This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the December 5, 2011 edition.
After a string of natural and man-made catastrophes, New Orleans has become a spot to share expertise on flooding, wind, spilled oil and any other grief that comes down the pike. The city plans to refurbish a Ninth Ward naval facility, shut in September as the military downsizes, for a new life as a disaster management center and other uses.
Reconstruction work on the Naval Support Activity complex, located in the Bywater section, could begin in early 2013, city leaders say. Additional plans for the 25-acre complex on the Mississippi River include "at risk" housing, a grocery store, a clinic, police and fire offices and maybe a cruise center.
Belinda Little-Wood, executive director of the NSA New Orleans Advisory Task Force, said using part of the East Bank complex as an emergency disaster center will build on cumulative knowledge from Katrina and other events, including the BP spill.
In 2005, the Bywater complex, along with a number of other U.S. bases, were declared surplus under the Base Realignment and Closure Act, approved by Congress. Since then, the Bywater's Navy and Marine Reserve operations have relocated to Federal City on the West Bank of New Orleans.
The proposed disaster center will provide offices for nonprofits, think tanks, for-profit entities and government agencies from the city, the nation and other countries. "Disaster management is a fairly large industry internationally, but it isn't very coordinated," Little-Wood said. Government typically takes the lead in disasters while operations are handled by private contractors.
She said "the industry has coalesced locally since Katrina, though offices are spread across the state. New Delhi, India has a center similar to what we've proposed but there's nothing like it in the U.S."
The Bywater site contains three, six-floor buildings, together totaling 1.5 million square feet, along with several smaller structures; 1,640 square yards of roads, sidewalks and parking lots; an indoor racquetball court, outdoor basketball and volleyball courts and other recreational facilities; a parade ground and a gas station.
On November 30, the city sent an application for the property, along with an economic feasibility study, to the Navy Office of Project Management in Charleston, South Carolina. Little-Wood said "my guess is it will take 30 days to review the application and they'll come back with some questions. The holiday season might affect the length of the approval process."
She said "this application is the first step in the Navy turning the complex over to the city in a transition that's expected to occur by March 31 of next year."
Under its reuse plan, the city hopes to attract a grocery store or small supermarket, other retailers and a medical clinic to the first floor of the complex's Building 603, facing Poland Avenue. Offices and education facilities for the disaster management industry are envisioned for upper floors.
In addition, nonprofit UNITY of Greater New Orleans, serving the homeless, expects to finance construction of an apartment building on an acre and a half in the site's northeast corner. The city and the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development have already hammered out parts of that plan. Federal officials are required to contact an area's homeless service providers when military buildings will be shut to ask if they have uses for the land.
UNITY plans to erect more than 50 units of "permanent supportive housing" for those who may have been homeless, but aren't homeless anymore, said Martha Kegel, UNITY's executive director. Some of the tenants will be older foster children who are at risk for becoming homeless as they leave foster care, and some of them will be people with disabilities. UNITY's services at the complex will be devoted to tenants signing two-year leases and case workers will visit them regularly.
"The building won't be a temporary shelter," Kegel said. "Instead the goal is to provide stable housing so that tenants can become self reliant." UNITY, which leads over 60 local agencies and groups in combating homelessness, will try to house Ninth Ward residents at the new building.
In the complex's Building 601, adjacent to the Industrial Canal, the city's police, fire and emergency services are expected to have a presence. "Building 601 will house some NOPD, NOFD and EMS functions, an Emergency Operations Center and a temporary, safe haven for essential personnel during a catastrophic event," Little-Wood said.
She said Building 602 is expected to contain over a thousand parking spaces for workers in the complex. And the Port of New Orleans might use Building 602 for cruise center parking if the cruise industry expands locally. The port can use two adjacent wharves--which aren't owned by the Navy--for cruise ships, Little-Wood said.
She said the former Naval complex will be zoned for mixed commercial and residential uses. But aside from UNITY's apartment building, residential development is not anticipated at the site.
Rebuilding the old facility is likely to create 750 construction jobs at a yearly base salary of $35,000, Little-Wood said. "Construction is anticipated to begin in the first quarter of 2013." When fully occupied, the complex could provide 2,000 to 2,500 permanent jobs, mainly in disaster management.
Buildings in the complex date from 1919 to 1921 and contain lead-based paint that's mostly encapsulated, along with asbestos. If structures are demolished, lead paint and asbestos will have to be remediated, Little-Wood said.
"The project will require subsidies, and we're in discussions with city, state and federal agencies about financing, but nothing has been finalized," she said. The site is eligible for state and federal historic tax credits, federal New Market Tax Credits, Property Assessment Clean Energy or PACE bonds, along with Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Emergency Management Agency Hazard Mitigation Grant funding for sewage and water infrastructure.
Under its procurement guidelines, the city is looking for developers for the site. "We're in the process of advertising a Request for Proposal for private-sector developers now," Little-Wood said.
Neighbors and area businesses seem to like most of what they've heard and say they're glad to know the complex will be resurrected. At The Joint, the Poland Ave. barbeque restaurant that's directly across Dauphine St. from the complex, kitchen manager Ben Fox said "we're not seeing the military people in here since they moved last summer, but we're very busy anyway. If the city converts the base to a disaster center, we'll have those workers as customers, and if a cruise center moves in we should get tourist traffic." He said a grocery store at the site would add to two corner stores in the immediate vicinity.
The Bywater has no supermarket and neighbors would welcome one at the complex, said Sister Joyce Hanks, a Bywater resident and manager of the Holy Angels Apartments for low-income, elderly residents on St. Claude Ave. The disaster offices will offer employment, she said, and added "this area is largely residential and we want to attract jobs that people can walk or bike to." She's an officer of the Bywater Neighborhood Association but said her views are her own.
As for the next occupants, Little-Wood pointed to a range of potential, disaster-response-and-recovery tenants, and said participants at an International Disaster Conference and Expo, scheduled for January 17 to 19 in New Orleans, would be logical candidates to open offices in the facility. She also said that firms involved in water management and wetlands restoration are candidates as Louisiana continues to recover from Katrina and the oil spill. -end-