The long-delayed redevelopment of the World Trade Center (WTC) could take several giant steps forward this week. One step will come in Baton Rouge at the hands of state lawmakers, the other in Civil District Court in New Orleans, where a lawsuit over the city's pending 99-year lease of the landmark site rages on.
In Baton Rouge, lawmakers are expected to give final approval to a bill that would accelerate disposition of the lawsuit, which challenges the city's selection of the Four Seasons hotel group to redevelop the WTC. In New Orleans, a judge presiding over that lawsuit will hear a motion Wednesday (June 1) that could toss the suit forthwith.
By mid-week, the Four Seasons group could be in the catbird seat. Or, WTC redevelopment could be delayed yet again.
Efforts to redevelop one of the most prized pieces of real estate in town have been cursed for years. Each time a development team appeared ready to put the WTC back into commerce, the process broke down.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu probably thought he cracked the code when the New Orleans Building Corporation (NOBC, a local "public benefit corporation" that manages select city properties) chose the Four Seasons hotel development team over four other finalists in March 2015.
The initial euphoria was short-lived. Developer Stuart "Neil" Fisher of Florida, a controversial figure who describes himself on Facebook as "a bull in a china shop," bought last-place finisher Two Canal Street Investors (TCSI) for the princely sum of $10 shortly after NOBC chose Four Seasons — and promptly sued the city. Fisher already was a behind-the-scenes player for TCSI when the group applied for the WTC development rights. The courts since have ruled that a judge can't declare TCSI the developer because TCSI finished last in the final round of competition, which raises obvious questions as to TCSI's litigation strategy and motives.
The suit has drawn some of the city's most able litigators into court — Russ Herman for Four Seasons and Daniel Davillier for TCSI. Herman says TCSI is dragging out the process in hopes of a financial settlement. Davillier says the city's proposed lease would yield substantially less than fair market value. So far, Four Seasons has won some key procedural battles. On Wednesday, Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Tiffany Chase will hear arguments on a Four Seasons motion that, if granted and affirmed on appeal, would end TCSI's legal challenge.
Meanwhile, ads in local papers (including this one) tout the professed benefits of the Four Seasons project, and a bill aimed at fast-tracking TCSI's lawsuit is headed for final legislative approval this week. The bill, by state Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, could lead to a final judgment in the TCSI suit by year's end (if it goes to trial).
Things appear to be going Four Seasons' way, but history has taught us that nothing is certain at the foot of Canal Street. In litigation, you don't need to win every round — just the final one.