By Autumn Cafiero Giusti
The transformation of one of downtown New Orleans’ most visible but long-vacant skyscrapers into a Four Seasons Hotel and private residences is one of the most anticipated projects in the city’s recent history. Formerly the World Trade Center tower, the 33-story building at 2 Canal Street has been targeted for redevelopment for more than two decades, and stakeholders are eager to reach the finish line.
With plans for completion by December 2020, the construction team on the $530-million project had to reengineer the building’s spine, accommodate trains going through the site and work next to a rising river that forced months-long shutdowns of underground work. As of ENR press time, news of community spread of the coronavirus in Louisiana added another layer of uncertainty for construction projects across the state.
“The project has many sets of constraints, within which we have to work to achieve our ambitious goal of renovating the existing building into a Four Seasons,” says Nicholas Mannix, manager of engineering for Woodward Engineering Group, the project’s structural engineer of record. The engineering group is an entity of Woodward Design+Build, which formed the joint venture Woodward-Tishman with AECOM Tishman to serve as the project’s general contractor.
Work on the project began in July 2018. Once complete, the building will total 744,000 sq ft with 34 levels, 341 hotel rooms, 92 residential units, a two-story attraction level and a rooftop observation deck offering 360-degree views of the city. Two five-story additions on the building’s north and south sides will house the hotel’s amenities, including a spa, restaurant, ballrooms and meeting space.
The five-star hotel and luxury condo high-rise will be the world’s second-largest Four Seasons by number of rooms, says Paul Flower, a member of the project’s development team Two Canal Owner LLC and CEO of Woodward Design+Build. Carpenter & Co. is the master developer, and Woodward Interests LLC is the co-developer. CambridgeSeven of Boston is the lead architect.
“I don’t think there is any hotel in the city that is going to come to the level of finish and amenities that this hotel will have. And I think this will help bring a traveler to this city that perhaps isn’t coming right now,” Flower says.
Historic and Structural Preservation
Working with an existing, historic structure presented several challenges and placed many limitations on project designs, even though the building itself was in relatively good condition. “Many historic elements have to be preserved even at the expense of project efficiency,” Mannix says.
For example, it would have been simpler to remove the steel rotunda at the top of the building and completely reconstruct it to meet the project’s needs. “Instead, we took great pains to modify the existing steel framing per historic requirements,” he says.
The two-story rotunda, one of the most recognizable features of the building, had been a revolving restaurant and later a nightclub that offered panoramic views of the city. Under the new plans, the hotel’s second level and the rotunda on level 33 will serve as a stationary sightseeing attraction with the addition of an open-air observation deck on level 34.
A major engineering consideration involved the existing elevator shafts and adjacent shear walls that serve as the spine of the building. Under the new design, the elevators would need to serve different purposes and stop on different floors than they previously did.
Workers had to cut new openings in the concrete elevator shafts to reconfigure the elevators. To do this without weakening the building’s spine, the project team enlisted RWDI Consulting Engineers and Scientists of Toronto to perform scale-model tunnel testing on the building. Boston engineering firm LeMessurier used these test findings to inform its lateral analysis of the building.
Based on this analysis, the project team worked with Structural Preservation Systems to develop a scope of work for reinforcing the building’s core and ensuring its structural stability. This involved enlarging concrete in varying amounts on existing walls outside of the shafts and adding steel reinforcing plates with carbon fiber reinforcement within the shafts. Over 2,500 sq ft of structure surface was reinforced with carbon fiber. “All this work had to be accomplished while maintaining clearances in the elevator shafts and respecting the historic integrity of the elevator lobbies,” Mannix says.
The building’s location in a dense, highly developed area along the Mississippi River required some problem-solving. Three sets of riverfront railroad and streetcar tracks run under the east wing of the existing building.
Building the two five-story additions required construction to take place over the tracks. The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority was able to suspend the use of the two streetcar tracks, which workers tore out and will restore when the project is complete. But an active freight rail line continues to run through the project—the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad cannot stop its operations.
