Published: Wednesday, June 23, 1993
Edition: THIRD
Section: METRO
Page: B1
Byline: By BRUCE ALPERT Washington bureau


Construction of what would be the world's largest gambling casino is a clear threat to New Orleans' historic neighborhoods, a national preservation group said today in listing the city's downtown area as one of "America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places."

"Having survived wars, hurricanes and a boom-or-bust economy, New Orleans now faces the potentially detrimental impact of the world's largest land-based gambling casino," which is likely to generate "massive traffic congestion and increased demand for parking and undesirable spin-off development," the National Trust for Historic Preservation said in announcing the city's appearance on its annual endangered list.

The preservation group, which has put out an annual list of endangered historical places since 1988, said the site chosen for the giant casino - the Rivergate Convention Center at the foot of Canal Street - borders two landmark historic areas, the Warehouse District and the French Quarter.

The French Quarter will be doubly hard hit, it said, with the casino on one side and a temporary gambling hall and proposed "entertainment zone" on the other.

The French Quarter's appearance on the list is nothing new. It was among the top 11 endangered sites in 1988, 1989 and 1990 because of what the group termed unacceptable increases in traffic congestion and commercial activity.

Peter Brink, the group's vicepresident, said the entire downtown area is included in the new list because of the massive scope of the gambling project.

"This continues and adds to the increasing traffic and pressures that have been building in the French Quarter for years, but it also threatens the Warehouse District's revitalization as a residential area," Brink said.

Backers of the casino, however, argue that the project could provide the revenue needed to preserve the city's historic communities.

"Lack of financial resources is the major enemy to preservation efforts, and New Orleans, along with other major cities, is suffering from cash-flow problems," said New Orleans Councilman Lambert C. Boissiere Jr. "If anything, gaming money - if it is used properly - will bring investment back into those neighborhoods that we need for preservation efforts."

Boissiere said preservation groups have proven that they have the clout to minimize potential damage to historic sites, noting their role in persuading casino developer Christopher Hemmeter to back down from plans to demolish five 1850s buildings for parking garages.

As the city's director of economic development and the former director of the Vieux Carre Commission, which is entrusted with preserving the French Quarter's historic sites, Wayne Collier said he can see the issue from two perspectives.

"The assertion that a development like a casino could be a very serious threat to an historic environment is a valid observation," Collier said. "However, the development plans we have insisted upon in New Orleans require the sensitivity to the built environment."

But Brink, the National Trust for Historic Preservation's vice-president, said his group doubts preservation can be maintained in the face of a casino.

Brink said the 11 sites chosen for the dubious distinction are chosen from about 100 nominees by a panel of preservation experts across the country.

Last year, the group placed Louisiana's historic River Road on its list. It dropped off this year, Brink said, because some limited progress had been made in protecting some of the road's historic homes and plantations.

Still, the road is in enough jeopardy to earn a spot on the organization's newly created "Watch List" of historic places which are still threatened.

In addition to downtown New Orleans, other sites appearing on the 1993 "Endangered list" are:

Vermont. The state is threatened by what the preservation group terms "unplanned, uncontrolled, large-scale development on the periphery of towns that saps the vitality from traditional main streets, increases automobile dependency and destroys open space.

Thomas Edison's Invention Factory in West Orange, N.J. This is where Edison and his team of 60 workers perfected the photograph, the movie camera, and more than half of Edison's 1,093 inventions. Fragile items as the original wax cylinder recorders are "deteriorating rapidly" because of inadequate environmental conditions and storage facilities.

Brandy Station Battlefield, Culpeper County, Va. This is where 20,000 union and confederate soldiers fought in 1863. It is threatened by "industrial development," the group said.

Also on the endangered list are: a prehistorical serpent mound in Adams County, Ohio; the Sweetgrass Hills of Liberty and Toole Counties, Mont.; eight historic Dallas neighborhoods; South Pasadena and El Sereno, Calif.; the Schooner C.A. Thayer in San Francisco; Virginia City, Mont; and the town of St. Genevieve in Missouri.

Copyright The Times-Picayune Publishing Corp.