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A New Orleans Tower Anchors a City’s Riverfront Ambitions

For many years, a distinctive X-shaped office tower looming over the New Orleans riverfront was a prominent reminder of the city’s woes.

A 33-story edifice bordering the Mississippi River, the building, known as the World Trade Center, was completed in 1967. During the oil bust of the 1980s, tenants fled. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was another devastating blow. After 2011, the building stood empty.

But today, it’s a hive of activity, teeming with construction workers who are converting it into a Four Seasons property combining a luxury hotel and condominiums, expected to open in the spring. The $530 million project is said to be the largest private investment in the history of the city. It is also the most visible sign of progress on the riverfront, whose redevelopment has proceeded in fits and starts over decades and is still far from fully realized.

Multiple projects — including a new ferry terminal and parkland — are planned or in the works. The pandemic and the resulting economic downturn have delayed some endeavors and quashed others. But there seems to be no dimming of enthusiasm for the idea of opening up the riverfront.

“It will be the front porch of New Orleans,” said Ron Forman, the president and chief executive of the Audubon Nature Institute, a nonprofit organization that operates the city’s aquarium and zoo and is under contract to design and build a riverfront park.

But there is some question about whom the redeveloped riverfront should serve: tourists or residents.

Around the country, waterfront projects like this are coming under close scrutiny.

Many cities owe their very existence to their waterways. But as maritime and industrial activities declined, and water quality improved, shorelines were reinvented for public use. Old wharf areas in cities including San Francisco and Baltimore were transformed beginning in the 1970s with things like parks and festival markets.

In recent years, however, climate change has brought rising sea levels and more frequent, intense storms that have battered coastlines and caused catastrophic flooding. In some places, berms and flood walls are being installed; in others, government programs are encouraging property owners to relocate away from shorelines in a strategy known as managed retreat.

There has also been pushback over waterfront redevelopment that has brought housing and amenities geared to the affluent, sometimes contributing to gentrification and displacement in inland communities, not to mention out-of-scale buildings that cut off water views.

“You have to be careful you are not just creating a linear strip of privilege,” said Anthony A. Williams, a former mayor of Washington who spurred redevelopment along the Anacostia River during his tenure.

New Orleans has lagged behind other cities. Proposals for redeveloping the riverfront came and went, including a post-World War II proposal by the municipal planner Robert Moses to ram an expressway through it. A spurt of development in the 1980s brought the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. In the 1990s, Audubon created Woldenberg Park on the river side of the Aquarium of the Americas.

It wasn’t until 2008, with the city still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina, that a comprehensive redevelopment plan was conceived. (The riverfront is at the highest elevation in the city and did not flood during the storm.)

The plan envisioned a six-mile stretch of public space dotted with development. Crescent Park, 1.4 miles of walking paths and picnic areas completed in 2015, was an outgrowth of the plan.

But today, the public portions of the riverfront are disconnected — Crescent Park is separated from the Moon Walk, a riverfront promenade near the French Quarter, by active wharves.

“Progress is more halting than we would have liked,” said Jeffrey Schwartz, director of economic development for the city.

The pandemic has not helped. Audubon has suspended meetings soliciting input for filling in the gap between Crescent Park and the Moon Walk. Residents of adjacent neighborhoods sought green space rather than tourist attractions that could bring crowds and congestion, said Nathan Chapman, who heads the Riverfront Neighborhood Alliance, a coalition of community groups.

Also postponed is a plan for a hotel at the convention center, where booked events have been canceled. The Port of New Orleans has backed off building a new cruise terminal.

Tourism, which drives the New Orleans economy, has tanked. Hotel occupancy in the French Quarter and central business district has ranged from 10 to 45 percent during the pandemic, according to STR. Hospitality companies have closed hotels and laid off staff.

All of which helps explain the eagerness in some quarters for the new Four Seasons, which has brought temporary construction work and promises permanent hospitality jobs.

The project is part of a flurry of activity at the foot of Canal Street, where the long-delayed replacement of an outdated ferry terminal is finally getting underway and Spanish Plaza is being refurbished.

Designed by the prominent New York architect Edward Durell Stone, the tower is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It was originally named the International Trade Mart and was part of the city’s push to encourage international commerce. Its shape was inspired by the four points of a compass: wings extend north, south, east and west. The rotunda at the top of the building revolved and housed a cocktail lounge.

By the time the city took over the building in 2010, it was in disrepair. Attempts to bring it back from the dead fizzled. The city had just issued a request for proposals when Alan Leventhal, chief executive of Beacon Capital Partners, a Boston investment firm, happened to glimpse the tower on a visit to New Orleans in 2014.

“I thought, ‘That would make a great hotel,’” he said. He assembled a development team led by Carpenter & Company of Cambridge, Mass., and Woodward Interests, a local company, and kicked in his own money.

The renovation of the building, which is benefiting from $70 million in historic preservation tax credits, includes the restoration of the facade and portions of the marble-columned lobby. Two low-rise additions will house ballrooms and other amenities that will be shared by hotel guests and apartment owners.

Guests will occupy the sixth through 18th floors, paying room rates that “will certainly be at the top of the market for New Orleans,” said Christian Clerc, president of global operations for Four Seasons. The condominiums on the upper floors are priced $2 million to $10 million. Drew Brees, the New Orleans Saints quarterback, has bought one.

The top of the building will no longer revolve, but an observation deck there will be open to the public.

Work on the project had to stop multiple times during hurricane season, and high-river conditions have periodically held up work on the foundation and below-ground mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.

The development is not alone in facing climate-related challenges; half the city is below sea level and sinking. Since Hurricane Katrina, $20 billion has been spent on levees, flood walls, gates and pumps to protect New Orleans.

Developers appear undeterred. Three groups, including the one working on the Four Seasons, are angling to redevelop 39 riverfront acres around the convention center as a mixed-use project.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a real impact on the city,” Mr. Leventhal said.

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