Mayor scraps plans for city complex at old Charity site

Mayor Mitch Landrieu has dropped an ambitious $300 million plan to convert the old Charity Hospital building into a civic center housing City Hall and the Orleans Parish Civil District Court. Landrieu said Wednesday that a lack of state funding and a skyrocketing construction budget led him to cancel the plan.

“The plans do not pencil out to build a new Civic Complex or to relocate to a new building. My plan is to invest FEMA and capital funding into reasonable repairs of the (existing government) buildings that will make them more efficient and safe,” Landrieu said in a statement. “Simply put, we cannot afford the project at this time, given our other critical needs.”

Landrieu was counting on a $100 million allocation from the state to help pay for the Charity transformation. He requested the money during the 2013 legislative session and received a commitment of only $13 million in the state’s capital budget. This year, the budget didn’t contain any money for the project. In addition, the mayor’s statement said, the city’s budget estimate had increased by nearly $130 million.

“Due to increases in our construction cost estimates for the project and to properly repair the building’s foundation as well as its damaged limestone fa├žade, our estimates for the cost of the project have grown by more than $100 million — up from $270 million to $397 million or more,” the statement said.

Landrieu did not say how much it will cost to repair City Hall instead of renovating Charity, but a report by Nola.com/The Times-Picayune said an earlier estimate of that option came to about $44 million.

The turnaround comes after a long public fight between Landrieu and the Civil District Court judges, who wanted to build a new courthouse on a patch of state-owned land in Duncan Plaza. When Gov. Bobby Jindal did not sign off on the Duncan Plaza property, the judges accused Landrieu of hardball tactics to get his way on the civic complex.

Under a 2010 state law, the Judicial Building Commission — made up of the Civil District Court judges — can charge higher court fees to put toward a new courthouse fund. The fund will be used to issue and pay off bonds for construction. The law, which only authorizes a “new facility,” also has an August 15 deadline to solicit bids for construction. After that, the money must be used to repair the current courthouse.

House Bill 916, which cleared the Legislature this year and is awaiting Jindal’s signature, extends the deadline by a year and removes the word “new” from the law, also allowing the court to move into a renovated facility.

The commission has yet to identify a site or come up with more than $100 million it would need for a standalone courthouse. Last year, the New Orleans BioDistrict, a bonding authority, voted against issuing bonds on the commission’s behalf after the Landrieu administration, including BioDistrict board member Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin, lobbied against it. Civil District Court Chief Judge Kern Reese said the commission is looking for another bonding authority to issue the debt.

Though Landrieu’s statement said the city plans to renovate both City Hall and the courthouse and keep them in the same locations, Reese said the judges are still looking at alternate sites. The Civil District Court building is adjacent to City Hall. The entire complex is bounded by Poydras Street, Loyola Avenue, Perdido Street and La Salle Street.

“We can take a rest, but that’s all,” Reese said. “We only have a year.”

This story was originally published by The Lens (thelensnola.org), an independent, nonprofit newsroom serving New Orleans.