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Rethinking the riverfront

Builder seeks to reconnect the city to its river, blending contemporary architecture with the historic

August 29, 2007

Developer sean cummings envisions miles of parks stretching along the east bank of the Mississippi River.

He envisions daring new architecture to complement the old: an amphitheater, cruise ship terminals, a hotel, a chapel. His design team has sketched pictures of elegant, glassy mid-rise residential buildings overlooking the historic, bohemian backstreets of the Bywater District.

If he can transform the riverfront, which is dominated by hulking old wharves, Cummings (above) believes he will stimulate other projects, like new housing on nearby land that is some of the highest -- and therefore safest -- in the city.

Cummings calls his vision "the most significant physical addition to the city since the French Quarter," and though it is far from being realized, it is also more than a pipe dream.

Cummings, a New Orleans native best known for developing hip hotels and lofts, was chosen by Mayor C. Ray Nagin in 2000 to head up the New Orleans Building Corp., an entity created by the city to develop underused property.

The corporation's "Reinventing the Crescent" project, named for the bend in the Mississippi River, encompasses a six-mile swath of riverfront that runs from the lower Garden District to the Lower 9th Ward. For years, wharves walled off this stretch of river from the city, but advances in shipping methods have made many of the wharves obsolete.

City officials had been talking to the port commission about redeveloping the area before Katrina, but it was the flood that kicked the conversation into high gear. In November 2006, the city and port signed an agreement that cleared the way for redevelopment.

A design competition drew entries from the likes of Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind and Frank Gehry. The corporation eventually chose a design team that included Enrique Norten, widely considered one of architecture's hottest rising stars.

Cummings recently shared some of the group's preliminary sketches in his downtown loft offices. Streets that stop far from the river would be extended to the shore. Old wharves would be reimagined as gallery and market space. Several parks were inked in lush green.

Some of the proposals -- like the sketches of modern residential buildings -- are a notable departure from the quaint old neighborhoods nearby, and a few residents have already begun to grumble.

But Cummings points to Spanish cities like Barcelona and Valencia, that have tastefully integrated contemporary architecture into their historic neighborhoods.

"What we're saying is, 'Hey, folks, we don't have a choice,' " he said. "We have got to evolve if we're going to be a vital, vibrant place to live."

The big question mark, as with Katrina ideas big and small, is funding. Cummings would not be specific about where the money would come from -- or how much would be needed -- but he said it could come from a combination of sources, including federal transportation dollars and leases from other city-owned properties.

Cummings said that if all went as planned, most of his vision could be realized by 2018 -- the city's 300th birthday.

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