Committee hopes to make decision on World Trade Center bids next month

A decision on the future of the former World Trade Center is still more than a month away, the chairman of the committee evaluating proposals to redevelop the site said Tuesday.

The five-member panel hopes to make a recommendation to the New Orleans Building Corp. in mid-August after hearing formal presentations from each of the developers competing to build at the site and reviewing their answers to a list of specific questions they will be given next week, Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant said.

Three groups are competing for the right to lease the site from the city.

Two respondents, John H. Burch LLC and Gatehouse Capital Corp., propose leaving the distinctive, X-shaped building intact and repurposing it as a hotel and residential apartments. A third proposal from the Tricentennial Consortium, an alliance of tourism industry leaders, calls for the 50-year-old building’s demolition. The group has proposed filling the site with green space and an undetermined “iconic structure.”

The selection committee did not weigh in on the projects Tuesday. Committee members, including Grant; Cindy Connick, executive director of the Canal Street Development Corp.; William Gilchrist, the city’s director of place-based planning; Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin; and Jeffrey Hebert, executive director of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, said they were left with questions on financial feasibility, urban design, return on investment and viability after reading each of the proposals.

Committee members will submit their questions to representatives from Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann L.L.C. next week. The law firm, which is advising the selection committee on financing, real estate, legal issues and other matters during the selection process, will compile the questions and present them to project developers, Grant said. The developers were told to answer the questions as part of a 30-minute presentation they will deliver to the committee at a public meeting on July 30.

Tuesday’s meeting, the committee’s first since proposals were due in April, packed a meeting room at City Hall. Several people attended to protest Tricentennial’s demolition plan.

Gatehouse, in a public campaign, has positioned the choice before the committee as a decision between saving the former World Trade Center site — its plan — and razing it, Tricentennial’s proposal. The group’s “Save the World Trade Center Building” initiative has steadily built support since launching last month, getting some backing from preservationists. More than 50 people turned out for a rally in support of the building before Tuesday’s meeting.

In response, Tricentennial has sought to recast itself as a public steward that would save the building from private developers seeking to lock citizens out of the space.

Though the meeting was not intended to be a platform for presentations from the developers, representatives from both the Tricentennial Consortium and Gatehouse Capital spoke during the period allowed for public comment.

“There’s a lot of talk about a building, saving a building,” said Toni Rice, president of the New Orleans Multicultural Tourism Network, a member organization in the Tricentennial Consortium. “This is public space. It belongs to every citizen and I can not imagine taking something that is public and turning it into something that is private and for-profit so that the only citizens that can enjoy it are people that can afford to own a home there or rent a room. We would never consider doing this in any other public space in the city. Everyone should have access to this space.”

The consortium is open to scrapping its demolition plan if doing so would keep it out of the hands of the other developers, Tricentennial Consortium member Darryl Berger said.

“Every other option should be explored and exhausted before turning over such a site for private use,” said Berger, chairman of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. “I would say, certainly from our standpoint, the public use could be adapted. If the city is in love with the building and it’s deemed that it should be kept, public use can be adapted there. We do not think that it should be turned over to private use.”

Redeveloping the former World Trade Center site is a key part of the tourism industry’s expansive, five-year plan for construction projects and infrastructure improvements, including development of a riverfront “festival park,” a privately developed hotel and a “people mover” system along and around Convention Center Boulevard.

David Garcia, president of DAG Development, a partner in the Gatehouse proposal, said his team plan of turning the building into a 245-room W hotel with rental apartments on the upper floors wouldn’t eliminate opportunities to develop the riverfront or public access to the building. A John Besh restaurant, for instance, is proposed at the site.

“This is not a choice between tearing the building down or redeveloping the riverfront,” Garcia said. “We really strongly believe that redeveloping the World Trade Center into a powerful, new economic engine can help pay for all those riverfront improvements. …It’s unfortunate that this has become perceived as a conflict. It really should not be.”