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Claiborne Avenue’s future is assessed in community meetings

17th December 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

No matter where you live in New Orleans, sooner or later you’ll find yourself on Claiborne Avenue, speakers said at a series of community meetings held last week on improving the corridor. The once tree-lined boulevard was the heart of the local African-American community before a 2.2-mile expressway, carrying part of Interstate-10, was built in the 1960s. The construction of I-610 in the 1960s and 1970s, however, reduced the need for the overpass, and officials are considering its removal to reconnect neighborhoods.

North Claiborne Avenue, today, the view beneath the elevated Claiborne expressway.

Meetings were held last week on the city’s Livable Claiborne Communities study to solicit views from residents. The feds and the city will ultimately decide whether the expressway goes, or if the structure’s wear and tear is repaired and it stays.

A $2.8 million study, led by the city’s Office of Place-Based Planning, is under way to evaluate four miles along Claiborne from Elysian Fields to Napoleon Ave. and between Broad St. on the lakeside to Magazine St., Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., Rampart St. and and St. Claude on the riverside.

Funded by the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Housing & Urban Develop­ment and by city sources, the study responds to long-standing concerns about the overpass from Treme, Lafitte and other residents. The study keys off a 2010 analysis by local architects Waggonner & Ball with consultants Smart Mobility, Inc. in Vermont—commissioned by the Claiborne Corridor Improvement Coalition and the Congress for the New Urbanism, a national group.

Speaking at a citywide meeting at Dillard University on Saturday, December 8, New Orleans Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant told assembled residents, community group members and school kids “this study is an opportunity to think big, and your input is critical.” He said “it typically takes eight years to build a road project so this is for the long haul. It’s important to get something done. But if the project isn’t balanced, it will die.”

Also speaking at Dillard, Bill Gilchrist, the city’s director of Place-Based Planning, said the study’s organizers are “ground truthing” by asking residents their views about the overpass and what they want regarding transportation, development, jobs and sustainable living. With this study “we’re a guinea pig of the federal agencies, who are breaking down silos and working better together,” he said. In addition to DOT, HUD and the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and the Dept. of Energy will likely get involved, he said.

President Barack Obama has asked federal agencies to work collaboratively to achieve walkable, mixed-use, healthy communities, adopting eco-friendly lifestyles.

At the Claiborne meetings, held on different days at Dillard and in four areas across town—Gravier and the Central Business District; Iberville, Tremé, Lafitte and the Seventh Ward; Broadmoor, Freret and Milan; Central City and B.W. Cooper—residents grouped by tables were asked to identify issues, including what should and shouldn’t be changed along the corridor. A team leader from each table read results to the room. According to those discussions, many residents favor the expressway’s removal but others don’t. For all its faults—separation of neighborhoods, destruction of homes and businesses and lost green space, the overpass has yielded a few benefits. Some residents want it for access to hospitals, quick commutes to work and hurricane evacuation. Others said that it’s a spot for outdoor markets, art and shelter from rain and it provides acoustics for Mardi Gras Indian drummers.

At the Dillard meeting, elementary to eighth grade students from Joseph A. Craig School presented a long wish list for the corridor, including more playgrounds and trees, fewer cars and an amusement park.

The study will examine alternatives for the corridor’s future, and will come up with scenarios that combine better transportation with economic development. At the Tulane-Gravier meeting on Monday, Joel Mann of Kittelson & Associates said planners hope to help residents achieve greater mobility through mass transit, walking and bicycling. His firm leads a consulting team hired by the city for the study.

Planners said they have to be cognizant of truck traffic generated by the Port of New Orleans and of workers’ commutes to other areas. Residents of Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes are encouraged to participate in the study. One idea is to build passenger rail lines, connecting East Jefferson and Slidell and communities along the way to downtown New Orleans.

At the meetings, residents said affordable housing should not be forfeited as the city develops the corridor. Some said they’re wary of developers, especially those who might be eying property near the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Residents also said that local people should be hired in any new construction.

Outside of the meetings, Jerome Smith, founder and director of the Treme-based Tambourine & Fan youth group, said last week “the expressway broke up neighborhoods and families in the 1960s and destroyed much of the city’s African American heritage.” He is also the founder of Super Sunday, an annual parade with Mardi Gras Indians and brass bands, held in March.

“I wish they could somehow grandfather families and businesses that lost so much because of the expressway into the benefits of this Claiborne project,” Smith said. He hasn’t decided if he wants the expressway torn down or not, and said “they’ve thrown a lot of development issues into the mix with the study.” Work prevented him from attending any of last week’s community meetings.

Smith said post-Katrina development hasn’t necessarily been favorable for African Americans. “At the worst, it can be a modern-day lynching,” he said. “We’re still on the bottom of anything that happens here.” And he said, despite the community meetings, “the authorities may already have a plan for what to do about Claiborne.”

Smith also said “since the ex­pressway was built, much of what Louis Armstrong Park represents is gone now. Kids used to walk around outside, playing instruments and emulating our great, local musicians. But you seldom see that now. “

Money for the Claiborne study comes from a Community Challenge Grant from HUD and a TIGER II planning grant from DOT, with matched funding by local nonprofits, private participants and the city. Two city-appointed leadership committees have been asked to see that the study responds to issues raised by neighborhoods. A range of scenarios developed by residents will be presented to the leadership committees.

On December 10, Yolanda Takesian of Kittelson & Associates said at the Tulane-Gravier meeting, “after another round of community meetings in early 2013, by next June we’ll have alternative futures which will be tested and pulled together.” The study is to be completed by August.

Outside of the meetings, Director Gilchrist said last week “the current study will produce a series of alternatives at its conclusion—consistent with a “Stage 0” analysis of federal transportation systems. The city will then need to apply for a review of those alternatives under the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA, for which additional funding will be required.” How long the development process might take won’t be known until all the alternatives are determined, he said.

According to the 2010 Waggon­ner study, removing the elevated expressway would free up more than 50 acres for use as neutral grounds, bike and pedestrian paths, transit corridors and water management, and would allow development on additional acres. A simplified interchange between a restored Claiborne Boulevard and the Pontchartrain Expressway could make land near the Superdome available for development.

The Waggonner study found that less than 20 percent of local drivers use the Claiborne expressway as an east-west route. And the architects said “with most through-traffic using the I-610, the Claiborne I-10’s usage does not match the intended function of an interstate highway.”

The Waggonner report also said “the Claiborne expressway is not a hurricane evacuation route designated for contra-flow traffic. It serves a role as a collector during times of evacuation but this function could be better served by a surface boulevard.”

As for the ways residents were forced to adjust to the expressway’s presence and found uses for the space under it, New Orleans architect David Waggonner said last week “people adapt to things that make them less healthy, it seems.” On a positive note, he added “design can also adapt for people, and it can do more than one thing.” He supports removing the overpass, depending on how it’s done.

Milwaukee, San Francisco, Providence and other U.S. and foreign cities have torn down elevated highways. According to the Federal Highway Administration’s bridge inventory, several interchange ramps along the Claiborne overpass are deteriorating and would need many millions of dollars to be repaired or replaced.

This article was originally published in the December 17, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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