Jan 22, 2024 - Business

What to know about the River District project in New Orleans

Rendering shows people walking in a public park space in the new River District in New Orleans

The River District is slated to have offices, entertainment, green spaces, retail, affordable housing and workforce housing. Rendering: Courtesy of Gensler

Construction is underway on the River District near the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, but not everyone is happy with how the process is going.

Why it matters: Developers say the project will transform the riverfront and bring in $1 billion in economic activity.

Background: The River District is about 40 acres along the Mississippi River between the convention enter and the Lower Garden District.

Rendering shows a map of the River District with proposed buildings along the Mississippi River
The River District includes about 40 acres along the river near the convention center and Mardi Gras World. Rendering: Courtesy of Gensler

State of play: Some members of the New Orleans City Council are criticizing the project for a lack of transparency and asking for changes to the process going forward.

  • In December, the council approved a property tax break for the developers for Shell Oil's new regional headquarters, which will anchor the district.
  • The tax break exempts the building from property taxes for 15 years, and is worth an estimated $21.6 million, writes Josie Abugov of Verite News.

Yes, but: The Orleans Parish School Board, which is funded primarily with property tax revenue, asked the City Council to rescind the tax break and get more public input, writes Anthony McAuley with NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.

Rendering shows what the Shell office building could look like in New Orleans.
This rendering shows what Shell's new office building could look like in New Orleans. it would be the first Class A office building to be constructed in New Orleans since 1989. Image: Courtesy of Gensler

Meanwhile, the development group and the New Orleans Exhibition Hall Authority cut the council out of a governing contract, writes Abugov at Verite.

  • The 35-year agreement gives those two groups power to levy taxes in the River District, Abugov reports.
  • "Because of a provision in state law, the deal will commit future residents of the district to pay the higher taxes in their neighborhood, potentially without being able to vote on them for the full tenure of the decades-long contract," Abugov says.

The other side: "The River District Neighborhood Investors consortium is disappointed by the way some have characterized our engagement during a 27-month pre-construction and master planning process," Louis Lauricella, co-managing member of the River District Neighborhood Investors, tells Axios New Orleans.

  • He said there have been more than 70 meetings with regulatory agencies and community groups, and the discussions with the City Council are "well documented."
  • "We have intentionally and deliberately sought city and community engagement every step of the way," he said.

Between the lines: City Council President JP Morrell's office is working on proposals to provide greater review and public input for future deals, according to Verite.

Rendering shows the front of the TopGolf facility proposed for New Orleans.
This rendering shows the front of the proposed Topgolf facility in New Orleans. There would be a driving range with a large, netted fence in the back. Rendering: Aria Group

The details: In addition to Shell's headquarters, the River District is slated to have entertainment, green spaces, retail, affordable housing and workforce housing.

  • Topgolf, the project's entertainment centerpiece, is expected to start construction soon on Tchoupitoulas Street, according to the convention center.
  • But the project is being criticized by neighbors. Matt Ryan, vice president of the Lower Garden District Association, told Fox 8 the project goes against the character of the neighborhood. Other residents voiced concerns about traffic at a public meeting about Topgolf earlier this month.
  • And, a New Orleans business filed a lawsuit last month challenging the River District's lease and Topgolf, according to WGNO.
  • "We have adhered to all requirements and initial tenant projects at every level, including Topgolf," says developer Lauricella.
  • Another public meeting is scheduled for Jan. 30 at Felicity Church with the River District, Topgolf and Council member Lesli Harris.
Photo shows a TopGolf banner on a fence that has been spraypainted with a message about paying taxes.
The sign for Topgolf was spray painted this month with a message about taxes. Photo: Chelsea Brasted/Axios

What we're watching: Three more proposed projects are up in the air.

  • Louisiana Music and Heritage Experience museum — Plans to build a $160 museum dedicated to Louisiana's music heritage are on hold due to funding, according to Michael Matese, the director of marketing at EskewDumezRipple, the architectural firm for the project.
    • The goal is to re-up the $75 million request with the state legislature, he tells Axios.
  • Soccer stadium — The soccer stadium also appears to be on hold, writes McAuley at NOLA.com. But, the United Soccer League New Orleans development team says they remain hopeful about gaining traction in the future.
  • Power plant — Cypress Equities, one of the partners in the River District development, bought the old Market Street Power Plant in 2022 with the goal of turning it into an experience-based entertainment project with restaurants, shops, a rooftop bar and a music space (rendering).
    • The plan has shifted, and developers are now looking at laser tag and ax throwing, McAuley writes.
Rendering shows the River District at night.
This rendering shows the proposed River District at night, with the Market Street power plant in the top left. Rendering: Gensler

What's next: Lauricella says the focus for the next 15 to 18 months will be infrastructure work, including new roads, sewer mains and utility lines, including fiber optic.

  • They are laying the groundwork for a new transportation grid that will feature bus rapid transit, rideshare and taxi drop-off and pickup, Lauricella tells Axios New Orleans.
  • Other objectives include a district-wide stormwater management plan and a power grid utilizing the Mississippi River.
Photo shows a rendering of what the affordable housing could look like in the River District.
This is what the affordable housing could look like in the River District. Rendering: Gensler
Rendering shows buildings and a walkway in front of the convention center in New Orleans.
This rendering shows what Convention Center Boulevard could look like after development. Rendering: Gensler
Rendering shows buildings in the proposed River District.
The River District developers have proposed a mix of green spaces, office buildings, retail and housing. Image: Gensler

Go deeper:

Editor's note: This story was corrected to state the River District is estimated to have a $1 billion economic impact overall, not annually.

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