– Nicholas Mannix, Manager of Engineering, Woodward Engineering Group
“We needed to design our foundations to allow excavation directly adjacent to this line, which was a special challenge,” Mannix says. The team has worked around train operations, relying on a flag worker to warn the team when a train is coming. They also installed crash walls in case a train were to derail and hit one of the structural columns.
“Because the three rail lines run under the riverside of the building, we were very limited in our opportunities to place new columns to support our additions,” Mannix says.
The team added heavy-duty structural steel framing over the railroad tracks to support the new five-story additions, which are structurally independent from the existing building. Workers added an expansion joint between the new and existing construction and placed the new structures on the same length piles as the existing structure. The piles are 14-in. steel pipes driven as deep as 110 ft.
One of the additions includes a grand ballroom, so adding columns to support the roof over that room was not an option. Creating additional challenges, the pool is directly above the ballroom. “We had to carry the pool and pool deck over this huge, clear span. Some of the biggest steel beams I’ve ever designed are there,” Mannix says. The largest steel beam on the job is a W44 x 335 wide flange beam, spanning 60 ft over the hotel’s ballroom to support the pool. Overall, the project called for more than 1,000 tons of structural steel and more than 250 tons of reinforcing steel.
In addition to rail lines, the project team had to contend with the rising Mississippi River at various points. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shuts down all subsurface construction whenever the river reaches a height of 15 ft. Because of the building’s proximity to the river, the project team had to halt all foundation work and underground mechanical, electrical and plumbing activities for about six months in early 2019. “We have since had to accelerate work to make up for lost time,” says Grant Alexander, senior project manager with Woodward Design+Build.
The river reached those levels again in late February 2020, forcing work to stop a second time. Speaking in early March, Alexander said the project team was developing a plan to mitigate the impact.
Getting the project to where it is now hasn’t been easy. Originally the International Trade Mart, the X-shaped World Trade Center building was constructed in 1968 and designed by famed architect Edward Durrell Stone, who also designed the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The city-owned building began to lose tenants after the 1980s oil bust and has been completely vacant since 2011. Redevelopment proposals have come and gone since the late 1990s, and two other developers’ hotel deals fell through before the city finally awarded the contract to Carpenter and Woodward in 2015. A lawsuit claiming the city’s bid process was faulty further stalled the project until 2017, when district and state judges finally threw out the suit.
In October, just down Canal Street from the Four Seasons project, the 18-story Hard Rock Hotel collapsed during construction, killing three people and injuring 30 others. While the Hard Rock collapse remains under investigation, city of New Orleans building inspectors have been suspended amid accusations that they approved inspections at the Hard Rock without showing up in person. In March, reports surfaced that those same inspectors were also accused of skipping out on inspections they approved at the Four Seasons and another downtown high-rise project, the 29-story Odeon Tower at the South Market District development.
Officials with the Four Seasons say they have taken extensive measures to ensure the safety and stability of their building, and that they conduct their own inspections parallel with those of the city.
“Besides our own internal reviews and the numerous permitting processes, we had third-party engineers perform a peer review on our foundation, superstructure and shear wall reinforcing designs,” Mannix says. “We have been fully participating in the construction process, reviewing submittals and shop drawings, answering field questions and undertaking over 100 site visits during construction.”
The week of March 16, a worker with one of the project’s subcontractors tested positive for COVID-19. As a result, about three-quarters of the approximately 600 workers on site have stopped coming in, according to Robert Sullivan, senior vice president with AECOM Tishman. Work is progressing as fast as possible with a skeleton crew in order to meet the project’s hard deadline to enclose the building and get permanent HVAC online before the summer heat and humidity arrive.
Given the building’s long road to development and its historic status, the project team is taking whatever steps are necessary to complete the project by the end of the year. “To take something at such a front-and-center location and flip it from an empty, eyesore building to a positive … is just a tremendous win for the city, and we’re proud to have a chance to participate in that,” Mannix says.
Flower describes the project as the largest privately funded development in New Orleans history. “It’s brought a lot of outside equity from all over the world,” he says. “It’s going to be transformative for the city.”
With reporting by Jeffrey Rubenstone