A seemingly unstoppable juggernaut proposal to move city headquarters to Armstrong park runs up against a new and determined coalition of community groups.
- story by Ellis Anderson and Frank Perez
Just two days after 20-plus New Orleans organizations joined forces to oppose the move of city hall to Armstrong Park, the city announced that it has scaled back its original plans considerably. But don’t expect the new coalition to back off – in fact, organizers believe it will continue to grow until the controversial relocation is off the table altogether.
The Relocation Plan
The city’s push to find new headquarters began well before the pandemic. In 2019, the administration commissioned a study that found the existing city hall was badly in need of repairs which would cost roughly the same as building a new structure.
The choice of relocating to Armstrong Park was influenced by $38 million of unused FEMA money reserved for the restoration of the Morris FX Jeff, Sr. (Municipal) Auditorium, which has sat vacant since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
While the relocation project was announced in the summer of 2020, few facts surfaced in the ensuing months. For instance, a recent look at the city’s website showed no heading or link for the proposal under Major Studies and Projects. Yet on April 23, the city released a 700-page Request for Qualifications (RFQ). The RFQ contains both a programming section for the current city hall and three proposed site masterplans for the Armstrong Park site.
The three park masterplans in the RFQ call for reconstruction of the now abandoned Municipal Auditorium and for three additional buildings to be constructed in the park. Ranging in height from nine – twelve stories, the new buildings would be used for civil district court facilities, a parking garage and additional office space. The RFQ estimates the total costs to run more than $170 million (minus the $38 million dedicated FEMA funds).
View from the East of Concept 1, showing new office and court complexes and parking garage.
The additional office building was deemed necessary because the Municipal Auditorium is smaller than the current city hall on Perdido street. Overcrowding there had already forced the city to lease space elsewhere.
FEMA's promise of $38 million is a dazzling golden carrot dangling before the city’s cart. New Orleans will lose the money if they don’t have all the funds under contract by August 2023. Yet even those millions aren’t enough to bring the Municipal Auditorium back to its pre-Katrina condition.
"Without Sufficient Engagement"
The magnitude of the relocation/construction project, as well as its highly advanced state of planning surprised most community leaders and residents in the neighborhoods that would be most impacted: Tremé and the French Quarter.
Amy Stelly, a professional urban planner who lives in the Tremé, is co-founder of the Claiborne Avenue Alliance and also serves as board president of Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents and Associates (VCPORA). She admits to being taken aback by the scope of the RFQ, although she had first spoken to the mayor about the project in early March 2020.
“Here we are, a year and change later, and this huge report surfaces with all kinds of things nobody knew,” Stelly said. “People still don’t know. The city has done all this without sufficient engagement and they’re fast tracking it.”
The city’s amended approach, reported June 4 in NOLA.com, scraps plans for additional buildings, and while the interior of the circa 1930 auditorium will be reconfigured, the façade will be restored and remain as is.
The Friday announcement of sudden changes in the city’s plans came only two days after a community meeting where the leaders of nearly two dozen neighborhood associations, non-profit and grassroots organizations created a new coalition to fight the relocation.
As of press time, some coalition members are calling it Save Our Soul (or SOS). A partial listing of members currently includes:
Bethany Ewald Bultman, co-founder and president of New Orleans Musicians Clinic and Assistance Foundation, Jackie Harris, executive director Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, Ausettua Amor Amenkum, The New Orleans Culture Preservation Committee at a sign-making event at Tuba Fats Square in the Tremé on May 29. Photo by Ellis Anderson
The new coalition may well grow into a citywide collective. Erin Holmes, executive director for VCPORA, noted that a few years ago organizations across the city teamed up for a successful push to regulate short term rentals.
“When projects of this magnitude are presented and can potentially impact so many groups of people, it’s natural for them to come together,” Holmes said. “There’s so much energy surrounding this [city hall issue], it’s incredible. I have a feeling this coalition is going citywide.”
Neighborhood advocates point out the relocation plan is just the latest of multiple actions by government officials that have torn at the fabric of the historic Tremé neighborhood in the last century. They believe relocation of City Hall to Armstrong Park would further harm the neighborhood.
Cheryl Austin is executive director of the Greater Tremé Consortium, founded in 1994 to “stop the destruction and displacement of residents, businesses and churches.” Austin grew up in the Tremé, observing many changes in the neighborhood over her 67 years. She recalls the blight that began after the construction of the elevated expressway over Claiborne. Later, nine entire blocks of the neighborhood were razed to develop Armstrong Park. Hundreds of families were displaced.
“I was witness to that destruction in the mid-60s,” Austin said. “No one really know what was going on. The houses came down, the land was flattened. We were literally eating dust every day.”
Austin is baffled as to why the city, knowing the neighborhood’s long battle against government intrusion, hasn’t asked the residents how they feel about the new project. She first learned about the move proposal when a friend alerted her about a city Zoom meeting taking place. She wasn’t invited, but sat in anyway.
“I tried to listen and not to react,” Austin said. “But it hit me so personally. I just don’t understand why our voices are never heard.”
Amy Stelly agrees.
This [Tremé] neighborhood has been subjected to a very tortured and painful series of governmental intrusions,” Stelly points out. “The city has not explained to us how this project lifts us up and is a benefit. And it’s not showing reverence or respecting its own culture by wanting to put a government building on hallowed ground.”
By calling Congo Square “hallowed ground,” Stelly’s referring to the fact that long before Europeans arrived in Louisiana, the area now named New Orleans was called Bulbancha. Bulbancha was home to a seasonal trading post that served dozens of indigenous peoples groups for hundreds of years before the “founding” of New Orleans.
The area now called Congo Square was sacred ground to the Houmas, who celebrated their annual corn harvest there with dancing and music. Later, it became famous as the place where enslaved people would gather on Sundays to celebrate their African culture and heritage. The music at these gatherings was instrumental in the development of jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, and rock-n-roll. Weekly celebrations and ceremonies still take place on the square.
Ausettua Amor Amenkum, a member of The New Orleans Culture Preservation Committee, said in an April Louisiana Weekly story that the group is opposed to the move because “it will encroach on Congo Square, which already has been identified as a national historic landmark and is a sacred space and a gathering space for many people in New Orleans.
“The mayor believes she will put measures in place that will protect Congo Square. What she doesn’t realize is that…When they built the auditorium in 1930, they had already encroached on Congo Square.”
Initial reactions to the scaled-down version of the city’s plan indicate that the stance of those organizations in the new SOS coalition isn’t likely to change. Suspicions run high. One French Quarter resident observed that “once the city gets a foot in the door, it’ll be easier for them to add projects in the future, no matter what they promise now. It’s called mission creep.”
When FQJ reached Amenkum by email on Saturday and asked what she thought of the scaled back city plan, she responded rapidly and definitively.
“We stand in solidarity that we are opposed to any form of city government relocating to Municipal Auditorium in Armstrong Park in Tremé.”