Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Iconic sinkhole

Something is not quite right beneath "the most valuable real estate in the city." 
NEW ORLEANS - Closures near the foot of Canal Street are unearthing a problem many residents didn’t even know existed.

It’s a 50-year-old problem in the making.

Underneath the street, a tunnel which stretches from Canal to Poydras Street is starting to buckle and has caused a shut down in the area.

The tunnel was built by the city in 1966 as part of a planned Riverfront Expressway that would have run along the edge of the French Quarter.

“It was probably a temporary design made out of steel and they probably didn't paint it," says Levees.org engineer H.J. Bosworth. "Those unpainted structures under the City of New Orleans don't stand a chance."

Bosworth said the concern now is if the damage underneath will cause the street above ground to collapse. He said there are several layers of concrete that prevent major damage.

"The collapse wouldn't be catastrophic and things dropping like 20 feet or anything like that,” Bosworth explained. “Something like that collapses little by little."
In a sure sign that New Orleans is returning to form a decade on from the catastrophic Katrina event, we're finally back into a mode where things merely collapse little by little.

One such slow motion collapse may involve the deal to finally put another decrepit Canal Street property "back into commerce."
A Florida real estate developer who is challenging the city's lease of the former World Trade Center building for a Four Seasons hotel must appear for a deposition in New Orleans, a judge ruled Tuesday (April 19).

Stuart "Neil" Fisher of Palm Beach, whose previous investments in New Orleans include failed attempts to develop the Market Street power plant and Plaza Tower, was ordered to appear for questioning by lawyers representing developers who hope to convert the World Trade Center into a Four Seasons hotel.

Orleans Civil District Judge Tiffany Chase issued the decision over the objections of lawyers for Two Canal Street Investors, a losing bidder on the World Trade Center, who said even though Fisher is president of the company, he isn't directly involved in the litigation and can't be forced to appear in Louisiana.
Okay so, wait. If Fisher, who we previously understood to be the owner of Two Canal Street Investors, is not the plaintiff in its lawsuit, then who is, exactly? There seems to be some disagreement.
A lawyer for the Four Seasons team attacked the credibility of Two Canal Street Investors during the hearing Tuesday.

"Mr. Fisher has no right of action," said lawyer Russ Herman. "He has no interest in Two Canal Street Investors' presentation to the city of New Orleans...and so here is an individual who purchases for $10 a shell corporation just in order to file a suit, and it has no assets."

Herman said he traveled to Florida twice expecting to depose Fisher, but both times Fisher did not appear.

Charline Gipson, a lawyer for Two Canal Street Investors, said Fisher is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, and Chase's ruling will be appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal. Gipson also took issue with Herman's depiction of Two Canal Street Investors.

"Opposing counsel has spun a story of desperation...that is designed to block the truth from coming out in this case," Gipson said.

The lawsuit is scheduled for trial on Oct. 24.

In an interview in March, Fisher said he is no longer an owner of Two Canal Street Investors, but he is the president and "authorized representative of the owners, both foreign and domestic." Fisher said he has a group of new investors including a Wall Street hedge fund, all of whom he declined to name.
First of all, it's strange that Four Seasons is trying to diminish Fisher's role in TCSI's original presentation.  Their own countersuit alleges that Fisher was a "shadowy operator" attached to the team the entire time.
But the court required the records be produced, and Carpenter/Woodward filed some of them this week as exhibits. They include emails sent by Fisher at the end of 2014 and early 2015, detailing his role in putting together TCSI's submissions to the city, describing the time he'd dedicated and the $300,000 he was "personally responsible for" putting into the project and listing himself and his friend, Bill Broadhurst, as members of the "Two Canal Street Investors LLC Team."
But since TCSI's team apparently agrees that Fisher isn't important enough to be deposed now, well, what the heck is even happening?  Are the former owners the plaintiff? According to that David Hammer story, at least one of the original owners is (was?) "back on board" with the litigation.
One of the original owners, local attorney Al Thompson, told WWL-TV he was initially against taking legal action, so he sold his stake to Fisher out of frustration. He says he's back on board with TCSI and now supports the litigation because of the "blatant misrepresentations of Carpenter and Co., et al."
Are the "new investors" the plaintiff?  Who are they?  Who is running this lawsuit?

