City urges BioDistrict board to stay out of debate over new courthouse

As Mayor Mitch Landrieu tries to advance his proposal to move City Hall and Civil District Court into the former Charity Hospital building, Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin on Wednesday urged the board of the BioDistrict New Orleans to abandon its consideration of a proposal that would assist in the construction of a new courthouse at another site.

“I don’t think … that this is the fight that the BioDistrict wants to get into in terms of the city and its relationship with the Civil District Court and where to locate court facilities,” said Kopplin, who sits on the BioDistrict’s board. “I think the board would be better served staying out of that debate and letting the mayor and the judges handle it themselves.”

Jim McNamara, the executive director of the cash-strapped BioDistrict, has been hoping to broker a partnership with the Civil District Court judges to construct a new courthouse at Duncan Plaza, on the site of the former state Supreme Court building and a former state office building. The deal would give the BioDistrict, which was approached by the judges because it can issue bonds, a source of revenue.

That plan, however, conflicts with the city’s proposal to turn the former Charity building, vacant since Hurricane Katrina, into a municipal complex occupied by city government offices and Civil District Court.

The judges, led by Judge Michael Bagneris, have been vocal in their opposition to moving into the hospital building and sharing a space with City Hall.

The judges and McNamara envision an agreement by which the BioDistrict would issue bonds for the construction of a new courthouse and then act as either its developer, co-developer or financier. The agency also would manage and operate the building and possibly share in revenue generated from a parking lot, eating establishment or copy center, if those were built.

The BioDistrict’s board was largely cold to the idea at a June meeting, with some members questioning whether the district was overstepping its boundaries and operating outside its level of expertise. But they said they were open to more discussion.

On Wednesday, McNamara sought to assuage some of the board’s concern by bringing in the agency’s attorney, who described the BioDistrict as having, under state law, “very broad” authority to participate in development projects.

But Kopplin said his interpretation of the legislation establishing the BioDistrict was more narrow, granting the economic development district the right to participate in development projects only as they relate directly to support of the biosciences industry.

Kopplin suggested that the board go on record as removing itself from the courthouse discussion. Continuing conversations around the topic would not be “constructive,” he said, unless the board was prepared to vote to move forward with the plan.

Only six of the 15 BioDistrict board members were present for Wednesday’s meeting, leaving it without a quorum and unable to vote.

“I’ve made my position and the city’s position very clear,” Kopplin said. “There are a lot of projects to do. This is not one I would recommend spending more time on, or providing evidence to the state or to the judges that the BioDistrict is going to move forward with, unless we voted to move forward with it. And if we’re not going to move forward, we need to stop having the conversations.”