Mayor LaToya Cantrell is making another run to relaunch the Municipal Auditorium.
A year after a coalition of neighborhood groups scuttled Cantrell’s plans to turn the dilapidated, nearly century-old building into a new city hall, the administration issued a formal request Wednesday for a contractor to fix the roof , replace broken doors and windows, repair water damage and undertake other work in a new effort to bring the auditorium back to life.
The work will be paid for with $37 million in FEMA money the city received in 2018, after years of fighting with the agency over how much the federal government should pay to repair damage from Hurricane Katrina.
Formerly known as Morris FX Jeff Auditorium, the once-prized community asset that hosted concerts, carnival balls and other events has become an emblem of failing public policy in the middle of Louis Armstrong Park.
It looked set to stay that way after widespread outcry in 2021 over fears that moving City Hall would encroach on Congo Square. In the face of protests and city council orders preventing action on the building, Cantrell ended his plan and challenged community advocates to come up with their own.
Work with the community
City spokesman Gregory Joseph said that over the next year, the administration began working with community groups organized under the banner of the nonprofit Save Ours. Soul Coalition which opposed the City Hall relocation plan.
The RFQ is the first step in a larger project, he said. Before the end of the year, Cantrell plans to solicit proposals for a master developer who could transform the auditorium and surrounding grounds into a multi-purpose entertainment, educational, commercial and cultural venue.
The Save Our Soul Coalition floated the idea of a culture and entertainment hub amid the controversy over City Hall. In the months that followed, the group worked on the outline of its vision, according to coalition chairman Jackie Harris.
He also met with the city to develop a cooperative effort agreement that would essentially guarantee the coalition a seat at the table in all future planning efforts.
Harris said her group is pleased the city is finally making progress on repairing the auditorium, though she said the coalition was only made aware earlier this week of plans to solicit contractors to make the necessary repairs.
“I wouldn’t say we’re upset, but we’re disappointed that we haven’t had a chance to see or even discuss the remediation plans,” she said. “It would appear that the refurbishment and repair work they are carrying out will affect future redevelopment plans.”
Long time work
The city’s request for qualification released Wednesday requests architectural and engineering services for remediation and repair work on the building, which has suffered so much damage from neglect and vandalism in the past 17 years. since Katrina only because of the flood.
Much of the work outlined in the RFP was identified by the city years ago when it first applied for FEMA grant funds to cover the cost of repairs. It includes nearly twenty elements, including: assessment of the current state of the building, demolition of damaged elements, repair of the roof, replacement of windows and doors, repair of damage caused by water infiltration, renovation of toilets and replacement of the heating and air conditioning system.
The city will select an architecture and engineering team in early December, with work expected to begin in the coming weeks. The clock will tick.
Under the terms of the FEMA grant, the repairs must be substantially complete by mid-2023, although not all the money must be spent by then, Joseph said.
years of neglect
The auditorium’s lack of repairs — and growing damage to the building — is a long-standing problem that didn’t come to the fore until Cantrell’s plan to move City Hall on the site is made public.
While temporary repairs were made immediately after Katrina, a damage report was not submitted to FEMA until 2012. In 2015, the city was seeking $89 million in FEMA funds to repair the building. FEMA offered to pay less than half that amount, arguing that much of the damage was due to years of neglect after the flood.
In 2018, an arbitration panel finally settled the case, with the two sides agreeing to a payment of $38 million.
By this time, Cantrell was in power and saw the federal money as an opportunity to renovate the building and secure a new location for City Hall.
Opposition quickly grew, particularly from nearby residents and organizations who argued that the move would undermine the park’s Congo Square and betray the site’s cultural history.
The controversy culminated in December when the city council passed a series of measures that created a new definition of a “city hall” in the city’s zoning laws and essentially limited where such a building could be built.
The Save Our Soul Coalition has drawn up project plans, but declined to share a printed document of its vision, saying they were still preliminary.
But Harris said the group is considering several elements for the space, including a museum, a small performance hall and a market for local vendors and small businesses.
“There could also be an educational component and something like a supper club, reminiscent of the Roosevelt’s Blue Room,” Harris said. “We want a place where all citizens of New Orleans, and especially the people of Treme, call home.”