Fierce opposition from preservation and community groups has saved the last cotton press complex in the city of New Orleans from becoming a Wal-Mart parking lot. Now, building on this success, the groups hope to keep the proposed store out altogether.
In July, the ironically named Historic Restoration Inc. (HRI) revealed plans to redevelop a 65-acre site along Tchoupitoulas Street in the heart of New Orleans. The proposal includes 1100 units of housing and a 203,000 square foot Wal-Mart supercenter. To make room for the 900 parking spaces required by Wal-Mart, HRI sought to raze several buildings in the Amelia Cotton Press complex. Built in 1882 of red brick and cypress, the structures compose the last intact cotton press complex in New Orleans and represent an important part of the city’s history.
In September, with opposition growing louder by the day, HRI announced that it would reduce the size of the parking lot by 75 spaces and thereby save the buildings.
"We’re thrilled those buildings will be saved," said Patty Gay, executive director of the Preservation Resource Center (PRC). "But we’re still concerned about the impact of a Wal-Mart supercenter on [existing] commercial areas."
PRC, the Urban Conservancy, and Protect NoLa are among the organizations that oppose the construction of a big box store on the site. They contend a multi-acre retail project that could draw as many as 10,000 car trips per day is incompatible with the small-scale, walkable character of the city’s urban core.
According to PRC, the proposed Wal-Mart does not comply with New Orleans’ big box ordinance, a set of design standards that apply to stores larger than 25,000 square feet, or the neighborhood’s Strategic Renaissance Plan. Developed by residents in 1996, the Plan calls for small-scale, mixed use development.
Opponents also contend the supercenter will negatively impact locally owned businesses in several commercial corridors, including Magazine Street, which has undergone a rebirth in recent years with several restoration projects and new entrepreneurs.
"The current leadership of the city has embarked upon a constellation of projects designed to strengthen the local economy and provide entrepreneurial opportunities for our citizens, such as the city-wide Main Street program," notes Edward Melendez of the Urban Conservancy. The city would be squandering those investments by allowing a Wal-Mart store.
The redevelopment project must go through several layers of public review before proceeding. With the preservation issue resolved, the next major battle is likely to be over financing. In addition to more than $40 million in federal, state and city money earmarked for the housing component, HRI’s plan hinges on tax increment financing (TIF) and Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT). The TIF would divert sales tax generated by the Wal-Mart for up to 25 years to pay off development costs. PILOT would likewise divert property taxes for 20 to 25 years to further subsidize the store.
Opponents contend the subsidies are unfair to existing businesses. Estimates suggest that about 75 percent of Wal-Mart’s revenue will come directly at the expense of nearby stores. The resulting declines in jobs and tax revenue at these stores, combined with the subsidies for Wal-Mart, could result in a substantial net loss for the city coffers.
Opponents also note that the state has already assisted Wal-Mart’s expansion into southern Louisiana by providing an $8 million subsidy for the company’s two new distribution centers.