Redevelop Municipal Auditorium and Armstrong Park!

Armstrong Park has been a political football for as long as I can remember. I’ve suggested in the past that there needs to be a commission or an agency that manages the entire park (not just its maintenance, currently managed by New Orleans Parks & Parkways). Maintenance and use of any of the site’s facilities should also be coordinated with the management of the Mahalia Jackson Performing Arts Center, and the National Park Service, which currently controls several buildings on the east side of the property.  A huge benefit of the park is abundant parking on the premises, which at this writing isn’t being used to the fullest extent that it could be.

The layout of Armstrong Park and location of the moldering Municipal Auditorium. (Source: nola.gov)

The fate of the Municipal Auditorium, within the park, is unknown. The auditorium is the elephant in the park. Once the site of almost all Mardi Gras krewe balls, it also served as a popular venue for large concerts (the Jazz Fest presented many a night-time concert there, once the President steamboat left the city). It was also the site of many city events. I remember going to many an inauguration there. It also hosted sporting events, even wrestling (!) and it housed the Harrah’s Casino for a short time.

The city was supposed to issue a request for proposal (RFP) for building remediation and development, but nothing has come to fruition. Ritz-Carlton developer Stewart Juneau submitted an ambitious plan for the property in 2009, with much of the funding to come from FEMA, but caught a lot of flak for his proposal because  many thought because of his close relationship with then-mayor Ray Nagin. That proposal was attacked and was withdrawn.

The VCPORA (Vieux Carre Property Owners and Residents Association) sent a letter to Nagin’s office at the time asking Nagin’s office to get more public input before a proposal was accepted. In that letter, it was clear that the organization wanted the “beautiful auditorium” preserved as a venue:

“Before the storm, resident [sic] of the French Quarter enjoyed the proximity of the beautiful auditorium and many of us walked to the various cultural, social and community events held there.  Indeed, people from across the city, and even beyond, flocked to boxing matches, concerts, and other shows at this magnificent building.  We have only the information in the RFP to go on, but if our reading is correct, the building would no longer be an auditorium but a production facility, meaning it would be taken out of public use.  That would be quite a loss.

We have been supportive in the past of public/private ventures, but have also always been supportive of transparency and public involvement in the stewardship of public resources.  In this case, the RFP does not seem to have been the end product of a process that engaged the community of stakeholders.

We ask that you restart the process, convene community meetings, and solicit input from the public so that the best, most productive, and most beneficial use for this resource can be decided by the public.”

Public input is necessary of course, because the building is still owned by the city, but the sad fact is that the Municipal Auditorium is in such sorry shape—still, from Katrina flooding, and mold issues—that remediation alone could cost $50-million.

Is the Municipal Auditorium worth saving for a use as a venue? Probably not. Its heyday as the go-to venue is over; too many other options are available in the city.

So what can be done with the hulking Municipal Auditorium? Yes, the property is historic. It was built in 1930, and has been a part of New Orleanians’ consciousness for the better part of a century. But it’s not at all useful (or even beautiful) in its current condition. Frankly, I think the property should be the subject of a public-private partnership—or even sold to a private developer—to create something totally new and useful to its citizens, and to visitors too. There’s just no way this facility, with its use as it existed prior to Katrina, would be useful today. So why not redevelop it?

As readers of MM know, I am quite comfortable with our traditions, but I’m absolutely not comfortable keeping rotting historic buildings in public use only for the sake of history, to keep things ”forever as is.” This is counterproductive to the history of the city, its living citizenry, and to a growing vital New Orleans. We do not need the Municipal Auditorium as a sports or large auditorium any longer. We have many other facilities that have taken its place—that were in place before the auditorium was irreparably damaged by Katrina flooding.

At least Stewart Juneau had a conceptual vision for the building’s re-use, whether it was subjected to public scrutiny or not, whether the concept was feasible or not. He was thinking creatively about it.  We still don’t have our music museum. Let’s see if we can sell it to a developer who can make it something we can be proud of once again and that will serve the citizens of this great city.

More and more, Armstrong Park is becoming a center for celebrations and festivals. The group, People United for Armstrong Park (PufAP) has succeeded in presenting a series of events in the park that have—finally—opened the eyes of many regarding the viability of the park for small festivals and events.

Last weekend, we attended the annual Treme Creole Gumbo Festival in Armstrong Park (we went last year ,too). Last year, the stage was set up at Congo Square on the Park’s east side with the stage facing Municipal Auditorium. Vendor and artisan booths were scattered throughout the eastern side of the park, under the trees and along the sidewalks.

