Published: Friday, October 18, 1991
Edition: THIRD
Page: A1
Byline: By BRUCE EGGLER Staff writer


New Orleans, Dock Board and Audubon Park Commission officials are on the verge of concluding an agreement that could free large sections of the New Orleans riverfront for redevelopment, informed sources said Thursday.

Under the agreement:

The Dock Board will turn over the Gov. Nicholls Street, Esplanade Avenue and Mandeville Street wharves to Audubon, which plans to build the second phase of Woldenberg Riverfront Park and a plant conservatory on them.

Control of the Rivergate will shift from the Dock Board to the city, which could make the site available for redevelopment as a hotel, casino or other use. The Rivergate, built in the 1960s as the city's first convention center, has been almost empty since completion this summer of the New Orleans Convention Center's second phase.

The Dock Board will receive a large payment, thought to be between $10 million and $20 million, for giving up the three wharves and for renegotiating its lucrative lease of the wharves on which the Aquarium of the Americas was built. Most of the payment will come from the Audubon Park Commission, which apparently will get the money by issuing bonds based on future aquarium revenue.

The deal reportedly includes other provisions, including some affecting the Dock Board's France Road Terminal, but the sources said the main provisions involve the Rivergate, the aquarium and the three French Quarter-Faubourg Marigny wharves.

Several officials involved in negotiating the package refused to speak on the record, saying talks on the deal have been going on for more than a year and more than once have seemed near fruition but always have run into new problems. "This is a very, very fragile thing," one said.

Officials had planned to brief the City Council on the deal Thursday but apparently changed their minds at the last minute. They said they expect agreement will be reached soon, however.

The deal apparently will resolve two long-running disputes, between the city and the Dock Board over control of the Rivergate and between Audubon and the Dock Board over control of the three wharves.

The Dock Board owns the Rivergate, a convention and exhibition hall that opened in 1968, but the city owns 80 percent of the land under it. The board is obligated by a lease with the city to operate the building as a convention center for another several decades.

The Rivergate, like almost all convention centers, runs a large annual deficit even when used regularly. In addition, the Dock Board has been paying about $700,000 a year to cover debt service on the bonds issued to pay for the building.

In recent years several companies have inquired about redeveloping all or part of the Rivergate or its site. The talks have been hampered, however, by ill-will between city and Dock Board leaders and confusion about who has the authority to make a deal.

Transferring control to the city should simplify redevelopment of the site. Among possible future uses are a hotel, stores, condominiums or a gambling casino, should one be authorized by the Legislature.

Although money for new hotels is almost impossible to obtain nationwide at present, some economists believe that the advent of riverboat gambling and other tourist attractions will lead to the building of at least one more large hotel in New Orleans in a few years.

The amount of compensation the Dock Board will receive for the Rivergate is not clear. Its president, J. Ron Brinson, has said that the board has about $27 million invested in the building and wants at least partial compensation. The building and the land under it have been appraised at more than $20 million, he has said.

The controversy over the Gov. Nicholls, Esplanade and Mandeville wharves goes back to the Audubon Park Commission's announcement in December 1989 that it wanted to build a $15 million expansion of Woldenberg Riverfront Park on the three wharves and a $10 million, 30,000-square-foot plant conservatory at the foot of Esplanade and Elysian Fields avenues.

Dock Board officials replied that they did not necessarily oppose Audubon's plans, which are backed by Mayor Sidney Barthelemy, but that the wharves were still in maritime use and would not be made available to Audubon until replacement cargo-handling and storage facilities were built.

The port has embarked on a $187 million capital improvements program centered upriver of Jackson Avenue that is expected to provide replacements for the three wharves in a year or two. The Dock Board presumably would use the Audubon payment to help finance the improvements.

Audubon officials hope to complete the park expansion by 1993 and the conservatory by 1994. Their plans have drawn fire from some French Quarter residents and preservationists.

Besides paying for the right to use the three wharves, Audubon in effect will buy out the Dock Board's lease on the Bienville Street and Toulouse Street wharves, site of the aquarium and first phase of Woldenberg Park.

Many city officials have charged that the lease is unduly favorable to the Dock Board, which gets about 9 percent of aquarium admission fees, while the city, which owns the land under the wharves, gets nothing. The port had been guaranteed a minimum of $25 million over 50 years.


Mandeville St. Wharf

Gov. Nicholls St. Wharf

Esplanade Ave. Wharf

Aquarium of the Americas

The Rivergate


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