Residents consider options for the Claiborne expressway
25th March 2013 · 0 Comments
By Susan Buchanan
Ramps along the city’s Claiborne overpass, built in the 1960s, are deteriorating and need to be repaired soon. An option that’s been tossed around for awhile is to remove the overpass, restore a former tree-lined boulevard there and let traffic run along it and surrounding streets. Last Monday evening, nearly a 100 residents met at Ashé Cultural Arts Center on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. to weigh ideas for the expressway under a city-sponsored study. That followed a gathering two days earlier at Joseph A. Craig Elementary School on St. Philip Street.
Before the 2.2-mile overpass, carrying part of Interstate 10, was built, Claiborne Blvd. anchored the city’s African American population. Construction of the overpass separated neighborhoods, however, and took a toll on housing, retail activity and green space.
A $2.8 million Livable Claiborne Communities study, led by the city’s Office of Place-Based Planning, envisions better times. Community workshops on Claiborne began late last year. Since then, residents have evaluated options for four miles along Claiborne from Elysian Fields to Napoleon Ave. and between Broad St. on the lakeside to Magazine St., Oretha Castle Haley Rampart St. and St. Claude on the riverside.
The study is financed by a Community Challenge Grant from the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development and a TIGER II planning grant from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, with matched funding from local nonprofits, private participants and the city.
On Monday, Bill Gilchrist, the city’s place-based planning director, said this month’s community workshops were a chance for residents to comment on three scenarios that run from keeping the expressway, with or without ramps, to tearing it down. The study’s scenarios were developed from “ground truthing” or asking residents their views about the overpass and what they want in the future. Gilchrist also said “you can create your own scenario.”
On Monday evening, two consultants on the study—David Dixon, urban planner at Goody Clancy in Boston, and transport expert Joel Mann of Kittelson & Associates in Portland, Oregon—described the scenarios that were drafted from previous workshops. Scenario 1 leaves the Claiborne expressway up but removes the Esplanade ramp. Bus service on Claiborne would be enhanced. Areas below the overpass could be used for markets and community and cultural activities—as they are to some extent now. With the Esplanade ramp gone, residents could walk down Ursuline Ave. from N. Galvez to Rampart St. and the French Quarter, the planners said. The ramp’s removal would help reconnect sections of Tremé. Local retail activity would grow. Some vacant lots would be filled.
The study’s Scenario 2 leaves the expressway intact but removes all ramps between Canal St. and St. Bernard. A streetcar would be added on N. Claiborne and bus service would be expanded on Broad. Small businesses would be encouraged to locate under the overpass and around bus and streetcar stops. Vacant lots would be turned into community gardens and small parks. With a change in licensing regulations, St Bernard Ave. could become an entertainment destination, the planners said.
In Scenario 3, the most sweeping of the study’s options, the overpass is removed and the former tree-lined boulevard is restored as a mixed-use corridor. New housing would include units facing the city’s Lafitte Greenway, under development now. A streetcar would be added on N. Claiborne and bus service on Broad would be improved. Residents could walk or bike on the Lafitte Greenway to Broad’s shops and bus connections and to Louis Armstrong Park and the French Quarter. Better management of green space and constructing rain gardens would eliminate flooding. In Scenario 3, every vacant lot would be claimed by houses and tended green space. Additionally, Claiborne would be revived as a corridor of culture, the planners said. Shared neutral grounds would be filled with art, parades and festivals. Dixon said “North and South Claiborne would become the most complete street in the world.”
At the March workshops, the planners’ scenarios were weighed against goals identified in community workshops this winter. Dixon said five goals important to city dwellers have emerged. Residents have said they want to preserve the unique culture and characteristics of neighborhoods; reduce flooding though water management; have more job opportunities through training and eduction—especially with an eye to new jobs in the BioDistrict of New Orleans; have transit options with more streetcar lines and bus service, better sidewalks and additional bike paths; and to be engaged in “managed change,” meaning that they participate in decisions rather than seeing changes forced on them.
At Monday’s session, tables of five to seven people studied maps, neighborhood photos and drawings, and discussed the three scenarios, five goals and what they liked best and least. Then each table presented its findings. Some tables wanted to see the expressway removed but others preferred to keep it. Several tables doubted businesses would locate beneath the overpass because of safety, sewerage and other issues. Some tables questioned the rationale of spending on a Claiborne streetcar when the nearby Rampart car line will open in 2015. One table said it hopes that the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority will connect service directly with Jefferson Parish bus lines to help residents get to work Several tables said planners need to be cognizant of truck traffic generated by the Port of New Orleans. Another table said it doesn’t want to see anything like the sterile apartment buildings erected on Tulane Ave. in the revived Claiborne corridor.
Based on community concerns about housing costs, Dixon said the study will likely recommend that 50 percent of new or rehabilitated housing in the area is affordable so that today’s inhabitants aren’t forced to move away.
Views from this winter’s community meetings will be compiled this spring for a presentation by the city in June. After that, scenarios for Claiborne will be evaluated under the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA, approved by Congress 40 years ago. “A preferred alternative” for Claiborne will be identified this summer, according to the city. The feds and the city will ultimately decide whether the expressway stays or goes.
In Monday night’s meeting, a Gert Town resident addressed the crowd early on with a complaint. “The Claiborne area has always been populated by people of color,” he said. “But I see a lot of white people here tonight with a European mindset. Many of them aren’t even from here. They’re from the Northeast.” He fears outside experts will be the ones making decisions about Claiborne Ave.
At the series of workshops this winter, residents have wondered about funding for the improvements being discussed. Removing the expressway may sound like pie in the sky but Milwaukee, San Francisco, Providence and other U.S. and foreign cities have torn down elevated highways and spruced up nearby areas. Federal agencies have helped pay for these projects in the United States.
This article originally published in the March 25, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.