A controversial plan by Mayor LaToya Cantrell to move New Orleans City Hall to the long dilapidated Municipal Auditorium is "dead in the water," a city spokesman said Tuesday, offering the most clear-cut statement to date that the administration has given up on the project.
But activists from Treme and elsewhere in the city who are against the plan — and are actively developing an alternative use for the historic site — said they are not ending their fight until they see concrete steps from the city that it has abandoned the plan.
Cantrell began talking about the Municipal Auditorium plan soon after taking office, and officials had touted it as a way to solve two problems: getting new offices for the city and using $38 million in FEMA funds from Hurricane Katrina tied to the building.
But the plan faced significant hurdles beyond the public outcry over what some saw as a desecration of the nearby Congo Square. For one, the project was never fully funded. It also would have required dramatically scaling down the number of employees who reported in-person to City Hall every day. And most significantly, council members responded to the outcry over the administration's proposal with a pair of ordinances to restrict development in the park.
The council’s actions caused the city to pause its efforts, telling activists in July they could prevent City Hall from moving in if they came up with their own design and funding for the cultural center they desired. But failing that, the administration has always suggested it would move forward with the City Hall move.
That option appears now to be off the table. Asked for an update on Municipal Auditorium during a regular weekly press briefing Tuesday, Cantrell Communications Director Beau Tidwell made the announcement with little fanfare.
“The idea to move City Hall to the Municipal Auditorium is dead in the water," Tidwell said. "It’s been made clear that that’s not what people want. That’s understood, so we’re not moving with that in a deliberate kind of way."
Those comments come just days before voters go to the polls to decide whether Cantrell deserves a second term. Though the mayor has consistently held a massive lead over her largely unknown challengers, the Municipal Auditorium issue has been a thorn in her side.
Tidwell couched his remark as simply reiterating the status quo. But activists said they were caught off guard by the comments, which to them seemed to be a major shift in policy.
Cheryl Austin, a founding member of the Save Our Soul coalition that has fought against the City Hall plan, said she fielded nearly a dozen calls from members of the group after Tidwell made his comments. And she expressed confusion – and skepticism – that such an announcement would be made without any official comment from Cantrell, who she said hadn’t talked to the group since early summer.
“We’re all just blown away. Why wouldn’t you talk to us, why wouldn’t you let us know that you’re withdrawing your plans and what are the future plans for City Hall?” Austin said. “Do you have a new location, would you like to let us in on it and how do we actually come together with our concerns for that site and what’s good for the city?”
Austin said she wouldn’t accept that City Hall was truly off the table unless the city swore off the development in writing and took other steps — including canceling a bid seeking firms to help redevelop the site.
It remained unclear Tuesday why that process had not been canceled. The city recently extended the deadline for bidding until late January. It also wasn't clear if city was making any effort to come up with its own alternative.
The Save Our Soul coalition, however, is still working on its plan. Austin said the group was putting together a proposal that would renovate Municipal Auditorium for a similar price tag as the administration was envisioning, $130 million or more, as part of an even more ambitious half-billion-dollar effort to fix up the entirety of the neglected park.
To finance the effort, the group would need the city as well as the state and federal government to kick in funds, Austin said. That would violate one of the terms that Cantrell set when she put the onus on developing an alternative on the activists, since she specified they would have to come up with their own funding.
“It would be ludicrous if we didn’t recognize that we needed the help of the government to restore this building or reimagine this site,” she said.
The group expects to have a rough draft of its proposal by next week, with a final design by the beginning of next year. Austin said developer Pres Kabacoff and French Quarter hotelier Michael Valentino have been tapped to help with the project. Both Kabacoff and Valentino declined to comment on the plan, saying the coalition was taking the lead on the effort.
“What we don’t want to see is another ten years of not knowing what is going to happen at that site,” Austin said.