The East Jefferson Levee District is trying to buy about 13 acres of airport property in south Kenner for $1.3 million to build a new office, police station and safe quarters for the dozens of employees who work during hurricanes.
If the purchase offer is approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, the New Orleans Aviation Board and the cities of New Orleans and Kenner, it would provide land to consolidate all of the district's operations in one spot at a total construction cost of $10 million to $20 million, according to early estimates.
The estimates are based on a working plan that envisions a three-story building with levee police on the ground floor, administrative offices in the middle and a "safe house" and emergency operations center built to withstand hurricane-force winds on top. Separate buildings would house maintenance facilities with a shop for vehicle and heavy equipment repair and storage of large sandbags and other flood-fighting essentials, levee officials said.
The district now has offices in Elmwood and a 25-year-old maintenance building and police station eight miles away in Kenner. Neither can be retrofitted or expanded to include a safe house, engineers said.
Providing safe harbor for employees of all its levee districts is a commitment made by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East, the regional commission formed after Hurricane Katrina. In East Jefferson, where district operations have always been split into several locations, levee officials and their consultants agree that consolidating at a single site would enable more efficient operations and faster emergency responses.
"We don't know what all the costs will be, but I don't think it will be $20 million. That was just a quick square footage estimate to plug in a capital budget request," said engineer Tom Jackson, the regional authority's East Jefferson-based commissioner. "I think we can get a damn fine start with $10 million, and if we have to we can build in phases. "The priority has to be providing our people with safe harbor."
Because part of all property taxes collected by the levee district are saved, Jackson said the district likely can pony up $10 million. And ultimately, there would be money from the sale of old buildings and land.
Most of the property the district wants is located along Rev. Richard Wilson Drive between Centanni and Decatur streets. Another small section is levee right of way adjacent to the levee toe.
Three cemeteries border the property on two sides but are not part of the purchase offer.
"We'll be very respectful of those and the people who still live out there," said Fran Campbell, the district's executive director. "Maybe we can plant shrubs around our fence for them."
Most of the land was bought by the airport in the 1990s and the houses there razed. But a few buildings still dot the area, creating a jack-o'-lantern look that will prohibit the district from having one contiguous tract of land. Those structures include the Kenner Food Bank and several residences whose owners chose not to sell to the airport and be relocated.
Jackson said the district likely can work around most of the structures, although it hopes to buy the Food Bank building at 1610 Rev. Richard Wilson.
Kenner City Attorney Keith Conley said he and a lawyer for Jefferson Parish, which jointly owns the building with Kenner, are putting together an act of sale for the individual councils to review.
City Councilman Greg Carroll, whose district includes south Kenner, said money from the sale of the former fire station that now houses the Food Bank would finance a new building that could better meet the needs of hungry people.
He's also thrilled by the prospect of a big Levee District presence in the area, where officials are struggling to redevelop Rivertown and increase commerce.
"If the Levee District can purchase this land from the airport, it won't just bring people and infrastructure into south Kenner, but they will be a 24/7, security-based organization with a police presence that will give the community a sense of real security," he said.
"You just can't buy that, but if the Levee District comes here, we get it for free."
The Levee District paid Waggonner & Ball Architects $130,000 to review levee district assets, consider options for safe house development, evaluate consolidation and identify potential properties. The regional authority is now negotiating with the firm to draw a final plan.