Auditorium finally gets attention

City begins pumping Katrina floodwater from facility’s basement

Festivalgoers party in its shadow at Armstrong Park throughout the year. Dance programs and operas are being presented next door at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts. A few blocks away, the Saenger Theatre boasts Broadway shows and A-list comedians.

Despite all the activity around it, the Morris F.X. Jeff Sr. Municipal Auditorium has remained dark for nearly nine years.

“It’s the 800-pound gorilla,” said David Speights, co-president of North Rampart Main Street Inc., which promotes revitalization of the North Rampart corridor. “It was great when the Mahalia Jackson came back. It’s drawing performances and people. But we really need the auditorium to come back, too.”

The Municipal Auditorium hasn’t reopened since it took on 5 feet of water during Hurricane Katrina. Its closure has grown ever more conspicuous as a wave of other theaters and performance venues have been brought back to life.

But the city is finally taking steps toward rehabilitating the blighted building, once the most sought-after site for Carnival balls. The Landrieu administration’s first construction project on the building is underway.

The city intends to begin asbestos abatement, lead remediation and mold removal on the building in the fall, with plans to have it completely restored by October 2015. A plan for reopening the space has not been announced.

The Municipal Auditorium was built in 1929 with the capacity to house about 11,000 patrons, though it was generally divided into two sides, one seating about 5,000, the other about half that many. The auditorium was a popular venue for social and civic events. It was home to symphony concerts, operas, boxing matches and heated political rallies.

It was used as a temporary casino in the mid-1990s and also briefly housed the New Orleans Brass minor league hockey team.

But it was best known for hosting Carnival balls. In the last Carnival season before Katrina, the auditorium hosted 22 Mardi Gras balls.

“It’s where (the courts of) Rex and Comus used to meet” after holding their balls in the building’s two sides on Mardi Gras night, Speights said. “It’s tragic that hasn’t taken place for years now.”

The only public plan for redeveloping the space since Katrina came during Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration. Developer Stewart Juneau’s plan called for renaming the auditorium the Center for Entertainment and Creative Industry. The building also would have included office space for production companies and other creative ventures. But it fizzled after Juneau’s contract with the city came under criticism from the New Orleans inspector general and the City Council.

When Mayor Mitch Landrieu took office in 2010, he did not include the building in his original list of projects the city committed to rebuilding.

Landrieu’s office has haggled with FEMA about how much the federal agency should pay to help repair the building. FEMA originally offered $7 million. The city has managed to nearly triple that to $20 million, a spokesman for the city said.

The first indication that the space would indeed be restored came this year. In January, the city began pumping leftover Katrina water from the auditorium’s basement. That work is scheduled to be completed by the end of June.

While it is ongoing, the building’s doors and windows remain boarded. City spokesman Tyler Gamble said the New Orleans Police Department monitors the building daily.

The patrols, however, have not stopped people from breaking into the abandoned building.

Leo Watermeier, who lives near the park and usually stops by on Sunday mornings to tend to the rose bushes, found a man sleeping on the auditorium’s lobby floor last week. Discarded food containers littered the floor nearby. A glass door had been broken.

“It’s been a frustration,” Watermeier said. “We’ve been very frustrated for years that we cannot get the city to fix up the auditorium. We feel like the city is the biggest slumlord in our neighborhood.”

The empty building has long been a source of irritation for people who live and work nearby. Many believe that reopening the auditorium would help to spur development along North Rampart.

“We obviously would like to see it redeveloped, renovated and repaired,” Speights said. “It would make business happier and streets busier.”

Emanuel Lain Jr. , who runs People United for Armstrong Park, an organization that produces the Jazz in the Park concert series, said he surveyed neighbors soon after Landrieu became mayor about what they’d like to see happen to the auditorium. He said he submitted the findings to the city in hopes of helping to redevelop it. But Lain said talks with the city haven’t progressed since then.

“We realized that we can’t move faster than what the city wants to move,” he said. “So we’ve been focused on the rest of the park issues.”

As the auditorium sits, the list of rejuvenated theaters in the city is growing. The city-owned Mahalia Jackson Theater reopened in 2009, followed by the Joy Theatre in 2011. The Saenger and Civic theaters reopened last year. The Civic had been closed for decades, while the Saenger had not reopened since Katrina. The Orpheum was recently purchased and is due to again become the home of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra when it reopens next year. The historic Carver Theater, which was the Carver Medical Clinic before Katrina, reopened as a performance venue last month.

Late last month, the city advertised for bids to remove asbestos, lead-based paint and mold from the auditorium. That work is scheduled to begin in September.

By October 2015, the city expects to have removed “all contents” inside the building, replaced the sprinkler system and installed a new roof and interior ventilation system.