Tuesday, July 02, 2013

What goes up surely must come down*

I watched some of the WTC selection committee meeting today on Twitter. I came away wondering why it was even scheduled in the first place. What happened today was little more than a meet and greet.
The selection committee charged with evaluating three proposals for redeveloping the World Trade Center site said it hopes to make a recommendation to the New Orleans Building Corp. in mid-August, following formal presentations from each of the respondents at the end of July.
I thought it was strange that they began today with public comment before any of the presentations had even been made. And then it turned out that was the entire meeting. Could separating the unpredictable rabble of a public comment from the actual business of the selection process have been the whole point of this exercise?

If so, it barely did any good since most of the speakers were themselves prominent figures involved with the bidding parties in one way or another. Here, for example, is the wealthy beneficiary of our city's most obvious examples of commercialized public space apparently trying to be funny.

There were other examples of people being hypocrites or caricatures or both. Here is a preservationist suggesting that we stick another fleur-de-lis in another "old girl."

There are more of these but you get the idea and I don't want to crib The Lens's entire Twitter feed.  After this ended there was the obligatory speech from Andy Kopplin about what a great job he's doing at keeping the process open and transparent and stuff.   And then the meeting adjourned so they could all go in the back and submit some questions to the bidders through their lawyers.
Committee members said Tuesday that after reading the proposals they were left with questions on everything from financial feasibility to urban design. They will submit those questions next week to representatives from Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann L.L.C law firm, which is advising the selection committee on financing, legal issues and other matters, Grant said. Stone Pigman will compile the questions and present them to each of the project developers, Grant said.

And that was it.  Kind of a weird, anti-climactic day at City Hall. But then again, I guess they all are.

Meanwhile, Owen Courreges has chimed in.  As is the case with any Courreges column, this is thoughtful and raises some good points but ends up being wrong or at least incomplete in some crucial respects.  What I think he gets the most right is he identifies a symbolic moment represented by the redevelopment of this building.
As Mayor Landrieu said at the time, “if it was up to me, I would tear it down.”  Landrieu also hoped that “the future of the city involves an open space that invites other things that ties the river completely together.”

In other words, a place for tourists.  He wants to tear down a monument to trade and economic vitality and replace it with “open space” proximate to the convention center and tourist attractions.  It’s like signing the death certificate on the local economy, an official statement that we aren’t coming back and should reach for whatever tourist scraps we can.
It is often the case that the political leadership in New Orleans, and this Mayor in particular, bestow far too much favor on the tourism industry.  I'd agree with Owen that the conversion of the Trade Mart property into a tourist attraction is a compelling symbol of this ever-growing dominance.

(Not sure I'd leap for that "death certificate" image just yet. There are signs of life in other sectors of the local economy but let's not get sidetracked with that just now.)

But I fail to see just how preserving the building changes anything in that regard.  Owen describes the Tricentennial proposal as "a government-driven scheme to enrich tourist interests with taxpayer money." I won't argue with that. I do think the implication that there's something inappropriate about the process being "government-driven" is a bit silly. At the very least we can see that the city, being the owner/potential lessor of the property, has a clear role in deciding what happens to it.

More to the point, how can the Burch and Gatehouse bids to renovate and convert the building into hotel/condo space be considered anything other than "schemes to enrich tourist interests" in their own right?

And with  plenty of taxpayer money to boot.  According to the BGR analysis, the financing for each of the renovation proposals includes approximately $75 million in federal and state historic preservation tax credits. Interestingly, BGR doesn't seem certain that the project would actually qualify for these tax credits. The language in the report reads, "(Gatehouse proposal) argues that the building is potentially eligible for substantial historic tax credits" and "(Burch) contends that the building is potentially eligible for historic tax credits." Apparently both developers are in the process of applying for some exception that would make the tower eligible for these credits but it's not exactly a given.

Of course they're still both better off than the Tricentennial bid in that regard. Its major source of taxpayer funding was just vetoed by the Governor. So really each of these bids in only potentially financed by taxpayer funds. Which is also to say, they are only potentially financed.

There are other ways in which the demolish and non-demolish options are more similar than they are different.  At today's meeting Tricentennial backers stressed the importance of not turning "public space" over to private developers.

And yet, the "iconic structure" the group plans to put in place there will certainly charge admission to tourists and to locals alike. Maybe that still qualifies as a public space somehow.  Could be that it's public-private partnering space.  I'm not sure how that works but I'll bet Ron Forman knows.

All three proposals envision either the elimination of the Canal Street ferry landing or its reduction to pedestrian-only use.  Owen Courreges isn't the only person to contend that the preservationist option is a defiant stand against the encroachment of the tourist business.  But I'm particularly surprised he didn't at least notice the threat to the local prerogative for vehicular transportation posed by all of these developers given that the topic is so important to him. If this isn't a conspiracy to "landlock" drivers, I don't know what is.

And, just to drive it home, let us note again that, while Tricentennial wants to build a park, giant "attraction," and a monorail and that these are pretty touristy things, both Burch and Gatehouse want to build hotels.** Burch's hotel will presumably include a Kermit Ruffins jazz club of some sort. Pretty touristy.

Gatehouse's hotel will supposedly have a giant Ferris Wheel set up next to it. That's not only touristy, it's touristy and hokey in very much the same way that a monorail is. It's as useless as it is uninteresting... not to mention unlikely to last very long.
PENSACOLA, Florida -- Those who never took a ride on 360 Pensacola Beach may have waited too long.

The 200-foot observation wheel that opened last July 3 on Pensacola Beach will offer its last rides in that location Saturday night. It will be disassembled next week and moved to Atlanta, where it will be renamed Skyview Atlanta.
Of course I could be wrong.  New Orleans preservation culture being what it is, a Skywheel here might only have to stand for like six months or so before it reaches "icon" status.  Maybe we should start applying for the appropriate tax credits now.

**The Tricentennial group also wants to build hotels and condos. Just not on the tower site.

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