The River District group, led by Louis Lauricella, has been recommended by the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center’s selection panel to develop a new, 39-acre neighborhood along the Mississippi upriver from the Crescent City Connection.
The selection marks a big advance for a project that started a decade ago to build a new entertainment-focused district from scratch on mostly greenfield land owned by the Convention Center. The center’s leaders have long argued that such a development is needed to keep the New Orleans convention trade competitive in attracting big national events, as well as to breathe new life into the city itself.
In a letter sent Tuesday to the River District partners and a rival group, led by developer Paul Flower, the president of the Convention Center’s oversight board, Jerry Reyes, said: “Arriving at this point is a major milestone in delivering on our vision.” Reyes, who also is general manager of The Westin New Orleans hotel at Canal Place, added: “This project is of major interest not only to us but to the local and regional community that depends on the viability of our convention center to create economic impact opportunities.”
The Convention Center’s board is scheduled to vote Wednesday on the panel’s selection.
The center’s board and management, together with the experts on its selection panel, spent about four hours on Monday hearing presentations by the River District and Flower’s group.
Two development groups on Monday sketched out contrasting visions for a new district they are vying to develop on 39 acres of prime riverfront…
River District had argued that developing the new neighborhood should start with building homes and living amenities then turn to the entertainment component, so as to create an organic community that could support the businesses. That was opposite of the approach taken by Flower’s team, which proposed that a 5,000-seat music venue be first on the agenda.
“We felt that a focus primarily on the entertainment segment [in the first phase] could compromise the project’s long-term financial soundness,” Lauricella told the board. “That is especially important given the lessons we have learned during the pandemic.”
A key element of the River District neighborhood is housing aimed at those making average or below-average incomes. The development team said the first component of the development would be to construct 600 apartments, half of which would be split equally between those defined as “workforce” and “affordable”, based on their incomes relative to the city’s average.
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The plan envisions 1,100 housing units in total, with 450 designated for lower-income residents.
The residential component of the project would be led by Brian Gibbs, whose projects have included 930 Poydras, a modernist 21-story Central Business District building that was the first residential high-rise built in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina when it was completed in 2010. Also focusing on residential will be Tara Hernandez, CEO of JCH+ Properties and Michael Meredith, CEO of Verius Property Group – both prominent Black property developers. The River District proposal had emphasized that its team would consist of more than one-third Black and women-owned partners.
Flower is CEO of Woodward Design+Build of New Orleans.
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Lauricella, who took over his family’s Elmwood-based Lauricella Land Co. 35 years ago, graduated from Harvard University and has advanced degrees in law and business from Tulane. Most of his developments have been retail, the largest of which is the 1 million square foot Elmwood Center, an open air mall that includes a T.J. Maxx and a Marshall’s department store.
He will be the senior partner in the River District development together with Chris Maguire, CEO of Cypress Equities, a Dallas-based firm that also specializes in retail and mixed-use developments such as The Hill shopping and office complex in Dallas.
River District promised to invest more than $1 billion to create 2.4 million square feet of housing, retail, entertainment and office space, which would in turn create 4,500 permanent jobs. The group also emphasized that its plan would generate the most tax revenue for New Orleans and Louisiana governments, as well as potential upside for the Convention Center.
However, the Convention Center’s leaders said the details of the two presentations they heard this week wereof the teams. “We’re picking a partner, not a plan,” as Michael Sawaya, president and general manager of the Convention Center and a member of the selection panel, put it.
One element that all the competitors included was a civil rights museum, which all at Monday’s meeting agreed was long overdue in New Orleans.
Lauricella sprang a major surprise in Monday’s presentation when he told the board that he and his partners had contracted to buy several acres adjacent to the development site. Their planned purchase includes the Market Street power plant, long an eyesore on the riverfront.
One of the developers vying to be put in charge of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center’s huge “entertainment district” project said Monday …
“From the outset, this iconic property was part of our larger vision,” Lauricella said. “We strongly felt that it helped ‘bookend’ our River District with the Convention Center giving critical overall balance necessary to achieve a truly livable, mixed use neighborhood.”
Converting the old disused plant into an entertainment venue had been a vision of its owner, the developer and hotelier Joe Jaeger. But the pandemic weighed hard on Jaeger’s operations, especially his 19 hotels, and he had put the plant and seven surrounding acres up for sale in August.
He has now agreed to sell to the River District partners for almost $16 million, though as a partner in the nearby Mardi Gras World with Barry Kern, Jaeger said he might be involved in later stages of the entertainment district development.
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“There’s so much more that could be done [to develop Mardi Gras World as an attraction], but it’s hard to do it there in that location,” he said, referring to the current location on leased land at the end of Henderson Street. He and Kern own nearby land that would be more suitable to relocate Kern’s operation, which designs and exhibits to the public the famous Mardi Gras floats.
Jaeger said he also would like to see Mardi Gras World develop elements of a modern attraction, such as interactivity, and to integrate with the riverfront to make it more attractive to visitors.
Lauricella said the River District partners have been working with the Port of New Orleans and Tulane University, owners of large tracts of adjacent riverfront land, to coordinate development of the riverfront.
“We can become an agent to help facilitate the bringing together of all riverfront stakeholders to enhance and maximize the entire riverfront, from the French Quarter to the Clarence Henry Truckway at Felicity Street,” Lauricella said.
Port spokeswoman Jessica Ragusa said Tuesday that the port management already has been working with the Convention Center and others on ways to mitigate traffic bottlenecks along the Tchoupitoulas Street corridor, where heavy truck traffic moving to and from the port and nearby highways causes congestion.
“This new project adds urgency to that effort,” Ragusa said.
This week’s selection process was restarted after being delayed by more than a year by the pandemic. Last year, Walt Leger, Convention Center chairman at the time, had promised a transparent process that would allow the public ample opportunity to look over the competing visions for New Orleans’s newest neighborhood. But the process was hastily put together this time, with Monday’s public meeting not announced until Friday afternoon.
In the end, the public submitted nine comments, several of which called on the developers to pay all employees on the project a living wage and maximize employment.
Evan Conroy urged the developers to ensure the neighborhood was designed so as to reflect authentic New Orleans values.
“Locals seek authenticity in their homes, and increasingly visitors seek that same authenticity,” Conroy wrote. “They want to be in places where locals are because that’s where the soul is, that’s where the best food, music, and culture is found.”