Naval complex makeover slated for early 2013
5th December 2011 · 0 Comments
By Susan Buchanan
After a series of natural and man-made catastrophes, the Crescent City has become a place to share expertise on flooding, high winds, spilled oil and any other grief that comes down the pike. Construction work on a disaster management center, proposed a couple of years ago for the closed Naval Support Activity facility in the Bywater, could begin in early 2013, city leaders say. Expected, additional uses for the 25-acre complex include “at risk” housing, a grocery store, a clinic, police and fire offices and maybe a cruise center.
Belinda Little-Wood, executive director of the NSA New Orleans Advisory Task Force, said “a reuse plan proposes using part of the East Bank complex as an emergency disaster center, building on cumulative knowledge from Katrina and other disasters, including the BP spill.” The city is the designated, development authority for rehabbing the facility.
In 2005, the Bywater complex, along with a number of other U.S. bases, were declared surplus under the Base Realignment and Closure Act, approved by Congress. Since then, Navy and Marine Reserve operations in the Bywater have been relocated to Federal City on the West Bank in Algiers.
The proposed Bywater disaster center will provide offices for nonprofits, think tanks, for-profit entities and government agencies from the city, the nation and other countries. “Disaster management is a fairly large industry internationally, but it isn’t very coordinated,” Little-Wood said. Government typically takes the lead in disasters while operations are handled by private contractors, she noted, and added that “the industry has coalesced locally since Katrina, though offices are spread across the state.”
She said “New Delhi, India has a center similar to what we’ve proposed but there’s nothing like it in the U.S.”
The Bywater site contains three, six-floor buildings, together totaling 1.5 million square feet, along with several smaller buildings; 1,640 square yards of roads, sidewalks and parking lots; an indoor racquetball court, outdoor basketball and volleyball courts, other recreational facilities and parade grounds; and a gas station.
On November 30, the city submitted a “conveyance” application, including an economic feasibility study, to the Dept. of Defense’s Navy Office of Project Management in Charleston, S.C. after the deadline was extended from Sept. 30. Little-Wood said “my guess is it will take 30 days to review the application and they’ll come back with some questions. The holiday season might affect the length of the approval process.”
She said “this application is the first step in the Navy turning the complex over to the city in a transition that’s expected to occur by March 31 of next year.”
Under its reuse plan, the city hopes to attract a grocery store or small supermarket, other retailers and a medical clinic to the first floor of Building 603, facing Poland Avenue. Upper floors will contain offices and research and education facilities for the disaster management industry.
In additional uses, nonprofit UNITY of Greater New Orleans, serving the homeless, expects to finance construction of an apartment building on one-and-a-half acres in the northeast corner of the site. Parts of that plan have already been ironed out between the city and the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. By law, federal officials must contact an area’s homeless service providers when military buildings will be shut to ask if they might have uses for the land.
UNITY plans to erect more than 50 units of “permanent supportive housing” for those who may have been homeless, but aren’t homeless anymore, said Martha Kegel, UNITY’s executive director. Some of the tenants will be older foster children, who are at risk for becoming homeless as they leave foster care, and some of the occupants will be people with disabilities. UNITY’s services at the complex will be devoted to tenants signing two-year leases, and case workers will visit regularly—helping occupants find employment, set life goals and participate in neighborhood and faith-based activities.
“The building won’t be a temporary shelter,” Kegel said. “Instead the goal is to provide stable housing so that tenants can become self reliant.” UNITY, which leads over 60 local agencies and groups in combating homelessness, will try to house Ninth Ward residents at the new building to the extent allowed by law.
In the complex’s Building 601, adjacent to the Industrial Canal, the city’s police, fire and emergency services are expected to have a presence. “Building 601 will house some NOPD, NOFD and EMS functions, an Emergency Operations Center and a temporary, safe haven for essential personnel during a catastrophic event,” Little-Wood said.
She said the Port of New Orleans could use Building 602 for cruise center parking if the cruise industry expands locally. Building 602 is slated to contain over a thousand parking spaces for workers in the complex and parking for the possible cruise terminal. The port might use two adjacent wharves—which aren’t owned by the Navy and aren’t part of the city’s application for the site—for cruise ships, Little-Wood said.
She said the complex will be zoned for mixed uses, allowing a variety of commercial and residential uses. But aside from UNITY’s apartment building, residential development is not anticipated at the former Naval site now.
Rebuilding the old facility is expected to create 750 construction jobs at a yearly base salary of $35,000, Little-Wood said. “Construction is anticipated to begin in the first quarter of 2013,” she said. When fully occupied, the complex could house between 2,000 and 2,500 permanent jobs, mainly in disaster management.
Buildings in the complex date from 1919 to 1921 and contain lead-based paint that’s mostly encapsulated, along with asbestos. If structures are demolished, lead paint and asbestos will have to be remediated, Little-Wood said.
“The project will require subsidies, and we’re in discussions with city, state and federal agencies about financing, but nothing has been finalized,” she said. The site is eligible for state and federal historic tax credits, federal New Market Tax Credits, Property Assessment Clean Energy or PACE bonds, and Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Emergency Management Agency Hazard Mitigation Grant funding for sewage and water infrastructure, along with other government financing.
Under its procurement guidelines, the city is looking for developers for the site. “We’re in the process of advertising a Request for Proposal for private-sector developers now,” Little-Wood said.
Neighbors and area businesses seem to like most of what they’ve heard so far and say they’re glad to know the complex will have a new life. At The Joint, the Poland Ave. barbeque restaurant that’s directly across Dauphine St. from the complex, kitchen manager Ben Fox said “we’re not seeing the military people in here since they moved last summer, but we’re very busy anyway. If the city converts the base to a disaster center, we’ll have those workers as customers, and if a cruise center moves in we should get tourist traffic.” He said a grocery store at the site would add to two corner stores in the immediate vicinity. The Bywater has no supermarket.
Sister Joyce Hanks, a Bywater resident and manager of the Holy Angels Apartments for low income elderly residents at St. Claude Ave. and Gallier St., said “the elderly and everyone in the Bywater desperately need an affordable supermarket so they don’t have to travel to Gentilly and as far as Walmart on Tchoupitoulas for groceries.” With respect to the disaster offices, she said “this area is largely residential and we want to attract jobs that people can walk or bike to.” She’s an officer of the Bywater Neighborhood Association, but said her views about the complex are her own.
As for the next occupants, Little-Wood pointed to a range of potential, disaster-response-and-recovery tenants, and said participants at an International Disaster Conference and Expo, scheduled for January 17 to 19 at the Ernest Morial Convention Center, would be logical candidates to open offices in the facility. She also said that firms involved in water management and wetlands restoration are candidates as Southeast Louisiana recovers from Katrina and the oil spill.
This article originally published in the December 5, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.