Published: Monday, July 19, 1993
Edition: THIRD
Section: METRO
Page: B1
Byline: By FRANK DONZE Staff writer


Developer Christopher Hemmeter plans to bring down the Rivergate with dynamite, but the controlled "implosion" clearing the site for his massive Grand Palais casino may threaten the Mississippi River levee and nearby historic buildings, a report to the state casino board says.

The analysis also says that the projected $134 million cost of building the Grand Palais has been underestimated by 15 percent.

Grand Palais officials, who will have an opportunity to defend their cost projections and construction strategy on Tuesday, say they have studied the Rivergate demolition carefully and are certain any problems can be avoided.

And while the report cautions the board to examine the plan carefully, it notes that technological advances make the project doable and says Hemmeter has hired some of the foremost construction experts in the field.

"We don't want to leave you with the impression that this is the impossible dream," said Marvin Ragland Jr. of the Robert M. Coleman & Partners architectural firm, who did the analysis with New Orleans architect Stanley Muller. "These are achievable goals."

The impact of the proposed implosion, which would collapse the Rivergate into its foundations, could be "especially critical" at Woldenberg Park "where the bank stability is recognized to be marginal," the report says.

It says "extensive seismic monitoring of the surrounding area would be essential."

Furthermore, the consultants raised concerns about how the blasting and the vibrations would affect historic buildings, such as the U.S. Custom House, and structures along Tchoupitoulas Street from Canal Street to beyond Poydras Street.

The report was commissioned by the Louisiana Economic and Development Gaming Corp., as part of its review of competing proposals to run a New Orleans casino on the Rivergate site at the foot of Canal Street.

The board has received only two bids: one from Hemmeter's Grand Palais Casino Inc. and one from Harrah's Jazz Co., a partnership of 10 local businessmen and Harrah's Casino Hotels.

Board members are expected to choose a winner on Friday and begin negotiating a contract for a state gaming license.

Unlike the Grand Palais proposal, the Harrah's Jazz plan calls for a renovation of the Rivergate that will allow for its casino to open in three phases. For this reason, the analysis said the "straightforward and conventional" structural work "does not present any unusual problems."

The Grand Palais plan, however, "will be one of the largest, most substantial construction projects ever undertaken in New Orleans," and thus warrants a greater degree of scrutiny, the report says.

Of particular concern, the analysis said, is Grand Palais' plan to build "a deep, immense, one-story basement" to house its "Lost City Casino" - one of 11 gambling areas that will feature distinct motifs.

Construction of the room, which will occupy 300,000 square feet - enough to cover five football fields - and will require digging foundations 32 feet below sea level, "is risky when considering its close location to the Mississippi River," the report said.

The report places the price tag on the project at $157.5 million - more than $23.5 million higher than the figure submitted by Hemmeter. The consultants said the discrepancy is due, in part, to a failure to factor in delays brought on by bad weather and river conditions and overly optimistic projections on material and labor costs.

But the consultants admitted that the difference is only their opinion, adding that they did not ask Grand Palais officials to justify their assumptions.

The figures address only the Grand Palais construction costs and do not include support facilities, a temporary casino or financing for the project.

Under Hemmeter's proposal, the Grand Palais would open in July 1995. But the consultants said Hemmeter's 22-month construction timetable is too optimistic. The report advises the board that 26 months is more realistic.

The Harrah's Jazz Co.'s proposal to open its first phase next spring, eight months after construction begins, "is considered to be attainable," the report says.

Copyright The Times-Picayune Publishing Corp.