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Biodistrict abandons CDC courthouse idea at mayor’s behest

25th November 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

The Civil District Court judges pursued the ‘Golden Rule’ in their fight for a new courthouse on Duncan Plaza. “He, who has the gold, makes the rule.”

Mayor Mitch Landrieu, however, held up another Mel Brooks’ adage last week, “It’s good to be the king!”

The old comedian’s two famed quips were never more on-point than their application to describing the battle to restore Big Charity as a Governmental Center versus the construction of a new CDC Courthouse mere steps from its current location on Poydras.

At the behest of Landrieu’s CAO Andy Kopplin, the board of the New Orleans BioDistrict on Wednesday, November 20 turned down a request from the judges to help them sell bonds for their $105 million project to build a new CDC courthouse at Duncan Plaza.

Months before, the Civil Court Judges had approached BioDistrict President James McNamara with a deal. His economic development group had the right to sell bonds, but had no stream of income. The CDC had the latter, but not the former. Partnering, the Courthouse project could fund much of the $600,000 per year McNamara needed to operate as an independent body.

Kopplin, however, who sits on the Biodistrict’s board, asked his fellow members what building a CDC Courthouse has to do with the BioDistrict’s mission? As a result, the board members unanimously voted for a resolution terminating any further consideration of the concept. Instead, they recommended a strategic alliance with the New Orleans Business Alliance, a Landrieu-founded public-partnership for economic development that has Bioscience as one of its five areas of concentration.

McNamara, a Blanco-era appointee, told the daily paper that he believes the partnership could signal the end of the BioDistrict as it is now known. The legislature created BioDistrict was in 2005, without providing a source of funding. McNamara took the helm in 2008, yet his inability to find a source of regular revenue left Mitch Landrieu skeptical about the need for the Biodistrict. After all, his Business Alliance’s Prosperity­NOLA “duplicated” many of the Biodistrict’s development goals.

“We have enough duplication in this city,” Landrieu observed about the Biodistrict, but he could have just as easily been speaking about the judges’ independent effort to seek a new courthouse. Under State Law, the Parish of Orleans is tasked with the responsibility of housing the Civil District Court. The CDC might have its own funding sources, but the message that the city—and its Mayor—decides where the Judges sit was delivered loud and clear last week. And, Landrieu may have gained bond capacity for his own group’s bioscience initiatives, from a previously independent-body about to be defunct—after McNamara defied him on pursuing the bond deal with the Judges.

Landrieu paints his fight to restore Big Charity as the need to rebuild the moribund middle section of the city, and, at the same time, redevelop a vast space that would otherwise sit abandoned. In combination with the new UMC hospital, the “Civic Center” could anchor a new commercial district on lower Canal Street

As such, the mayor defends his desire to convert the abandoned Art Deco hospital into a shining City Hall/Courthouse as far from an ignoble goal. The problem is that the CDC judges never bought into the idea. They wanted their new $105 million courthouse on the main drag of the CBD to sit closer to the corporate law firms that patronize their jurisprudence. Bagneris called the proximity essential for smooth operation of the civil court, and movement “a danger” to the viability of Class A office rents his attorneys pay on Poydras.

The Civil District judges convinced the Judicial Committee of the State Supreme Court to let them charge higher fees to pay for a new courthouse, as the current one is falling down around them. The mayor agrees on that point. The fight has been over location, and the judges contention that their courtrooms could not be built to their specifications at Big Charity. Bagneris has argued to The Louisiana Weekly that views from the jury box would be obstructed by the support polls that run every 20 feet through the old hospital superstructure. Not being able to see the defendants and the witnesses, both along a 40 degree line of sight, might be grounds for a mistrial, according to some legal precedents.

Developer Pres Kabacoff tells this newspaper not to worry. It is possible to construct courtrooms according to the CDC specifications. “Yes, the courtrooms can be built in front, along Charity’s courtyard.” The tacked on structures would have the open line of sight required, but that led Judge Michael Bagneris to respond, “So, we already have almost a million square feet that won’t be inhabited under Mitch’s plan, and the mayor wants to make Big Charity even bigger.”

