Vieux Carre Commisison somehow overlooks decade-old unpermitted demolition of ‘significant’ Gov. Nicholls Street building

(Photo: 729 Gov. Nicholls St. | Kevin Minsky)
A building located on a Governor Nicholls Street property that received approval for a partial demolition was instead completely leveled a decade ago, although the Vieux Carre Commission didn’t notice it was gone until March, according to documents.

The missing structure was revealed in a Jan. 22 VCC hearing for a proposed renovation at 729 Governor Nicholls St. and later confirmed in March after the commission regained access to digital records, which showed the building in the rear of the property received emergency approval to remove its upper right-hand portion in 2009 due to “imminent danger of collapse,” according to a property report released at the June 10 Architecture Committee meeting.

But the entire building, which sat in the rear side of the L-shaped property, was likely demolished without approval in late 2009 or early 2010, the report said. An October 2019 cyber attack on New Orleans’s computer systems initially prevented the VCC from making the discovery, however the violation went overlooked for 10 years.

The VCC is a regulatory body tasked to preserve the visual character of the French Quarter, which is also a designated national landmark, and uses a color-ranking system to assign historical or architectural importance.

The Governor Nicholls Street building was yellow-rated, which “contributes to the character of the district,” and requires a level 2 or “significant” work permit.

A description of the building wasn’t provided, although demolition is rarely considered appropriate, according to the VCC.

Online records from the Historic New Orleans Collection indicate the property was first surveyed in 1722 and eventually contained a 4-room house, servant’s quarters and other structures.

“Although the unpermitted demolition of a contributing building is never acceptable, staff notes that the current owners only purchased the property in 2019 and were not involved at the time of the demolition,” VCC staff wrote in the property report.

Staff inquired if the current property owners were interested in reconstructing the building, but they wanted to keep the space open, the report said.

Commissioner Stephen Bergeron inquired whether the VCC could fine the previous owner for the unauthorized demolition, but that wasn’t clear.

Additionally, the current owner could also take legal action against the former owner, according to the report.

However, staff director Bryan Block said the VCC could require the current owner to rebuild the structure, but added the only reasons why staff approved of keeping the building demolished is because the current owner was unaware of the violation and staff wasn’t alerted because the structure wasn’t visible from the street.

NOFD orders demolition of Hard Rock Hotel, adjacent structures

An order to demolish the Hard Rock Hotel and several historic buildings adjacent structures was issued Tuesday by New Orleans Fire Superintendent Tim McConnell.

The order comes as the June 1 start of hurricane season approaches and amid public pressure towards city officials to take immediate action to retrieve two dead bodies still trapped inside the collapsed hotel.

The hotel’s upper floors collapsed on the morning of Oct. 12, killing three construction workers Jose Ponce Arreola, Quinnyon Wimberly and Anthony Magrette.

The bodies of Arreola and Wimberly have remain trapped inside the condemned structure for more than six months as the city and 1031 Canal St., the hotel’s developers, have deferred responsibility to each other for the demolition of the building.

Hard Rock Hotel New Orleans construction crane collapses, killing at least one person

“These orders were posted under the authority of our Superintendent with my support, clearing the way for the Hard Rock site to be demolished,” said New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell. “We have issued a conditional permit which gives 1031 what they need to move forward.

“I do not want to take the families of the victims through any more obstacles to get this building taken down,” she said. “At the end of the day, the most important thing is to retrieve the remains of our people.”

An independent analysis submitted by the developers confirmed the need to demolish the adjacent structures at 1022 Iberville Street and 1019, 1027 and 1027 Canal streets in order to safely level the Hard Rock Hotel, according to city spokeswoman LaTonya Norton.

Applications to demolish the adjacent structures were filed by the developers for consideration before the Central Business District Historic District Landmarks Commission on Wednesday, but the applications were withdrawn due to McConnell’s order.

HDLC staff previously recommended the commission deny the demo applcations for the buildings located at 1019-1025 and 1027 Canal streets due to their historical significance, but the emergency order declared on the Hard Rock structure allows McConnell to override the commission’s decision.

The demolition plans call for the Hard Rock to be demolished piecemeal using cranes and the bodies could be retrieved in about 30 days, according to The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate.

“The proximity of the nearby historic structures, narrowness of Iberville Street and distance of the collapsed building from Burgundy Street require precise positioning of demolition cranes within the footprint of the four adjacent structures if the collapsed building is to be safety demolished,” McConnell wrote in his order.

“Should a major storm strike the city during the upcoming hurricane season, the risk of further collapse of the unsafe and unstable structure would be greatly exacerbated,” McConnell said.

Read the full order:

Demolition permits filed for three buildings adjacent to the Hard Rock Hotel

Permits were filed to demolish a handful of structures near the Hard Rock building, according to the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents, and Associates (VCPORA).

Demolition permits were filed for three addresses, according to VCPORA, and they include: 1019 Canal St., 1027 Canal St. and 1022 Iberville St.

The permits for the Canal properties show they are “located in the Red zone” of the Hard Rocket Hotel at 1031 Canal St. and demolition of the structures are “necessary to facilitate demolition operations and planning required” at the partially collapsed building.

The Hard Rock Hotel partially collapsed on Oct. 12 at 9:12 a.m., according to various reports, killing three workers, injuring dozens more and strewing debris near the intersection of Canal and North Rampart streets.

Several videos of the collapse emerged hours later on social media.

The cause of the collapse is still under investigation.

A partial implosion of the building on Oct. 20 toppled the construction cranes, leaving one dangling and the other crashing down onto North Rampart Street.

But the remainder of the building remains standing. The hotel project reportedly cost $85 million.

The two Canal street buildings are owned by LLCs registered to the same officer and manager of the Hard Rock property, VCPORA said.

The developer listed for the Hard Rock building and adjacent properties is listed as 1031 Canal Development LLC, which wants to demolish the 18-story Hard Rock building and adjacent structures.

The demolition requests will appear for approval before the Jan. 8, 2020 meeting of the Central Business District Historical District Landmarks Commission.

“We seriously question the need for further removal of this block and are trying to find out more,” VCPORA said on its Facebook page Dec. 18.

The Oct. 12 collapse killed Anthony Magrette, 49; Quinnyon Wimberly, 36; and Jose Ponce Arreola, 63.

The bodies of Wimberly and Ponce were reported to still be trapped inside the rubble, according to The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate.

The newspaper reported that relatives of those who were killed in the collapsed have filed lawsuits against the groups behind the construction–including 1031 Canal Development LLC and Citadel Builders.

Delmer Joel Ramirez Palma, a Honduran national and Hard Rock worker who survived the collapse and later voiced his concerns to investigators, was deported on Nov. 29, WWLTV reported.