Once a bustling federal administrative complex that employed thousands of people, the abandoned and deteriorating Navy base at the intersection of Dauphine Street and Poland Avenue in New Orleans’ Bywater section is now home to squatters and a magnet for violent crime.
Since the Navy relinquished the F. Edward Hébert Defense Complex base to New Orleans in 2013, the 25-acre property and its three massive buildings have sat empty, unused and unprotected from trespassers. Despite early efforts to transform the sturdy buildings into a disaster management center, the project fell stagnant.
So how did we get here?
1919: The Army constructs a supply depot on the Mississippi River in Bywater, located on Dauphine Street between Poland Avenue and the Industrial Canal.
1941: The Army establishes the Port of Embarkation on the property, to supply its Caribbean and South Atlantic commands.
1955: The Army redesignates the property its Gulf Transportation Terminal Command.
1966: The Navy acquires the property as part of an expansion of its base across the river in Algiers, where it had operated since the late 1800s. Together, the Bywater and Algiers locations become Naval Support Activity New Orleans, an administrative base with tenants such as the Navy Reserve and Marine Corps Reserve. The Bywater site is eventually named the F. Edward Hébert Defense Complex, for the New Orleans Democrat who became Louisiana’s longest-serving U.S. representative over 18 terms in Congress from 1941 to 1977.
2005: The Defense Department’s Base Closure and Realignment Commission recommends closing Naval Support Activity New Orleans, to funnel more money to new weaponry and technology. City and state officials had for years fretted over the vulnerability of the Algiers and Bywater sites, neither of which had a combat training mission. At the time, the 200-acre complex that straddled the Mississippi River employed more than 4,600 people with a $142 million annual payroll.
2009: The Pentagon “disestablishes” the Bywater operations as part of a series of base closures. New Orleans submits a reuse plan to transform it into a disaster management center. The plan called for it to house essential personnel during a catastrophe, store essential supplies and equipment and provide space for other disaster management and recovery agencies. Additionally, the plan proposed using 2 1/2 acres of the 25-acre Bywater site to develop “permanent supportive housing” for homeless people, as required by federal laws governing the closure and redevelopment of surplus military property.
2011: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approves the Bywater reuse plan. The Navy leaves Bywater and Algiers.
2012: New Orleans selects EMDRC Partners LLC, a company that includes real estate developer Joe Jaeger, to redevelop the Bywater site into a disaster management center.
2013: In May, the Navy gives 118 acres and 51 structures that were part of the Naval Support Activity in Algiers to the Algiers Development District, to repurpose that campus into a project called Federal City. In October, New Orleans takes ownership of the Bywater property, 25 acres with three six-story buildings that total 1.5 million square feet.
2016: The Bywater site is placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the City Council proposes a lease for it. Under the terms of the 50-year agreement, Jaeger’s EMDRC Partners LLC would pay New Orleans $150,000 a year, plus 5 percent of the gross rents that the developers receive. The agreement would also allow for two extensions, bringing the total term to 99 years. The City Council approves the lease in August, and it is signed in November. Eventually, Jaeger seeks HUD financing to spend $130 million to transform the building closest to Poland Avenue into a 295-unit “luxury affordable” apartment building.
2018: In August, WWL-TV reported that Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration three years earlier had redirected at least $40 million in federal grants intended for revitalizing the Bywater property and had used it for unrelated drainage projects. Deputy Mayor Ryan Berni told reporters the project to redevelop the base “was not in a place to move forward” when City Hall had to formulate a spending plan for the grant money. FEMA asked the city to “repurpose” the money, he said, because developers and the various plans for the site weren’t coming together fast enough based the grant’s timeline. In September, dozens of New Orleans firefighters help to extinguish a trash fire on the second floor of a building on the base. Firefighters said the deteriorated condition of the building, which contained piles of trash, holes in the floors and open elevator shafts, made the search for injured people difficult.
2020: In August, a vagrant finds a body, later identified as 25-year-old Slidell waitress Brooke Buchler, with a single gunshot wound to the head in the abandoned Bywater base.
2022: In March, a one-alarm fire spreads across four floors inside one of the buildings, trapping a man on the third floor; firefighters rescue him, but he runs away before they can treat or question him. In May, a 28-year-old man is injured in a shooting at the property. The next month, a woman is fatally shot and a man wounded at the base. Then in June, New Orleans police swarm the base and put surrounding neighborhoods on lockdown after reports of gunfire. Days later, another man is wounded in a shooting there.
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