Bagneris further implied that not only would empty space be an issue, but even with the CDC fees to help underwrite the Big Charity conversion, the City still would lack the vast amount of capital necessary to pay for the project, which the judge speculated to this newspaper could exceed $250,000,000. (The Foundation for Historical Louisiana had estimated a $550,000,000 cost to restore Big Charity as an up-to-date hospital complex, as modern as the then-proposed UMC).

Landrieu and Kabacoff have both had answers to that quandary. The Administration has ap­proached Delgado Community College’s School of Nursing and Allied Health, struggling since Katrina, to become a tenant. With City Hall occupying 52 percent of Big Charity, and the CDC with the remaining 284,000 square feet, there was just enough room in the 20-story building for the Nursing School. (The wings of Big Charity have separate entrances, and can be blocked off from one another.)

Should the CDC not enter the former hospital, Kabacoff suggested the extra space become part of LSU’s Hyperbolic research department, which had done groundbreaking work on neural repair and cancer research, and, ironically, would put Big Charity at the center of bioscience research nationally. Regardless, the developer told The Weekly that Charity’s redevelopment is essential. He envisions a new retail/commercial district stretching from the building to Canal Street. With a rebuilt, multi-income Iberville Development on the other side, and a revamped Art Deco Government Complex on the other, the “dead zone” between the richer parts of the city begins to have life.

As Kabacoff put it in an interview with The Louisiana Weekly, “New Orleans has viable neighborhoods along the Riverfront and the Lakefront. What we need is viability in the center. By bringing back Canal Street, as a commercial corridor, that can happen.”

Thanks to the University Medi­cal Center/Veterans Admin­istration developments on the other side of Claiborne Ave., that has already begun, in part. “What we need to do is connect downtown with Mid-City….Charity is part of that.” Noting that Orleans Parish lacks retail options, the idea would be to have space for large retailers along the relatively open corridor from Big Charity to Canal, capable of housing high-end retailers, one after the other, in a way the historically small spaces on Canal Street itself can no longer. (The City would construct additional free parking in the area.)

“We need to do this for ourselves, but my friends in the tourism industry also tell me, “Kabacoff explained, “that the French Quarter is filled. We can’t handle any more tourists there…without hurting ourselves. What we need to do is expand outward.” This outdoor downtown shopping mall, in close bordered by the CBD, the new City Complex at Charity, the hospital district, the Vieux Carré, and the mixed income Iberville and Tremé, would provide the bridge.

“But it all fails if Charity sits empty,” he lamented.

“We all want Charity to be reopened,” replied Judge Michael Bagneris. “It just doesn’t work as a courthouse.”

The CDC, though, may not have another option but to move into Big Charity. So far, the judges have not been able to convince Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration, which controls the state-owned land at Duncan Plaza, (formally the grounds of the Supreme Court) to hand it over to them. In an impromptu press conference with reporters on Wednesday, Judge Kern Reese confessed that he is still waiting for a reply on that idea from Jindal’s chief of staff, Paul Rainwater, who has also been lobbied by the mayor.

“Usually no news is good news,” Reese stated. However, in this case, “no news is not good news.” He said the judges are now searching for an alternative site. They still want their own CDC unconnected to Big Charity or City Hall, yet Wednesday’s vote by the BioDistrict board may have taken away their last chance to find an entity to help them sell bonds and oversee the construction project.

Reese plans for the CDC to approach the Industrial Develop­ment Board or the Louisiana Division of Administration, asking to utilize either’s bonding authority; though, no action has been taken, so far. Landrieu probably would continue to lobby against, and in favor of Big Charity.

That’s the rub. The Supreme Court gave the CDC an August 2014 deadline to solicit bids on the project, following the terms of a state law that authorized the new building in the first place. The court fees the Judicial Committee authorized the judges to levee with expire at that point, if no construction plan is settled.

By September of next year, ‘the gold’ disappears, ruling out funding anything—either a Poydras-centric Courthouse or Big Charity conversion. That presents Mitch Landrieu with a problem. Suddenly robbed of the excess court fees, underwriting the restoration of the Art Deco complex becomes problematic, and perhaps impossible.

Without the judges experiencing a change of heart and cooperating, it suddenly might not be so good to be the king.

This article originally published in the November 25, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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