Hard Rock demolition is 3 months behind schedule — but the end might be in sight

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Kade Hebert wheeled his bike across North Rampart Street on a foggy Sunday morning, glancing quickly over his shoulder at the twisted steel and broken concrete rising just a few stories from the Hard Rock Hotel demolition site. It’s a reflexive gesture that has become a familiar part of his daily trek along Canal Street for the last 15 months. “Every time I walk by, it’s like, “It’s still there?” Hebert, who lives nearby on North Tonti Street, said he works in construction and thinks about the three workers who died on Oct. 12, 2019, and their families. He thinks about how businesses adjacent to the sprawling, taped off site have had to cope since the collapse. “I’m just ready for it to disappear,” he said. “I live down here, and we’re just ready for it to go away, you know?”

Despite a handful of recent milestones — the complete removal of the upper floors, the opening of the river-bound side of Canal Street — the craggy wreckage remains, gnawed at by excavators still digging into the concrete months after the site was supposed to be cleared.The original timeline to pick the building apart included a promise the site would be empty by October, but that deadline, which would have seen the building fully removed a year after its initial collapse, has come and gone, and 1031 Canal Street Development LLC — the team behind the original hotel project led by Mohan Kailas — has given little indication of the reason for the delays.

City officials said they did not know when the demolition would be far enough along that they could reopen streets in an area that before the coronavirus pandemic was typically bustling with tourists and workers. They referred all questions about the demolition to the developers.

Late Friday, 1031 Canal attorney Stephen Dwyer told WWL-TV the owners expect the site to be cleared by the end of February. A source familiar with the demolition told WWL-TV earlier in the week that if things progress as planned, the lake-bound side of Canal could be open by the end of February and Rampart could be opened in April. Mayor LaToya Cantrell told WWL-TV that the end of the demolition has been “a long time coming.” “We have had to keep the accountability on the ownership,” she said.

The top of the 18-story Hard Rock collapsed in October 2019 as contractors were pushing to finish the building in time for the 2020 Carnival season. Dozens of construction workers were injured, and Jose Ponce Arreola, Quinnyon Wimberly and Anthony Magrette died in the collapse. The bodies of Ponce and Wimberly were left trapped in the rubble for months until demolition crews had made enough progress securing the unstable structure to allow teams to retrieve the remains.

The pulling apart of the wreckage began last spring, after seven months in which the city and the developers were at an impasse over the best way to bring the rest of the building down. Both sides eventually agreed to forego an implosion in favor of a potentially less risky demolition. With the pandemic turning attention away from the calamity over the past year, there has yet to be a full public accounting of the circumstances that led to the building’s failure.

The only public report issued on the collapse was a Citation and Notice of Penalty released in April by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which detailed alleged violations of federal regulations by the building’s engineers, Heaslip Engineering LLC, related to its design of beams and other load-bearing structures. It also alleged safety violations against another 10 companies on the job.

Blame is expected to be assigned through myriad lawsuits that were filed in the wake of the collapse and which are likely to take years to resolve. The city has so far spent more than $5 million in its response to the disaster and lost an uncertain amount of sales tax and other revenue because of the closures that accompanied it, Cantrell spokesperson Beau Tidwell said in an email last week. In August, the city sued the developers over those costs, putting the total amount it had spent and lost because of the collapse at that point at more than $12 million. And while what’s left of the partially collapsed structure remains a grim reminder for New Orleanians, a disaster that grabbed national headlines has faded from the memories of those visiting the city.

Michael and Hannah Bonomo, who arrived here Saturday night for a visit from Peoria, Illinois, thought they might be staying across from a Hard Rock Cafe, based on a mobile alert they saw about streetcar closures.
But after laying eyes on the wreckage the next morning, they did some searching on the internet and quickly learned the story the city’s inhabitants know all too well. “It looked like a stack of cards going down in the video,” Michael said. “It’s insane,” his wife muttered, looking at what’s left of the building.

BY CHAD CALDER and JEFF ADELSON | Staff writers Published Jan 24, 2021 at 5:00 pm | Updated Jan 24, 2021 at 7:47 pm

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