- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 29, 2007

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Lured by congressionally authorized tax credits and other financial incentives after Hurricane Katrina, a procession of developers announced plans to build high-rises.

But 20 months after the storm, most plans have fallen by the wayside. The slow pace of the recovery gets much of the blame. New Orleans still has no comprehensive rebuilding blueprint, and funding is falling far short of planners’ expectations.

“There have been a lot of announcements, but you don’t see a lot of cranes, do you?” said Michael Siegel, executive vice president of Corporate Realty Inc., a New Orleans-based brokerage. “I think we all underestimated how long [the recovery] was going to take.”

At least one big plan — a $400 million proposal by Donald Trump to construct the city’s tallest building — is proceeding, although the only visible sign at the planned site of the Trump International Hotel & Tower is the tycoon’s name painted on a brick-wall mural. Every weekday morning, cars fill the parking lot where the 70-story building is to be built.

Not to worry, said Mr. Trump’s son, Donald Jr. The city’s slow recovery, he said, hasn’t derailed the plan to build more than 700 units of condos and hotel rooms in the city’s central business district. A sales office is expected to open near the site in less than three months, he said.

While the Trump proposal is making its way through the city approval process, most other projects have produced more hype than hard hats.

David da Cunha, president of the commercial investment division for the New Orleans Metropolitan Association of Realtors, said many developers are waiting for government leaders to devise a clear rebuilding plan before they invest. “I think that’s what is slowing things down,” he said.

The city’s recovery director, Ed Blakely, hopes the pace of reconstruction will pick up by fall. Mr. Blakely envisions a $1 billion program of mixed-use redevelopment, but his funding source — the federal government — has only $117 million available for the task.

Doubts about the strength of the city’s flood-protection system also are weighing on developers’ minds, city planning administrator Arlen Brunson said. When Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, levees broke and flooded about 80 percent of New Orleans. The water extended well into the business district, and hurricane-force winds blew out windows in many high-rises.

The Army Corps of Engineers is pumping billions of dollars into flood-protection improvements, but the corps acknowledges that some levees are not up to federally mandated standards set before Katrina.

The Trump project is one of eight new luxury condo complexes, totaling more than 8,000 units, approved by the city planning commission since Katrina. At least one of those projects, Vantage Tower, has failed.

In January 2006, Trey Cefalu announced plans to build the 25-story condo complex in the central business district. Prospective buyers reserved 105 of 219 units at Vantage Tower, but about half of them backed out after the developers raised prices to offset a 30 percent increase in construction costs.

Mr. Cefalu said he decided to shelve Vantage Tower in February.

“We’re taking a wait-and-see attitude to see where construction costs go,” he said.

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