When buying a major piece of property, it is wise to remember real estate agents' favorite mantra: location, location, location. That and other concerns are especially relevant to Mayor Ray Nagin's push for a new City Hall. Nagin, in sharp contrast to the snail's pace his administration typically sets for handling important city matters, is moving at the speed of light to install New Orleans City Hall into the old Chevron Building at 935 Gravier St. Hizzoner pats himself on the back for negotiating a good price ($8 million) for the building, but the purchase price should be merely one of many considerations when evaluating this deal. Others include the cost of retrofitting the building, its overall suitability as a new City Hall, its architectural significance (or lack thereof), its accessibility to all citizens, whether it is part of a long-term plan for situating government offices and, of course, location, location, location.
Until those factors are thoroughly and honestly analyzed, the City Council should slow down what we think is a dubious acquisition.
At a recent press conference, Nagin said an architect would have to inspect the Chevron Building before the agreement is finalized. Fair enough, but architectural review alone presumes that all the factors cited above have been met. They haven't. In fact, it appears Nagin hasn't even considered them.
Today, City Hall sits in what is arguably New Orleans' premier location — and there's a good argument for keeping it there. For starters, it is part of a multi-tiered government complex. Civil District Court and Juvenile Court are located next door, and the front of City Hall faces green space in Duncan Plaza as well as the city's main library. Around the corner, state offices will soon move right across from the back of City Hall, in Dominion Tower on Poydras Street. The Superdome is across Poydras diagonally. The close proximity of all these public offices and buildings creates a true government complex in the heart of downtown. Equally important, City Hall's present location makes a statement, which is what any city hall should do.
Could the present City Hall be improved, or even torn down in favor of something more modern or grand? Absolutely. Might City Hall be moved to another prime downtown location? Sure. Unfortunately, the Chevron Building, which is tucked away on a corner in the CBD, satisfies none of the qualities demanded by the "location, location, location" rule. Its architecture is nondescript, it offers no vistas, it will not be as accessible as the present City Hall, and acquiring it clearly is not part of a long-range plan for an integrated governmental complex.
Another issue that should be addressed before pushing forward is the disposition of the current City Hall. Nagin has said it will probably be demolished and turned into green space, but that's not a certainty. The building contains asbestos; any demolition will be expensive, and selling it will be problematic. The cost of demolishing or mothballing the building should be added to the price tag of the proposed new City Hall, and a city that already has the highest percentage of blight in the country doesn't need an abandoned City Hall in the middle of downtown.
On top of all those considerations is the question of whether other capital projects should take precedence. As much as some say the present City Hall is outmoded, it's a palace compared to the adjacent Civil District Court. Think also of the city's numerous playgrounds, streets, libraries and police and fire stations that still need repair four years after Hurricane Katrina. Addressing any one of those needs will directly improve citizens' quality of life, but the same cannot be said of moving City Hall into the Chevron Building.
Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Cynthia Sylvain-Lear estimates the deal will save the city $700,000 in utility costs a year, plus more than $1 million in rent. "We may not have this opportunity again," she told the City Planning Commission. The commission bought her argument and quickly approved the proposed acquisition, but we think there are too many other questions that remain unanswered. Until all questions are answered satisfactorily, the City Council should put the brakes on what appears to be an impulse buy.