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A Forward-Looking Vision

Mayor Ray Nagin's second term -- and New Orleans' fledgling recovery -- got a huge boost last week when the owners of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans unveiled plans for a 20-acre National Jazz Center and park stretching from the Superdome and Arena down Loyola Avenue to the foot of the New Orleans Public Library. The $715-million project will require a public-private partnership to capitalize, build and manage the park. The scope and scale of the project make it almost as big as the Superdome -- and equally important in terms of its potential to spur downtown redevelopment.

Plans call for a completely renovated, world-class Hyatt Hotel, a new City Hall and Civil District Court, a multi-purpose National Jazz Center, open-air performance and art space and the potential for new office, residential and retail development in a part of downtown that has lagged in recent decades. Promoters of the project say the jazz center will be an iconic building designed by acclaimed architect Thomas Mayne. It will become the home of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and will include performance space, studios, classrooms, a library and offices. The plans were created with an advisory board of local and international experts in architecture and planning, the arts, economics and hospitality. Local members of the advisory board include Irvin Mayfield, artistic director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra; Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center; architect Ray Manning, who designed Woldenberg Park; Tulane emeritus economics professor William Oakland; and real estate consultant Wade Ragas.

The project calls for offices in City Hall and the old state office building on Loyola Avenue to move into renovated office space across Poydras Street -- either in Dominion Tower or the Amoco Building. City Hall, the state building and the old state Supreme Court building would then be demolished and their footprints would become part of the green space in the open-air jazz park.

One of the most striking features of the plan is an elevated pedestrian bridge over Poydras Street, connecting the proposed green space where City Hall now stands with the National Jazz Center. Traffic on Poydras Street would pass beneath the bridge, and the ground-level area could accommodate new retail or office space. Meanwhile, sculptures and accommodations for other forms of visual and performing arts would dot the green space and the elevated pedestrian bridge.

Mayor Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco heaped praise on the proposal. The mayor called it "breathtaking." We agree -- and we call on the mayor, the governor, City Council members, lawmakers and the local business community to make it happen. This is precisely the kind of forward-looking vision that New Orleans needs right now.

What's most impressive about the proposal is that much of its price tag will be borne by private interests. The first $3 million in planning was paid for by Strategic Hotels & Resorts, which owns the Hyatt Regency in New Orleans. The hotel owners reportedly will get $50 million in insurance proceeds as a result of damage from Hurricane Katrina, but that money will be just part of Strategic's ante. Ultimately, Strategic is prepared to put up close to $300 million of the $715 million price tag. The company plans to acquire the New Orleans Shopping Centre, which never lived up to its billing as a regional retail mecca, as well as one or more adjacent office buildings -- Dominion Tower and/or the Amoco Building. As impressive as the project itself is, the fact that a world-class hotel and resort owner is willing to invest that much money in New Orleans at this time speaks volumes about our city's prospects for recovery. Every New Orleanian should feel uplifted by Strategic's bold expression of confidence in the Crescent City.

Developers have identified between $415 million and $425 million in available or readily available public and private capital, including Strategic's investment, tax breaks, land swaps with the city and the state, and federal grants. The remaining $300 million or so will have to be raised from other private investors or in concert with the city, the state and the federal government. Mayor Nagin, brimming with confidence at his inauguration two days after plans for the park were unveiled, predicted that money would not be a problem because there is worldwide interest in New Orleans right now. Without wishing to throw cold water on anyone's enthusiasm for the project, we would respectfully note that the only time money is not a problem is when it's in hand. Until then, it's always a problem. That said, we share the mayor's excitement for the project.

Now comes the hard part: making it all happen. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and a tough re-election campaign, the mayor has promised to ramp up his staff and work more closely with other public officials. This is his chance to deliver on those promises. Strategic and other investors have carried the ball so far, but it will take an all-out effort by city and state officials to make the project a reality. Specifically, a public-private partnership must be formed to take ownership of the project, and Mayor Nagin should personally lead that effort. If it comes to fruition, the National Jazz Center could become Nagin's legacy -- and the anchor of New Orleans' post-Katrina recovery.

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