New Orleans City Council Approves Topgolf Land Swap

NEW ORLEANS (Verite) — The New Orleans City Council on Thursday approved a controversial land swap that will shift part of Melpomene Street, making way for a planned $46 million TopGolf complex.

The swap between the city and Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Exhibition Hall Authority is part of the broader River District development, which has inspired fiery debate. TopGolf – and this land swap – has become the latest flashpoint in ongoing contention over the River District.

The swap has faced fierce pushback from neighborhood groups, particularly the Lower Garden District Association, whose leadership has cited concerns about increased traffic related to the complex, changed plans for the site and a lack of tranfsparency from River District developers as reasons for the group’s opposition to the deal. 

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“What is before us today is the land swap, what is required for a land swap between two public entities, and whether what’s required for a land swap between two public entities is being met,” said Councilmember Helena Moreno. She specifically pointed to an earlier lack of land appraisals showing that the parcels being swapped are of roughly equal value, which is required by state law.  “I can tell you that about two weeks ago I did not think those requirements were being met.”  

Moreno said that in the weeks since an appraisal had shown that pieces of land in question are comparable in value. 

“That is not to say that there aren’t potentially other issues with this project as a whole,” Moreno added.

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At the Thursday (April 4) meeting, both proponents and opponents of the project showed up in droves.

Proponents argued that the TopGolf would add jobs in the city, as well as provide a fun facility for locals and tourists. Matt Smith, senior director of real estate for TopGolf, also said that the company plans to pay market rent for the facility. A handful of local residents spoke in favor of the site.

“I believe it will improve public safety and help support traffic flow improvements,” said Cissy LaForge, head of school at St. Michael Special School. “And I appreciate the opportunity for students to enter the job market through low-entry-level jobs in our area.”

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Opponents argued that the TopGolf site would not align with the neighborhood’s historic character and that the River District developers were not transparent about their plans for the site. Last month, Matthew Ryan, of the Lower Garden District Association, told The Times-Picayune that developers originally told neighbors that a grocery store and housing would be built on the site. (The neighborhood association has created a website showing early renderings of proposed development on the property, prior to the announcement of the TopGolf deal last year.)

“People don’t come to New Orleans to hit golf balls off a 175-foot netted platform,” said M.X. Turner. 

Members of the Lower Garden District Association also showed up Thursday in opposition to the land swap.

“This is not the right place for a business like this,” said Lindsey Pellerin, vice president of the group. “It’s wedged in a residential district and requires the street to be moved.”

The council meeting inspired boos and applause from each side of the debate. When Louis Lauricella, of the River District development group, thanked Councilmember Lesli Harris for her help, someone in the back blew a loud raspberry while others cackled. 

Harris, whose council district includes the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and areas surrounding it, has been a strong backer of the River District development. 

“We are trying to build a new development along the riverfront that has sat empty for years,” Harris said. 

In a statement issued after the meeting, Harris praised the River District development, pointing to developers’ promises to build hundreds of units of affordable housing in the new neighborhood. 

“This project stands to make a transformational impact on our housing landscape, addressing several key barriers for New Orleanians. We will have affordable, quality units located in a walkable community with job opportunities footsteps away.”

By Katie Jane Fernelius

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Matthew Ryan as vice president of the Lower Garden District Association. Ryan served in that role in 2023, according to Lindsey Pellerin, the current vice president of the group.

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