National Park Service gives up lease at Armstrong Park

The National Park Service on Wednesday (Aug. 8) said it's turning over control of buildings it leased at Armstrong Park to the city, ending an arrangement that had been in place since 1999.

A National Park Service release said it has relinquished control of four key buildings: Perseverence Hall, Rabassa House, Reimann House and Caretaker's House that it had leased from the city. In an interview acting park superintendent Andy Ferrell said the park service began trying to get out of its lease with the city in 2014 after shifting focus on jazz programming to the U.S. Mint in the French Quarter.

Ferrell acknowledged the buildings have been in a state of decline since Katrina, with the Park Service only providing minimal maintenance there. He said the city has expressed an interest in taking over the park, but said he wasn't in a position to outline what the city's plans are.

"I guess it wasn't a high enough priority for either the city or the Park Service because there wasn't an idea of what to do with it or our interests were in other places," Ferrell said. "That was something that I thought I'd take control of it and get it out of the status quo where it wasn't moving."

In a statement, Mayor LaToya Cantrell's office said, "we are developing a comprehensive plan for these incredible assets and look forward to sharing that strategy in the coming months.

"We recognize that these buildings are underutilized and in terrible condition," Cantrell's office said. "We are already exploring a wide range of options for funding of repairs as well as for ongoing operations and maintenance of both Armstrong Park and the Municipal Auditorium. "

Federal legislation created the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park in 1994. When the lease was signed five years later, former Mayor Marc Morial said the park would "do for New Orleans what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame did for Cleveland."

In the 19 years since, Friends of Armstrong Park leader Leo Watermeier said he estimates Perseverence Hall has been open for 25 to 30 days for programming. While that building was renovated, Watermeier said the other structures have been in a constant state of decay.

"There's rot, there's termite problems, it's vulnerable to the homeless," Watermeier said. "They're boarded up, they're vacant, they've been broken into, they're in bad condition."

Watermeier said he's been urging the National Park Service for several years to turn the buildings back over to the city. He told park supporters in an email that he's concerned millions of dollars have been wasted there without anything happening.

"The bad thing is, it kept those buildings in kind of a limbo, waiting on the Park Service, waiting for something," Watermeier said. "It was always unclear who's in charge."

In 2001, WWOZ-FM was slated to get a new building in the park. The 6,000-square-foot building was estimated to cost $1.35 million and include a glassed-in broadcast booth and a performance space. The radio station had operated in the park since the 1980s and moved to the French Market after being displaced in Hurricane Katrina.