The debate over Mayor Ray Nagin's proposal to relocate New Orleans City Hall to the Chevron Building is one in which the mayor and the four-member City Council majority that voted against him were all correct — which is precisely why relocation discussions should continue.
Nagin is absolutely right in saying that the present City Hall is outdated, badly in need of expensive repairs and a "challenging work environment" for city employees. It will cost millions just to patch up, and even then it won't meet all the needs of a modern-day seat of city government. New Orleans needs a new City Hall, and Nagin is right to push the issue.
His opponents on the council also are correct in saying the Chevron Building would make a lousy City Hall. While it is much newer and more tech-friendly than the current building, its location and architecture are all wrong for a permanent City Hall. It sits on a nondescript corner of the CBD with no public space outside, blocks away from the new state office building and Civil District Court, and it has insufficient on-premises parking. Moreover, its architecture could best be described as bland.
A city hall should make a statement, both architecturally and in terms of its location. It should say, "This is sacred ground. This is where the people's business is done. This is where democracy works."
The Chevron Building does not make that statement, not by a long shot.
Nagin was understandably disappointed in last week's council vote. His immediate reaction was to submit a list of $9.65 million in repairs needed to bring City Hall to what Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Cynthia Sylvain-Lear called "a functional level." The repairs include a new roof, boiler and hot water system repairs, floor and ceiling repairs, elevator replacements and security system upgrades. The administration estimates that these are just the first installments of what ultimately will be almost $40 million in needed repairs.
Let's assume Nagin's numbers are correct, and let's assume all those repairs are needed immediately. If all he does is throw down the repair bill as a gauntlet — or as a tantrum — and walk away, he will have proven his critics correct: The Chevron deal was just a late-term boondoggle, a ploy to give away millions in one last round of no-bid contracts before he leaves office May 3, 2010 (on top of the extra $6 million he just gave Ciber Inc. right in the midst of the crime camera scandal).
If, however, the mayor is serious about leading the charge for a new City Hall, then he should use last week's council vote as a starting point for additional discussions on that issue. Specifically, he should heed the suggestion of At-Large Councilmember Jackie Clarkson, who has four decades of experience in real estate. Clarkson, who voted against the Chevron deal, says a new City Hall ought to be part of a "master plan" for the entire site of the present building, which is "land too valuable to be holding only a dilapidated City Hall."
"This site should instead be master-planned for a public/private, mixed-development government complex with an architecturally appropriate City Hall, incorporating the adjacent state property and Duncan Plaza, with private tenants to buy down the cost of government," Clarkson says.
Clarkson even held out the possibility of using Chevron as a "temporary" city hall and as an "investment."
That's more than enough of an opening. Whether Nagin seizes the opportunity will reveal a lot about his late-term priorities.