Just as curious, why is the mayor so intent on shutting it down?
Legislation being pushed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration that attempts to fend off a lawsuit holding up a $360 million renovation of the vacant World Trade Center building was approved by a state Senate committee on Thursday (April 14).
This particular measure doesn't only affect this one lawsuit, of course. It also makes it more difficult for any aggrieved party to sue a so called public benefit corporation like, in this case, the New Orleans Building Corp.
The bill sponsored by Sen. Conrad Appel doesn't mention the World Trade Center specifically but changes what factors public benefit corporations can consider when picking a private company to lease public property. Public benefit corporations can award leases outside the standard public lease law.

The bill also requires anyone challenging a lease to pay cash or other security in order to file a lawsuit, an amount that could reach tens of millions of dollars on big projects. The bill would apply to both future and currently pending lawsuits.
So say, for example, you are a minority owned firm or maybe a neighborhood advocacy group challenging a NOBC decision.  Better have some kind of collateral on hand before you consider impeding the public progress.  That certainly seems like overkill. Especially so in this case where the mayor's allies assure everyone they are facing a "shakedown" artist with no real standing anyway.
"So this guy came and bought it for $10 and opportunistically has filed suit to...frankly, shake down the Four Seasons developers and the city of New Orleans, that's what's going on here," said Scott Whittaker, an attorney representing the New Orleans Building Corp.
If it's so simple, why are we running all the way to Baton Rouge for help?  Why are we taking out full page ads in Gambit this week?

Four Seasons ad

Why are we hiding behind all these illustrious signatories?

Illustrious signatories

Lookie there. I see Ron Forman, King Milling, Jimmy Reiss, Bill Goldring, Scott Cowen. Ordinarily when you see any one of those names attached to something it ought to be a red flag. Something is definitely fishy here.  You've got to think any local news organization worth its salt would be begging to see this thing go to court.  I mean, what reporter wouldn't want to see the depositions where decision-makers were asked how the mayor told them to vote and on whose behalf he might have made such a request?

Nobody at the Advocate, is too interested I guess. They just want us all to "move faster.
It is a misfortune for the city’s workers and the tourism trade that the lowest-ranked contestant for the project, amid numerous high-quality proposals considered, is holding up jobs and progress with a legal challenge.

Had this been a case of a point or two in the ratings, maybe we would be less impatient with the delay. But the winning project to bring the Four Seasons hotel and condominiums to the city won far more points in the ratings closely considered by a panel of city officials and experts.

The Four Seasons proposal won by a mile.
Ha ha, it won by a miles worth of "points" distributed by "experts." Yes, that's one way of putting it. Another way to describe this process might go like this.  After the Mayor's favored Tricentennial Consortium lost the first attempt at bidding this out to Gatehouse capital, the city proceed to obstruct the project by shaking down Gatehouse for legal fees as a pretext to void the bid and re-start the entire process.  That then led to a second assemblage of proposals reviewed by NOBC's panel of the "city officials and experts" who eventually awarded their "mile of points" to Four Seasons.

But, ok, so the Advocate's "Our Views" correspondent doesn't want to get too far bogged down in all that.  Instead, he/she/it(?) wants us to think about the "property values."
The Four Seasons proposal, according to city consultants’ evaluation, would produce the largest amount of taxes for the city and would have “higher economic multipliers” than the other projects because it would increase property values and bring luxury travelers to New Orleans.
"Higher economic multipliers" because "property values and luxury travelers" is probably the purest distillation you're going to find of the trickle-down development theory deployed to the great injury of our city's poor and working classes since the moment Katrina's floodwaters receded.  You don't have to look far to see it in action. Just take a look around your neighborhood.

None of this is any concern to the Advocate's editorial board. Nor are they interested in a legal action which might bring to light the actions of our city's most powerful people in directing and profiting by such atrocities. But whether or not our media institutions decide this stuff is worth printing on a banner over Poydras street or if they prefer to bury it in a tunnel under Canal, it's still the sort of thing that causes the social and political fabric of your city to buckle and collapse; even if little by little.

Update: TCSI's request for an injunction was denied today.  So it looks like Four Seasons has the go-ahead to begin work. The lawsuit itself is still pending though.

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