This year, the layout changed: artisans lined “Armstrong Plaza,” the sidewalk entrance sculpture promenade that leads from the Armstrong sign at Orleans Avenue. The stage was set up next to the Municipal Auditorium’s St. Philip Street side facing the lagoon, with the crowd in the Armstrong Sculpture Garden.

This was a very good arrangement, leading the crowd through the artisan row, to food vendors and finally to the stage. The best thing was the sound, which was probably the best I’ve heard at a small festival.

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation should be commended for using Armstrong Park as the site a their free festival, and continuing to introduce the park to new users. The Foundation also plans to move its annual Cajun Zydeco Festival to the park next year. With these events, and the regular events created by PUfAP, Armstrong Park is reaching its potential as a jewel of an urban setting for music and celebratory events, but in my opinion, the Park has a long way to go.

It still suffers from an undeserved reputation as a deserted crime-ridden area. The fact of the matter is that the more events that take place in the park, the less crime will take place. Criminals aren’t going to populate an area that has crowds of people. This is the biggest problem with North Rampart Street. The more people that are on the street in that area—including night-time activities, such as restaurants, bars and yes, music clubs, the fewer issues there will be with serious crimes like robbery, assault and murders.

Next to move activities to Armstrong Park should be the French Quarter Festival. Speaking from personal experience, Woldenberg Park, where the largest percentages of the crowds are during the event, needs to have its traffic thinned out by moving one of the big stages to Armstrong Park. French Quarter Fest has just grown so large that the footprint of the festival must be enlarged. Plus, an additional value would be to spread more people throughout the entire Quarter—after al l the original concept behind the festival was to bring locals back to the French Quarter. Ditto moving the Satchmo Summerfest event in August to Armstrong Park. That’s where it belongs: in the park named for Louis Armstrong, the musician the event honors.

 

  • Dana J. LaVigne

    What is meant by “production facility”?

  • Jay

    I heard that PuP is having money issues with permits

  • Thomas Jacobsen

    Absolutely, Jan! A great suggestion to move SatchFest and FQF to Armstrong Park. It’s a wonderful location that deserves to be more fully used. I, too, thought the Treme Gumbo Fest was handled beautifully and really like the Thursday evening performances in the park. I guess I would probably agree with your suggestion of putting the Auditorium up for a public-private proposal, but I have my doubts about a music museum. I thought we had a jazz museum in the Mint. In any case, the auditorium as it is now is an eye-sore.

    • Chris

      Have you been to the Jazz Museum at the mint? There’s hardly anything there. Apparently the LA State Museum has lots of jazz memorabilia in storage but doesn’t display much of it. Tourists are always asking me where to find things such a museum should have and right now there’s nowhere. I do see some construction going on at the building on Rampart. Perhaps one will materialize there finally.

  • Chris

    Good for you Jan! Hopefully this gets folks talking about this again.

  • JohnInTucson

    Jan – I disagree about moving Satchmo SummerFest. We attended the event in 2012 and again this year. This year we even sponsored a stage performance (Lars Edegran’s New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra) and enjoyed several other sets (Meschiya Lake, Allen Toussaint, John Boutte, Hot Club of New Orleans, Kermit Ruffins) so we certainly appreciate the value of the stages. But I feel that the centerpiece of the festival (literally and figuratively) is the seminars that are given in the Mint’s performance space on the third floor. To be in an event where George Avakian (Louis’ long-time producer) is listening to recorded conversations between him and Louis that he hadn’t heard in 50 years, or to see last year Ricky Riccardi present video of Louis’ group with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic performing St. Louis Blues with W.C. Handy in the audience, these were just extraordinary moments that were, to us, the heart of the fest. Yes, the grounds around the Mint are terribly crowded so it’s fair to say that the fest has outgrown them. While many of us braved the “griddle hot” conditions outside to enjoy some of the music, several of the attendees and presenters at the seminars are getting along in years (George Avakian is 94) so a properly cooled facility is important to allow them to continue to participate. Is there a comparable indoor facility with up-to-date sound, projection and air conditioning in Armstrong Park that could be at the center of this event?

  • Beadhead

    Can’t agree with your proposal to sell the Aud to a private developer. This is a PUBLIC park, and should remain so! If the park is to be used for public performances, then more room is needed for the resulting crowds. The space currently occupied by the Aud could best be put to use as a planned, dedicated festival site. FQF, Satchmo Fest, Cajun Zydeco Fest, Seafood Fest, etc., could all benefit from such a space. Heck, Jazz Fest could even host evening concerts there. How cool would that be? The LAST thing we need is more private control over public spaces in the Treme and the Quarter.