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Residents urged to weigh in on Claiborne corridor

25th February 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

Views about the Claiborne expressway’s future are mixed but a study started by the city last year hopes to move residents toward a consensus by this spring. Last week, Denver-based city planner Peter Park, who oversaw the removal of Milwaukee’s freeway, advised New Orleans residents to “get involved in the Claiborne corridor study and own the plan. This isn’t a government project, it’s a people project.”

Park, a Harvard University 2012 Loeb fellow, spoke to a packed room at the Sojourner Truth Neighborhood Center on Lafitte St. Wednesday night. He was joined by John Norquist, president of the Congress for the New Urbanism in Chicago and a former Milwaukee mayor. (Editor’s Note: In the February 25, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly in which this article originally published, it was written that John Norquist is president of Congress for the New Urbanism in San Francisco. Mr. Norquist is actually based in Chicago. The story has been updated accordingly.)

The New Orleans study, funded with $2 million in federal planning grants from the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development and the Dept of Transportation, combined with money from local nonprofits and the city, is considering whether to tear down the 1960s-era highway that destroyed mostly African-American neighborhoods in Tremé, the Seventh Ward and vicinity.

Flozell Daniels, Jr., president of the Foundation for Louisiana and chair of the Livable Claiborne Communities project, spoke Wednesday and gave some background about the the city’s study—which he noted will make land use and transportation recommendations for Claiborne between Napoleon Ave. and Elysian Fields.

Late last year, over 400 residents attended a series of workshops, held across town by the Mayor’s Office of Place Based Planning. In those meetings, locals grouped by tables read maps and identified issues that they’d like the Claiborne project to address. Daniels said items topping that collective list so far are blight reduction, affordable housing, jobs, opportunities for small businesses, access to fresh food and preservation of local culture. He said ways to redevelop Claiborne are still being assessed and urged residents to attend the city’s next set of workshops in mid-March.

According to the city, the Claiborne study will help communities improve transit; connect housing to jobs, schools and health care; promote livability through economic development; and manage soil and water.

Views from residents in the months of public meetings from last fall to this March will be compiled this spring for a presentation by the city to the public in June. After that, scenarios for Claiborne will be evaluated under the more than 40-year-old National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA, approved by Congress. “A preferred alternative” for Claiborne will be identified this summer, according to the city.

Meanwhile, a trend to remove urban highways has been under way for awhile. Park said to connect neighborhoods, Milwaukee tore down its Park East Freeway in 2002 and replaced it with public stairways, pedestrian bridges and parks, along with mixed-income housing and commercial and retail spaces. Norquist pointed to recent success in Seoul, South Korea, where the mayor demolished a freeway in 2011 and developed parks in a move so popular that he was then elected the nation’s president. San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, New York City and Buffalo, along with Paris, France and other cities in the U.S., Europe and Asia have all removed freeways.

So what exactly is wrong with urban highways? Built 40 to 50 years ago, U.S. expressways are decaying now and need to be replaced or removed, Park said. “They’re not Roman aqueducts,” he said. “At some point, they’ll come down.” Park said urban freeways do more harm than good. Fifty years ago, the idea was to use them to connect cities. “They were going to be built to the outskirts of town, and from there traffic would be funneled into a network of urban streets,” he explained. Instead, many were constructed across town, disrupting neighborhoods.

Park said freeways work best at off-peak times. During rush hour, they siphon traffic along an artery and become clogged. Commuters get backed up after an accident and can be stranded for an hour or so. A more effective approach is a sturdy street network, on which a drive to work may take a bit longer but little time is wasted in traffic jams overall.

He said many city residents falsely believe that an urban freeway gives them greater mobility. Based on that thinking, taxpayer money has been spent on adding lanes to freeways that don’t ease congestion in the long run.

Park also noted that urban freeways have reduced adjacent property values, and he questioned the rationale of government policies that spend tax dollars on projects hurting home and business owners.

As for businesses, their support in removing a freeway can be instrumental to a tear-down, Norquist said. When the city of Milwaukee wanted to remove the Park East Freeway, Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson wasn’t keen on the idea but changed his mind when Harley-Davidson, based in Milwaukee, said if the highway were torn down, the company would build a museum in the revitalized area.

Also speaking at the Sojourner Center Wednesday was Ellen Lee, senior vice president at the Greater New Orleans Foundation. She grew up in Treme near the expressway and her mother still lives there. Lee said the Claiborne project is expected to address incomes in the area, and noted “President Obama says working families shouldn’t be living in poverty.” She’s optimistic that the adjacent BioDistrict of New Orleans, where two hospitals are under construction now, will create good jobs.

As of last summer, 27 percent of the city’s residents lived in poverty, well above the national average of 15 percent, according to the New Orleans Community Data Center.

On the technical side, Park said studies and urban plans are two different animals. “Studies are done to analyze while plans are a statement of what we want something to be,” he said. And he cited a city planner’s credo, saying “to plan is human, to implement is divine.” If that sounds familiar, it’s a variation of a biblical teaching that humans are implements of a divine plan.

As for New Orleans, Park said the city has impressed the world with its resilience since Katrina and can be a role model for other metropolises as it revives the Claiborne corridor.

Wednesday’s event was organized by the Congress for the New Urbanism and the Claiborne Corridor Improvement Coalition, with support from the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

Livable Claiborne Communi-ties will hold a March 16 workshop at Joseph A. Craig Elementary School on St. Philip St. at 10:00 a.m., followed by one on March 18 at Ashe Cultural Arts Center on O.C. Haley Blvd. at 5:30 p.m. To learn more, visit www.LivableClaiborne.com on the web.

This article was originally published in the February 25, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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