Published: Wednesday, April 22, 1992
Edition: THIRD
Page: A1
Byline: By TYLER BRIDGES Staff writer


Developer Christopher Hemmeter would like to demolish the World Trade Center and the Rivergate and build the world's largest casino inside a huge building modeled after a Parisian palace, according to people who have seen his $1 billion plan to redevelop the New Orleans riverfront.

Over a three-year period, Hemmeter wants to build three museums on sites near the Rivergate, one of them a replica of New Orleans' former French Opera House, a Vieux Carre landmark that burned down early in this century, the sources said.

The World Trade Center would be demolished to improve the view of the river from the $400 million casino on the Rivergate site, and Hemmeter would create a park at the foot of Canal Street featuring two 10-story arches.

Hemmeter also plans to build a large riverboat terminal on the site of the Canadian Pavilion of the 1984 world's fair, between the Convention Center and the Mississippi River. Thousands of gamblers could play video poker there before and after gambling cruises.

In the area between Canal Place and Jackson Brewery in the French Quarter, he wants to build a parking garage beneath a park that would be bisected by a horse-drawn trolley. In addition, the development would feature retail shops, an artists' studio and gallery, the sources said.

In a city starved for investment, Hemmeter's plan, which would dwarf the amount of money spent to build either the Superdome or the New Orleans Convention Center, has wowed even opponents of casino gambling.

"I'm still not convinced," said one casino opponent who was briefed by Hemmeter. "But it's a lot more likely I'll support it. Who else wants to invest $1 billion in New Orleans?"

Hemmeter has said the plan will require no state money and the casino will repay the project's cost within 25 years.

Hemmeter, who has been quietly developing his plans for a year, has been unveiling them in private screenings for selected power brokers in New Orleans and Baton Rouge in recent days. Details of the plan were leaked by some of those invited to the presentations.

The developer has scheduled a news conference Tuesday to make his riverfront blueprint public.

Hemmeter, said to be worth at least $200 million, made his fortune by building several huge hotels in Hawaii in the 1970s and 1980s. He is building two small casinos in Colorado and several other hotels throughout the world.

But lately he has been concentrating his time and resources in New Orleans.

Hemmeter has contracts or options to buy at least seven parcels of property that he plans to develop. Mayor Sidney Barthelemy has said the city hopes to lease the city-owned Rivergate site to a casino operator.

Hemmeter wants to replace the Rivergate with a structure he calls the Grand Palais. The first floor would have a ballroom and convention hall beneath 80-foot ceilings. The casino, which would occupy about one-fourth of the building, would be on the second floor. A job-training center would occupy tunnels beneath the building.

In an interview last week, Hemmeter, while not revealing his plans, said the casino's design would fit in with the architecture of New Orleans' past. Unlike casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, N.J., the gambling areas would not be visible from the street, he said.

"It has to be properly slipped into place in terms of the overall development," he said.

In the interview, Hemmeter dismissed suggestions that he put a casino in a remodeled Rivergate. He said the concrete building is ugly and is filled with asbestos.

"Putting a new coat of paint on it and putting slot machines in it to get it up and running as soon as possible - that's called greed," he said.

In the interview, he also dismissed casinos with "plastic birds and spears out front" - a reference to Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos.

Hemmeter said he will build the casino only if the Legislature approves casino gambling in New Orleans and he is awarded a license to be the only operator in the city.

Legislation establishing a 100-year lease for a single casino operator in New Orleans was introduced last week by Senate President Sammy Nunez, D-Chalmette, who has escorted Hemmeter to meetings in New Orleans and Baton Rouge and has traveled with him, at the developer's expense, to resorts Hemmeter built in Hawaii.

Across Canal Street from the Rivergate would be the Petit Palais, which would include a Celebration of Life museum. The site is now a parking lot for Canal Place.

In keeping with his vision for grand buildings that re-create historic New Orleans, Hemmeter plans to install a 2,500-seat auditorium and a jazz history museum inside a replica of New Orleans' 1859 French Opera House, the sources said.

The replica would go up on what is now a parking lot across Poydras Street from the Rivergate.

The one piece of property that Hemmeter has completed purchasing is the Canadian Pavilion site. Hemmeter wants to build a terminal big enough to hold 6,000 gamblers. That would accommodate crowds both entering and leaving the gambling boats, which are expected to have a capacity of about 3,000.

Legislation letting riverboat operators have an unlimited number of video poker machines has been introduced by Nunez and Rep. Sherman Copelin, D-New Orleans.

Riverboat gambling was approved by the Legislature last year.

While Hemmeter has ambitious plans for the stretch of land between Jackson Brewery and Canal Place - bounded by Decatur Street and the river - at least four blocks of this property are owned by developer Darryl Berger. Berger said he and Hemmeter have not discussed sale of the property.

Gov. Edwards and groups of legislators were briefed on Hemmeter's plans Tuesday in Baton Rouge.

Copyright The Times-Picayune Publishing Corp.