City officials are stubbornly proceeding with Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s proposal to relocate City Hall to the old Municipal Auditorium despite fierce opposition from residents in Treme and other community advocates.
Cantrell first suggested the proposal shortly after being elected. In 2019, the administration commissioned a study that found the existing City Hall was badly in need of repairs and that those repairs would cost roughly the same as building a new structure. The choice of relocating to Armstrong Park was influenced by $40 million of unused FEMA money reserved for the restoration of the Municipal Auditorium, which has sat vacant since Hurricane Katrina.
The Auditorium is smaller than the current City Hall, which presently cannot house all city government offices. Cantrell’s proposal calls for an office annex tower to be constructed next to the auditorium as well as a parking garage. The total cost of the relocation project is estimated to exceed $100 million.
The deadline set by the federal government for getting all the FEMA money under contract is August 2023. Cantrell hopes construction can begin before then. Ramsey Green, the deputy chief administrative officer for infrastructure, states, “At this point, FEMA needs the city of New Orleans to state what the city is going to do with that $38 million … We factually know that building cannot come back to what it was pre-Katrina because there’s no demand for that kind of use of that building. We also know that [only] $38 million will not bring it back to any kind of use.” (nola.com, Jan. 28).
But others disagree. Critics of the plan argue it will have adverse effects on the neighborhood, further desecrate the sacred ground of Congo Square, and destroy Armstrong Park. Critics are also outraged at the lack of community input. A number of meetings organized by opponents of the relocation plan have been organized and a petition is currently circulating.
Many residents in the neighborhood feel as if their voices have not been heard. At one community meeting, resident Liz Serra said, “What’s the point? You guys have bulldozed us and decided. You think you are doing a favor by informing us about progress on a project that will destroy our neighborhood.” (nola.com, Jan. 28).
Community activist Leo Watermeier, with Friends of Armstrong Park, says “We think parks are for entertainment and recreation and an office building is not a valid use … I don’t really know if anybody is for it except the mayor and her team.” (Fox 8, Jan. 29).
Ausettua Amor Amenkum, a member of The New Orleans Culture Preservation Committee, states, “We are opposed to City Hall moving to the Municipal Auditorium because we believe it will encroach on Congo Square, which already has been identified as a national historic landmark and is a sacred space and a gathering space for many people in New Orleans. The mayor believes she will put measures in place that will protect Congo Square. What she doesn’t realize is that the auditorium is already on Congo Square. When they built the auditorium in 1930, they had already encroached on Congo Square.” (Louisiana Weekly, April 6).
Neighborhood advocates point out the relocation plan is just the latest move by government officials that have torn at the fabric of the historic Treme neighborhood, including the building of the I-10 overpass on North Claiborne Avenue and the 500 families which were displaced when Armstrong Park was built. The relocation of City Hall to Armstrong Park would further alter the neighborhood forever.
In addition to the logistical problems (like the 3,000 cars that would flood the neighborhood daily), there are more intangible reasons to oppose the relocation plan. Moving City Hall to Congo Square would desecrate a sacred cultural space.
Long before Europeans arrived here, the area we now call New Orleans was called Bulbancha. Bulbancha was home to a seasonal trading post that served dozens of indigenous people groups for hundreds of years before the “founding” of New Orleans. The area we now call Congo Square was sacred ground to the Houmas, who celebrated their annual corn harvest there with dancing and music. Later, it became famous as the place where enslaved people would gather on Sundays to celebrate their African culture and heritage. The music at these gatherings was instrumental in the development of jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, and rock-n-roll.
Relocating City Hall to Congo Square would profane hallowed ground. It would constitute a grievous sin against the very foundations of our city’s history and culture.