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X marks the spot

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The "X" will stand, if a five-member selection committee overseeing the fate of the former International Trade Mart building has its way — and it's time to move forward with the project. The X-shaped Edward Durell Stone skyscraper at 2 Canal Street (sometimes known as the World Trade Center) has sat empty for years on some of the most visible (and valuable) city-owned land in New Orleans. Prospective developers and mayors have vowed to bring the iconic — and much criticized, depending on one's architectural tastes — building back into commerce for years without success.

  Earlier this year, the city requested bids to redevelop not only the building, but also several acres of public space stretching from the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and the Algiers ferry landing to the Hilton Riverside. In addition to putting the building back into commerce, the city's goal also was to connect the edge of the French Quarter to the Convention Center area, creating a semi-contiguous riverfront. If nothing else, that sounds like a good idea and a step in the right direction.

  Gatehouse Capital Corp. of Dallas was among three developers that submitted proposals in April. Gatehouse proposes to convert the building into a 245-room W Hotel with riverfront apartments on the 33-story building's top floors. That's hardly a novel idea, but the selection committee appointed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu ranked Gatehouse's proposal highest after vetting the three plans.

  James H. Burch LLC, like Gatehouse, wanted to preserve the distinctive X-shaped tower and convert it into a hotel, apartments, retail space and a Kermit Ruffins-branded jazz club where the entertainer would operate a barbecue grill on the patio. No comprehensive final design for the building was submitted, however, and Burch proposed so many embellishments (a TV studio for cooking shows, a New Orleans history exhibit, hourly "water feature shows," even — ugh! — nightly Mardi Gras parades) that it seemed the company was throwing out ideas in hopes that something would gain favor with either the public or the selection committee. That didn't happen.

  Meanwhile, an organization called the Tricentennial Consortium (composed largely of New Orleans tourism leaders) proposed demolishing the building and creating a tourism-driven attraction — along with an "iconic structure," which in the consortium's renderings resembled a giant hourglass. When public reaction was less than positive, the consortium backpedaled, saying it hadn't finalized a design for its "iconic" building and/or structure. Another problem with the consortium's proposal was that much of its funding was pegged to legislation that Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed. When that happened, it seemed to take the wind out of the local bidders' sails.

  The committee ranked Burch's proposal second, not far behind Gatehouse, and the Tricentennial Consortium last — though the members expressed reservations about all three plans. For example, the committee wasn't happy at all with Gatehouse's proposed lease conditions (the committee said Gatehouse's offer of $10 million in upfront money was well below market value for this piece of property), and it also seemed less than satisfied with Gatehouse's commitment to minority hiring practices. Gatehouse failed to name any minority- or women-owned businesses it intends to work with. Mayor Landrieu's chief administrative officer, Andy Kopplin, a member of the selection committee, said afterwards that those issues must be addressed during lease negotiations. "I do not believe we ought to go forward unless those two issues that are critically important to the city are addressed," he told The Advocate.

  Meanwhile, city tourism leaders still aspire to call some shots in riverfront development, which on some levels is understandable. The hospitality industry has a lot invested on and near the riverfront. After Gatehouse was chosen, Tricentennial issued a statement saying it intended to "continue to take a leadership role in the development of those public spaces that will incorporate the World Trade Center building." We're not sure what that means, because the land and buildings at issue are owned by the city and the state, not private interests. There's been talk of a possible arrangement that might bring Gatehouse and Tricentennial together as co-developers. Such an arrangement could benefit both groups, not just financially, but it could also lead Burch, the losing bidder, to cry foul. In addition to local tourism leaders, Gatehouse should seek input from the general public. This is, after all, public property.

  Now that the committee has made its choice, it will be up to Gatehouse and the New Orleans Building Corporation (the building's overseeing agency) to work out the details of the redevelopment. The goal is to begin construction in early 2014 and complete the redevelopment by 2018 — the city's tricentennial.

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