What if, instead of this giant wager based on the assumption that we know exactly what to do with all that land, right now, all at once - what if we replicate the same approach that made the French Quarter so successful?
What if instead of studying and combining into giant lots and masterplanning all this acreage, we chop it up. Parcels, 32 feet wide, half as deep as the block, could line each street. Relax or remove parking requirements, zone the neighborhood for mixed use, maybe with a loud area and a not-so-loud area. Someone can come in and buy up a few lots, or just one; however many they need to start their dream. Oh, and make a special tax district in which the land is not taxed based on the improvements made upon it, but is taxed based on its land value, in order to prohibit real estate speculators from snatching up land to hold it, like a stock, as it increases in value while it remains an empty field.
These lots wouldn't be attractive to national chains, whose arsenal of cookie cutters would simply not fit within the framework we provided. But New Orleanians, I bet, have a lot of ideas about how to fill up a 32x160 footprint. We can still build a giant hotel for the convention center, but rather than surrounding it with megablocks of apartments with token affordable units thrown in the back for the brochures, surround it with a farm for New Orleanians to plant their ideas, watch the good ones grow, develop nest eggs for their families and maybe create some jobs that aren't eligible for SIN happy hour discounts on Tuesdays - jobs like shopkeeper, landlord, artisan soap retailer. That 32x160 footprint is a hell of a lot cheaper to build up, and sure, you might get some bad ideas or some commercial failures, but that failure wouldn't take down the whole block. With a 32x160 footprint, the bar is mighty low for someone else to swoop in and try something else. The more variety, and the smaller the grain, the more value you can squeeze into every city block; you'd get a gumbo of a neighborhood next to a steady supply of conventioneering anesthesiologists, financial planners and K-6 educational supply resellers anxious to try that gumbo. People might decide it's a nice place to live, too, so that if that convention center ever goes the way of the dodo, there can still be a source of customers.
Or maybe it's not at all successful, and a neighborhood there is a bad idea. That could happen in either case; but then ask yourself, "OK, that didn't work. How much money are we out?" The bad answer to that question is a billion dollars. That is the beauty of Incremental Development.
But full disclosure: this incremental approach isn't unique to New Orleans either. It isn't unique to the East Village in NYC, to Savannah, GA, or to the French Quarter, or any of our favorite urban places to visit. But the people of all those places are unique, and the end result, when you invite the locals to build, to benefit, to shape incrementally, is a place that is collectively as unique as its citizens. And the universal, MARKETABLE appeal of New Orleans citizens is undeniable. If we take care of our people, their value will endure as long as there is a city floating at the end of a delta at the northernmost point of the Caribbean.