Hyatt Regency starts post-Katrina repairs

NEW ORLEANS — Renovation began yesterday on the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, a hotel that became a familiar symbol of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction when shattered glass poured onto streets and furniture was sucked out of broken windows.

The $275-million project is aimed at reopening the hotel in the fall of 2011, when the once-storm-mauled area around the Louisiana Superdome will be fully restored.

The 31-story hotel, which has been closed since the 2005 storm, was purchased in 2007 by Poydras Properties Hotel Holdings for $32 million. Poydras includes a subsidiary of Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels Corp.

All 1,193 rooms will be renovated, along with 53 suites. A redesign calls for 200,000 square feet of meeting and exhibition space, two restaurants, two bars and a coffee bar.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu called the Hyatt the “last of the iconic places in downtown New Orleans that carried a different image a few years ago.”

The hotel’s restoration is one important piece of an effort to rebuild multiple city blocks that were ravaged when Katrina’s destructive winds and flooding hit the city and levees collapsed in August 2005.

The nearby Superdome was used as a shelter-of-last-resort from Katrina, and housed thousands of storm victims. During the height of the wind, part of the stadium’s roof was sheared off. The stadium reopened in 2007 after a $200 million repair-and-renovation project.

Next to the hotel and the Superdome, New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson has purchased and is renovating the former Dominion Tower, a 36-story office building also heavily damaged by Katrina. The State of Louisiana will lease office space in the building, which is now known as Benson Tower. State agencies are expected to move in by mid-December.

As part of the same deal, the state also is spending about $85 million to upgrade the Superdome with expanded field-level seating and new exclusive lounges, along with additional suites and more concession stands. Benson also wants to turn a defunct shopping center inside the building into a sports and entertainment plaza.

If the hotel opens on time, it will be available for the college football’s national championship game on Jan. 9, 2012, and college basketball’s Final Four in March 2012, both at the Superdome. The 2013 Super Bowl game also will be played at the Superdome. The Hyatt also is near the downtown’s medical district, which includes the Tulane University Medical Center and plans for a new Veterans Administration hospital.

“This is going to be a center for the sports, entertainment and medical industries,” said John Jacobson, a principal in the ownership group.

Stephen Perry, head of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the additional meeting space would boost the city’s capacity to host large conventions.

“It will generate more and more demand for the city of New Orleans,” he said.

Even though all major office buildings in the downtown region — with the exception of Benson Tower — have reopened since Katrina, a number of other buildings off the main business strip remain empty. Some have gone virtually unrepaired since the storm.

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