell’s response was that Congo Square will not be touched. There is no dispute the overall area will be impacted by additional traffic and parking.
In this day and age we should also consider that moving City Hall there will change it from a cultural space to a political space. Expect to see protests and rallies to spill over into adjacent areas. Congo Square and Armstrong park could easily turn into “Occupy” camp ground if enough outside protesters were bused in. Sounds far-fetched? Look at such public spaces in many cities around the nation.
The mayor relied on her favorite political catch phrase: “Time to re-think the use.” The same jargon she applied to the idea of turning streets in the French Quarter into pedestrian malls.
If you are dating someone and they say “It’s time to re-think our relationship,” just leave. It’s never a positive term. Whoever may be running against her in the next election should use the campaign slogan: “It’s time to re-think our leadership.”
Eric T. Styles is a Quarter rat and loves to hear your feedback. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.