Mayor Turns to Facebook Instead of Live Meeting To Respond to Treme Culture Bearers

Photo courtesy of Danae Columbus

As support continues to grow for Treme culture bearers and others who oppose the relocation of City Hall to the Municipal Auditorium in Armstrong Park, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration took to Facebook yesterday to spin its position.  

Treme and French Quarters residents are joining with supporters of New Orleans unique culture including musicians, Mardi Gras Indian tribes and social aid and pleasure clubs for a Rally and Community March Thursday, June 17 starting at 5 p.m. at Armstrong Park. The event was scheduled because Cantrell has yet to set a meeting in City Council Chambers where the citizens can ask questions.  

The Rally will include messages form prominent New Orleans born musicians including Wynton Marsalis, chair of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation. World renowned pianist and singer Davell Crawford will perform as will Congo Square percussionists, the Treme Brass Band, the Jackson Square All Stars and the Big Six Brass Band.

Civil Rights activists Doratha “Dodie” Smith-Simmons, Mateo (Matt) Suarez, Barbara Major, Ron Chisom, Pat Bryant and other social justice leaders will march with opposers. Spoken word poet activist Chuck Perkins and educator, culture and social justice advocate Sabrina Mays are serving as MCs.    

The Community March begins at 6 p.m. and travels to City Hall. State Representative Royce Duplessis will address the crowd at City Hall.

Last night the NAACP became the latest organization to oppose the relocation of City Hall. “The NAACP stands with the culture bearers and advocates who reject the proposition relocation. We ask Mayor Cantrell to engage in a meaningful dialogue to explore and discuss viable alternative for the use of the Morris F.X. Jeff Municipal Auditorium and to identify potential relocation sites for City Hall,” said NAACP President Ronald Coleman.  

“The City of New Orleans is working to redevelop The Municipal Auditorium into a new City Hall. Want to find out more about this project?” the City’s Facebook post teased. Currently City Hall uses 440,000 square feet in three buildings including 351,000 square feet at the main building, 67,000 square feet right across Poydras Street at Orleans Tower and 22,000 square feet just a few blocks away at the old Veterans administration site.

City capital projects officials make the argument that a new City Hall is needed to save the City money and potentially create new revenue. In 2019 alone, the City spent $1.5 million on renovations to the existing City Hall. In addition, the City pays rent every month for more than 100,000 square feet of office space at Orleans Towers. Mayor Cantrell believes that if no longer needed, the existing City Hall building could be leased for its “highest and best use,” adding a new revenue source for the City. 

The City also suggested that there would be many positive benefits from the proposed move including bringing an historic and welcoming space back to the public; reinforcing the park as a cultural hub; revitalizing the historic Treme neighborhood; memorializing the troubling moments in the history of Congo Square as part of a future vision; and leveraging the $38 million FEMA allocation already dedicated to the auditorium.

Culture bearers and their supporters take a totally opposite view – that the relocation would make Armstrong Park less welcoming; that it would minimize the Park’s cultural aesthetic; that it would negatively impact the Treme neighborhood’s livability; that it would make Congo Square unholy ground and that it would misuse the $38 million that FEMA set aside to restore the auditorium. 

Photo credit: Danae Columbus

The City’s plan calls Armstrong Park “the cultural hub of New Orleans” but the culture bearers’ definition of the phrase and the City’s are totally different. The project’s current focus would only be on the F.X. Jeff Municipal Auditorium where an exterior restoration would take place along with a restoration of the concert hall side and annex as well as the infill stage and auditorium side of the building – a total of 328,520 square feet.  

The City’s Facebook page also indicates that 937 proposed parking spaces are planned including a five-floor 700-car parking garage and two surface parking lots that would hold 137 cars. Armstrong Park and the Jazz Park historic buildings, the Treme Center, Congo Square, the Mahalia Jackson Theatre and the Pump Station are not included in the current phase.  

The presentation also suggests that the City’s remote work policy brought on by COVID-19 shutdowns would continue to change work environments and the number of employees who might work at City Hall each day. Only 31% of city employees currently work onsite, according to a recent survey. City employees working remotely would also be able to take advantage of a proposed “touch down” space within the auditorium if they needed to be onsite temporarily. Allowing the City to consider sharing the auditorium with other city agencies is also a possibility.

The City was quick to tout other long-term developments and opportunities that could be connected to the re-location such as the RTA Transfer HUB, Claiborne Corridor Revitalization, Iberville Phase 3, Lafitte Recreation and Basin St. Station Expansion. Future projects might include a greenway trailhead, a Lafitte blue way, storm water lagoons, the re-alignment of Basin Street and the long-anticipated Civil Rights Museum. 

Despite what carrots the City might throw out there, it is unlikely that Treme culture bearers and their supporters will ever agree to the relocation. Surveys taken by both the Historic Faubourg Treme Association and Gambit have revealed that many citizens disapprove of the move. More than 10,500 signatures have already been gathered on a petition.       

The City has already issued as RFP for a project management team. Submissions are due shortly. Opponents of the relocation believe that Cantrell will push the contractor to deal with community stakeholders in an effort to avoid a nasty confrontation that could jeopardize her upcoming re-election campaign.   

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