‘Save the WTC’ campaign anything but grassroots

They are popping up all over town.

From coffee shops to front lawns, there they are — signs, in signature black and gold print, imploring passersby to “Save the WTC Building.”

But a grass-roots effort this is not.

Instead, the signs are part of an unorthodox campaign designed to build support for a multimillion-dollar proposal to turn the World Trade Center building into a hotel and apartment complex and to steer public endorsement away from a competing plan for redevelopment.

The signs and an affiliated website, along with a petition, are the work of Gatehouse Capital Corp., which is pushing to turn the iconic X-shaped office building at the foot of Canal and Poydras streets into a 245-room W Hotel with rental apartments on the upper floors.

It is intended as a direct assault on competitor Tricentennial Consortium’s plan to tear down the 33-story building and leave it largely as green space, said David Garcia, whose company DAG Development is the local partner on the Gatehouse project.

“This building is part of our authentic, historic fabric,” Garcia said. “It’s a landmark. Our skyline would not be the same without it. Why would you tear it down?”

The Gatehouse and Tricentennial Consortium plans are two of the three bid proposals that will be considered next month by a five-member committee appointed by the Landrieu administration and led by Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant. Gatehouse and another bidder, James H. Burch LLC, suggest leaving the building intact.

Only the Tricentennial Consortium, made up of tourism industry leaders, proposes tearing down the nearly 50-year-old structure. In its place would be open space and “an iconic tower structure,” presumably along the lines of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, designed to attract visitors and residents to the riverfront.

“Our idea is built around creating a demand generator, not a supply filler,” New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. Chief Executive Officer Mark Romig said in a statement. “Our concept is building a site for the public to enjoy, not developing a parcel for primarily private use.”

The unconventional Gatehouse maneuver is a response to what Garcia characterized as unfair attention and support being given to the Tricentennial Consortium’s proposal.

Shortly after bids were due to the city in April, the tourism industry held a news conference laying out its five-year plan for riverfront development, including demolishing the World Trade Center site and redeveloping Spanish Plaza and vacant land near the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

Tricentennial Consortium is an alliance made up of leaders from The Audubon Nature Institute, New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., the Multicultural Tourism Network, the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Louisiana Restaurant Association, the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association, SMG and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

The $140 million project would require an “immediate cash injection” of $25 million from the convention center to begin the demolition site upgrades. Private investment and contributions from the tourism industry would make up the rest.

Garcia argues that the news conference gave the Tricentennial Consortium a leg up on its competitors by allowing the group to make a public pitch before the selection committee or residents were allowed to view all of the projects.

It also left the Gatehouse team with the impression that the consortium’s project was favored by city officials, some of whom sit on tourism boards.

“In some ways, they started it,” Garcia said. “We did not feel like we could count on an objective selection process. Despite the (request for proposals), we believed the plan was already to tear to it down.”

The Landrieu administration rejected that suggestion Friday.

Proposals will be evaluated by a selection committee at a July 2 public meeting at City Hall based on “qualifications, performance history and financial capacity, in addition to the project’s financial feasibility,” mayor’s office spokesman Tyler Gamble said in a statement.

In addition to Grant — acting CEO of the New Orleans Building Corp., the public-private entity that owns the World Trade Center — the selection committee includes 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.

“The New Orleans Building Corp. will select a proposal based on these criteria in an open and competitive process,” Gamble said. “Any outside lobbying will have no impact on the selection process.”

Gatehouse has received hundreds of requests for signs, Garcia said. A petition that calls the consortium’s plan “short-sighted, wasteful and irresponsible” had generated just more than 300 signatures by Friday evening.

Nearly 3,000 users are monitoring the Save WTC NOLA Facebook page.