Empty New Orleans tower sits on prime site

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Commerce swirls around the World Trade Center building in New Orleans - on the wide Mississippi River that runs by it and in the casino, hotels, restaurants and office buildings that surround it.

But the building itself is a half-century-old white elephant, an empty tower taking up space on what should be prime tax-generating real estate.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration recently launched the latest effort to change that. The city last year agreed to buy out the lease of the major tenant - the trade promotion organization for which the building is named - and recently issued a request for proposals to redevelop the property. Bids are to be open April 3.

Redevelopment could mean tearing down the 33-story 1960s-era tower or conducting a major renovation. Either could be a complex and expensive proposition given the proximity of the 670,000-square-foot building to protective Mississippi River levees and other downtown buildings. Experts say demolition costs vary widely, ranging from as little as $3 or $4 per square foot to more than $15 per square foot, depending on environmental and other concerns. That means demolishing the WTC tower could easily surpass $10 million.

"It really depends on what the intended use is going to be," said Ivan Miestchovich, director of the Institute for Economic Development and Real Estate Research at the University of New Orleans.

Formally opened in 1968 as the International Trade Mart, the tower was once New Orleans' tallest structure, a standout on the city skyline, predating the Superdome. The design included a central hub with four extensions that look like an "x'' or a "star" from above, depending on who is describing it.

It was a focal point for promotion of international trade and home, for a time, to the office of the Port of New Orleans. Aside from its business function, it also was an attraction for tourists and locals who dined in its ritzy Plimsoll Club or drank in the slowly revolving rooftop lounge that provided an ever-changing view of the river and the city.

"The view is really what sells it," said Bruce Sossaman, leasing director for Equity Office Properties in New Orleans.

However, while it was once heralded for its modern architecture and style, the "x'' design has proven inefficient for office space. A major maintenance concern arose in 2011 when chunks of concrete soffit fell from near the top of the building. There were no injuries, and the WTC made repairs before the city bought out the lease that had been set to run through 2019.

Now, the city says estimated expenses for the building, which is legally owned by a city public benefit corporation, the New Orleans Building Corporation, average $16,300 monthly.

Proposals and nascent deals to revive at least part of the building as a luxury hotel have died over the years as complex tax incentive and financing plans have fizzled. Part of the problem, said Janet Howard, head of the private watchdog group Bureau of Governmental Research, is that past efforts, which date back to the 1990s, "seemed to be politically driven rather than driven by the interest of the citizens of the city."

BGR called for the city to buy out the WTC lease and sell the property in 2009. The group hasn't taken a position on the latest request for proposals. But Howard said the Landrieu administration, which took over in 2010, made the right move by getting out of the lease, which was a complication in working out any redevelopment deal.

What's next? The building or its replacement could be office space, hotel rooms, retail outlets, residences or some combination of those.

Michael Hecht, director of the regional economic development partnership Greater New Orleans Inc., said the group hasn't taken a position on what should occupy the property. But Hecht said he personally envisions a new attraction that would quickly generate revenue and become a new city symbol, along the lines of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis or the London Eye, the giant Ferris wheel on the Thames River.

Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant, heading up the process to put the site back into commerce, draws no limits. "We really want to let the market speak to that," he said.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)