Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration is scaling back its plans to move the seat of New Orleans’ government into the Municipal Auditorium, and will now aim to keep the project entirely within the confines of the historic building by cutting the number of people working there and abandoning a proposed multi-story parking garage.
Vincent Smith, the administration’s head of capital projects, said Friday that the city could reduce the amount of needed construction and renovation at the site by making permanent many of the remote work policies in place during the pandemic.
The move is a retreat from more ambitious proposals sketched out as officials have considered the plan and comes amid growing opposition from neighbors. Smith said the city’s latest planning would involve no changes to the exterior of the historic building.
It also wouldn’t include any additional buildings in Louis Armstrong Park, though ideas brought up the past included separate facilities for Orleans Parish Civil District Court and other structures, he said.
Currently, the city is seeking bids for a project manager that would oversee the entire process and an architect that would actually design the site. The work from the firms hired through that process will provide greater details on what the renovations will entail and the timeline.
Overall, the goal would be to have the project complete by 2024 or early 2025, Smith said.
Efforts to reduce the scope of the planned move of City Hall, which is still in the early stages, come as Tremé residents have criticized the move while citing conceptual plans that included extensive government buildings throughout the park.
Opponents of the plan say the details are swamped by what they described as the audacity of the plan’s very existence. For longtime organizers in Tremé, the proposal amounts to yet another attempt to take something from the city’s first Black neighborhood, which has already lost much — including the former residential blocks on which Armstrong Park now sits.
“We don’t need a governmental entity in the neighborhood, period,” said Cheryl Austin, with the Greater Tremé Consortium. “It was the government that destroyed the 10 square blocks over there, it was the government that displaced those families and destroyed the Black economic area.”
Others said that the administration should have first consulted with neighbors before they began to put the wheels into motion.
“For you to even engage in a conversation that destroys a place of reverence, destroys generational memories, totally disrespects the families that were dislocated or relocated, this says a lot about who you are,” said Sabrina Mays, with the New Orleans Black Mardi Gras Indians Cooperative.
City officials have long sought to move out of the current City Hall, with the former Charity Hospital being a chief contender under former Mayor Mitch Landrieu. That plan fell through and the hospital is now being converted to a mix of residential units, space for Tulane University and commercial tenants.
The idea of using the Municipal Auditorium was first floated early in Cantrell’s term and the administration has pushed the plan in the years since. City officials have repeatedly pointed to $38 million in FEMA funding to fix damage the building sustained during Hurricane Katrina — enough to get the ball rolling but not enough to fully restore it — as a key factor elevating the site over other properties the city owns such as the old Veterans Administration building downtown.
That money, opponents argue, should be used to restore the Municipal Auditorium to its former use, or to turn it into a cultural or civil rights museum.
On Friday, Smith said that the administration hasn’t changed course in wanting to make the move, but hopes to address neighbors’ concerns about preserving the building and the park.
“As we’re visioning this, the space being an opportunity to memorialize and exhibit the history of the auditorium but the history of Armstrong Park as well,” Smith said. “We feel like converting the building to City Hall is the best way to keep it as a public space where the public has free access.”
Officials have said that by selling the existing City Hall property, enough money could be generated to pay for much of the rest of the cost of restoring Municipal Auditorium. But that plan nevertheless has run straight into the fraught history of the Municipal Auditorium and the park as a whole.
While the legacy of the Municipal Auditorium is of a public gathering place, for Austin and some other residents of Tremé, the city’s decision to bulldoze the Black neighborhood around it in the 1960s to make way for what would become Armstrong Park remains a searing betrayal.
“It’s really disheartening that we even have to fight this fight because the history shows this community has been fighting this fight for the last 60 years,” Austin said.
Smith acknowledged the sins of the past, but said bringing the auditorium back into use was important for the community as well.
“As a Black man, it’s painful to read the history of the park and how the families were displaced, that’s horrible,” Smith said. But, he added, “It’s not helping the community leaving the auditorium in its current condition.”
Keeping city government within the confines of the existing building would be accomplished by dramatically scaling back the number of city workers who come into the office each day.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, roughly a third of the 1,500-person workforce in City Hall and other government offices has been doing their jobs from home. A post-pandemic remote work policy has not yet been finalized, but Smith said it would probably involve only slightly more people coming into the office, with extra space worked into the plans for shared workstations and conference rooms.
That reduced workforce could eliminate the need for a large parking garage that had been included in earlier plans and which has drawn the particular ire of some residents. Smith said the new proposal would likely only require the existing parking on site, possibly supplemented by shuttles to take workers from the city garage near the current City Hall to its new location.
The renovations to the building would also include a space for public access and education, Smith said.
“You might have the building and there are exhibits, there could be culture bearers sharing the history,” Smith said. “You come through that and maybe come out to Congo Square, for a time of reflection.”
“There’s so many ways we can make it work,” he said.
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