The political “Battle of New Orleans” over a suburban Wal-Mart superstore in an urban historic district has been won — for now. After nine months of skirmishes, the New Orleans, Louisiana City Council on April 18th voted to approve a 190,000 s.f. Wal-Mart in the Lower Garden District. (See 1/9/02 and 8/19/01 for earlier stories). The Wal-Mart was just the headliner in a larger retail plus housing plan being promoted by the current Mayor, a former Mayor, and a former Governor. Not only did Wal-Mart get a green light, but it was done in classic laissez-faire style, because the City Council tossed out a list of 31 conditions that city planners had imposed on the store. “Wal-Mart got everything they wanted,” said long-time preservation activist Bill Borah. “It means this city is for sale,” he told the Times-Picayune. Wal-Mart came up with its own scratch list of mild conditions, and warned city officials to ignore their own planners, or the deal would break. The 9 page Wal-Mart amendment was presented to the Council members the night of the vote.The Council also handed out millions of dollars in corporate welfare to the developer, through a Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) deal that allows the project to keep much of its sales taxes to help pay off the housing bonds that are paying for the construction of residential units on the site — if anyone will want to live in the shadow of a Wal=Mart. Wal-Mart said as soon as the TIF deal is finalized, they can build and open the store in about 10 months. Mayor Mark Morial stumped hard for the Wal-Mart, as did former Mayor Sid Barthelemy, who is employed by the company which will build the housing, and former Governor Buddy Roemer, who heads the company which will build a retirement community on the site.Opponents to the project said it would drain millions of dollars out of the local economy, and use taxpayers’ dollars to subsidize a developer who couldn’t put up enough private capital to build his housing. “Every developer will come in and say he’s undercapitalized,” predicted one resident.The 31 provisions on the Planning commission’s list would have shrunk the parking lot, and required design changes in the big box, including windows and doors on the building’s exterior. The site is part of a nationally-designated historic district, and preservationists warn that they will go to court to block the project.
Isn’t it inspiring what politicians can do when they agree on something? Some of New Orlean’s most powerful pols primed the pump for Wal-Mart, using as bait housing for locat residents who were booted out of the St. Thomas projects when they were demolished. After uprooting these people, the City now replaces their urban neighborhood with a suburban facelift, and takes money from the city treasury to pay for it. Piracy is nothing new in New Orleans, it just doesn’t require guns and swords anymore. For local contacts, see the earlier entries for this story.