Concerns about street closure stall plans for new Westwego City Hall

Just when it looked like Westwego officials were ready to push ahead with plans to build the city’s new multi million-dollar City Hall, an unexpected wrinkle has caused another delay in the project.

Westwego Mayor Johnny Shaddinger was seeking approval from the City Council for Meyer Engineers to finalize plans for the 10,600 square-foot building, which is expected to serve as Westwego’s main governmental complex for generations. The expected budget for the building is about $3.6 million, and it’s going to be paid for entirely by the Federal Emergency Management Agency because of persistent flooding at the City Hall on Avenue A.

However, the building plans provoked some push back from some council members, particularly a proposal to partially close a city street to accommodate parking and a drive-through window at the facility. Councilman Ted Munch said he was disturbed to learn that a partial closure of West Drive was on the table because it would prevent residents from accessing Fourth Street directly.

Munch said he was never approached about the street closure in his district and said residents are irate.

“I don’t know how it came about. It certainly didn’t come from me, and it didn’t come from past administrations,” Munch said. “You can’t simply just close a street off and not have the neighbors have some say … It’s unfair; it’s not a very kind thing to do.”

Councilman Larry Warino said he doesn’t understand why Shaddinger pushed forward without first presenting the plans to city residents for their feedback. Warino noted that the plans have been through numerous revision, but the public has never been consulted. “Every time the councilmen met with Meyer Engineers, it seemed like they have a new plan,” Warino said. “I’d just like to see if we can slow it down a little bit and get a little public input.”

Warino said it’s important that the city get the new City Hall right because it will be a focal point for the city for generations. He also asked how the building would work with a new $1.6 million emergency operations center planned for the city and noted that plans for the building don’t include a new generator for operations during disasters.

“I think there’s a lot of things that we’re not looking at … This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the city,” Warino said.

But Shaddinger said he would prefer to see the council move forward with the plans now and then make changes later. The City Hall project has been delayed for years as Westwego first wrangled with FEMA over funding for the project and then waited for that money to be appropriated.

Recently, the project was delayed again because city officials were trying to get Capital One bank to donate a vacant property with the idea of using that land for the driver’s license bureau.

That would have freed up more space at the City Hall for city functions, but that deal appears to have stalled. Shaddinger said it’s time to move the project forward.

“I just think that this project has been delayed long enough,” Shaddinger said.

He acknowledged Munch’s concerns about the street closure, but said the closure is necessary for the facility to operate properly. The city has pushed the idea of a drive-up window for residents, he said, and that can’t work without the street closure. He also said that plans including a concrete pad for a generator, but the actual generator would need to be purchased separately.

“The product, the new City Hall that will bring us into the 21st century; we are going to want that street,” Shaddinger said.

State Rep. Robert Billiot, who attended the meeting, said that city officials do want to be careful about what plans they adopt, and he told the council to abandon any plans for combining the emergency operations center and City Hall.

The emergency operations center is being paid for with about $1.25 million in state funding and another $400,000 in matching funds from the city. Westwego is providing the land for the building as its match.

Both projects are slated for Fourth Street as part of a plan to turn the roadway into a focal point for the city with the new governmental complex, emergency operations center and Police Department.