Official voices unease over building project

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The New Orleans City Council last week gave preliminary approval for the owners of the Plaza Tower to open the skyscraper's parking garage in an effort to help generate funds for a pending renovation.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The New Orleans City Council last week gave preliminary approval for the owners of the Plaza Tower to open the skyscraper's parking garage in an effort to help generate funds for a pending renovation.

The future of the Plaza Tower has been uncertain for years, with previous owners announcing plans to return the 45-story tower to commerce but never being able to make them a reality.

That shaky history gave District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell pause last week when the current owners asked to be granted approval to open the skyscraper’s garage for public parking in an effort to help finance a future renovation project.

While the council voted 5-0 to approve a zoning docket to allow the garage’s operation, Cantrell said she would not approve an ordinance to give the decision the force of law until she sees a redevelopment plan for the building and is assured of the approval of an application for federal and state historic restoration tax credits eligibility. That aspect is an integral part of paying for any redevelopment.

“This particular property goes back many, many years of not being redeveloped and having presented citizens with false plans. It would be good if we could be presented with actual plans of redevelopment moving forward.” Cantrell said during the Thursday council meeting.

While she said she realized the current owners aren’t responsible for previous broken promises and believes they are serious about rehabbing the building, she was uneasy about allowing activity there until there is proof that major work can begin that will result in its reopening.

Jeff Good, an attorney with Jones Walker who represents, JSW Plaza Tower LLC, the current owner, said that allowing the garage to reopen would be a “turning point” for the building.

He said he agreed that there have been too many broken promises about the building’s redevelopment but said his client has been honest that it will take many years before work can begin, not only because of financing but because the area is not yet ready for the building’s return.

The Plaza Tower sits at Loyola and Howard avenues on the edge of the Central Business District, removed from the critical mass of high rises that make up the core of the city’s skyline and CBD.

Opened in the late ’60s, The tower was meant to anchor a row of other skyscrapers on Loyola Avenue. Those, however, never came into being, and the CBD grew up along Poydras Street.

In the ensuing years the building began to deteriorate and was plagued by complaints about toxic mold. It closed 10 years ago when the last tenants moved out. It has sat gutted in recent years after previous owners’ plans for redevelopment fell through.

Bryan Burns, one of the partners of JSW Plaza Tower, has said that the company’s goal is to transform the high rise into a mixed-use facility that would house apartments, office space and shops.

While Cantrell noted that the surrounding area is “experiencing a tipping point,” alluding to the new Loyola Avenue streetcar line, several new businesses and a planned development known as the South Market District, Good said there needs to be more of that nearby development before it makes sense to develop a full plan for the tower.

While there were no public objections during last week’s council meeting and though the City Planning Commission recommended approval of the zoning docket, the developer of the South Market District objected to the idea.

In a letter to the planning commission dated Nov. 6, Chris Papamichael, of the Domain Companies, said that the demand is not there for more parking in the area.

He also said that the Plaza’s 193-spot garage could negatively affect the South Market District’s planed 435-space garage. Additionally, he noted, the tower’s owners might not be inclined to go forward with a full renovation if the garage should become profitable.

“This section of downtown New Orleans is at a critical juncture where the potential to develop this long undeveloped area is currently commercially viable,” Papamichael wrote. “While we are in favor of seeing a full development plan for Plaza Tower ... we not only see no benefit to granting the approval of this nonaccessory garage conditional use application, but foresee serious repercussions that could hinder the financial viability of the development of this area.”

Good, however, told the council that the plan is to complete a full restorations of the building.

“What we’re trying to do today is get the lights back on,” Good said. “They didn’t buy this building to put parking in it. … As soon as they can feasibly do it, they want to move forward with full development of this building.”