There has been a lot of speculation, civic theatrics and Big Ideas about the big open fields at the wrong end of the convention center; the end such a long, un-air conditioned journey away from the New Orleans of postcards, primetime detective shows, and the dreams of work-weary Yankees. Numbers with multiple zeros are thrown around and lots of Very Important People like to talk about how big the stakes are and how immense the terms and the effort and the eventual glittering success will be. With the amount of moving parts in a development that will cost big 'B' billions, it's no surprise that they keep getting derailed time and again, no matter how pretty the renderings.
If we keep up this strategy, even if all the players and bureaucrats and grants magically align to clear the way, I can guarantee that whatever happens there will not be as successful as the French Quarter - not on pure money-in, money-out, accounting terms. It may do just what it says it will, at least for a little while, and create new energy and novelty and tourism dollars on par with the French Quarter. But even if it does so, it may never break even after billions and billions of investment dollars and years and years of construction and traffic snarls and headaches and, likely, lots of public funding. But that’s the way it has to be to build anything at all, right?
Because of the insistence of all parties involved to look at these very large tracts of land and approach it as needing to be taken care of ALL AT ONCE, it absolutely has to be that way.
If we go down that road, sometime in 2030, the ribbon will be cut on the last shiny building, the final check will be cut for Substantial Completion of a new neighborhood, marking an end to the movement of tons and tons of earth and steel and glass and balcony railings. These types of undertakings happen all the time, all around the country - Hudson Yards in Manhattan, Victory Plaza in Dallas - they are not unique to New Orleans, for certain. They are NOT UNIQUE TO NEW ORLEANS. They are not unique to anywhere. The sheer scale of such undertakings require vast resources pool internationally and require firms of all types, financial, construction management, architectural, engineering and as such they require a certain standardization of systems and parts that need to operate at utmost efficiency in order to pull something of such a scale off. And when punch lists are done and they leave town, they take their cut with them.
So then, after all that investment, how will average New Orleanians benefit? Sure conventioneers will party at the shiny new clubs, Mardi Gras krewes will have their balls, the young hip professionals will sip Sazeracs on rooftop bars - but everyday New Orleanians? They'll be concierging, waiting tables, bartending, cleaning bedsheets; only in newer buildings that they were before.
And I bet, even after all that, the French Quarter remains on the cover of all the tourist brochures; its draw will not be diminished. And that new district, ten, twenty, thirty years down the road - how will it hold up? Perhaps conventions will no longer be the way industry people connect in 2050, and the convention centers go the way of the American Mall? Will some aging hotels under a big steel bridge and a 37 minute walk away from the timeless French Quarter still hold the premium draw of the Gucci crowd it needs to pay for upkeep of all those shiny glass facades?
Maybe so. It's a big bet though. A bet so big, so expensive, most of us normal citizens not named Jaeger wouldn't dream of sitting at that table. Better to stick to the smaller bet table - after all, those are your people anyway. This story plays out all the time everywhere; it wouldn't be unique to New Orleans. It WOULDN'T BE UNIQUE TO NEW ORLEANS. It would likely be Dallas but with more fleurs-de-lis.
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 alone, in order to discourage 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.