News Roundup

Apr 3 2009

Claiborne I-10 Corridor in Crosshairs of Draft Plan

New Orleans CityBusiness
by Richard A. Webster
April 3, 2009

NEW ORLEANS — Since the day the Claiborne Expressway was constructed nearly 50 years ago devastating the historic Treme neighborhood, attorney Bill Borah has been shouting into the wind, “Tear down this monstrosity.”

But few people listened and even fewer believed the chances of the city demolishing the elevated highway was anything more than a fantasy.

“People looked at me like I was crazy,” Borah said. “I may as well have been having a conversation with my cat.”

But last week Borah’s fantasy moved one step closer to becoming a reality when the city released its master plan. Included in the plan was a neighborhood revitalization project that calls for tearing down the expressway and redeveloping Claiborne Avenue into a tree-lined boulevard.

If the project survives another round of public hearings that are expected to take place by August, there is a good chance it will be included in the final version of the master plan bringing to an end 50 years of economic and cultural hardship in Treme, Borah said.

“The Claiborne Expressway was a disaster and should have never been built,” Borah said. “But when the city did it there were no laws to stop it and there was no resistance to it. It was sold to the people as progress and an economic engine when in fact it killed businesses and ruined the black community around it.”

The fortunes of Treme, however, could soon be improved.

One proposal being considered in the master plan would tear down the Claiborne Expressway between Elysian Fields and the Superdome. A boulevard with two lanes for through traffic in both directions with a third outer lane for neighborhood access would replace the expressway.

Oak trees would once again return to Claiborne Avenue where the only remnants of their existence for the past 50 years have been the crude paintings of trees on the cement buttresses holding up the freeway.

Several proposals call for the neutral ground to be converted into a canal or a light rail system that runs from Jefferson Parish to St. Bernard Parish.

The elimination of the Claiborne Expressway would open up 38 blocks of prime real estate in the heart of New Orleans to new development and retail opportunities. Property values around the reborn Claiborne Avenue would skyrocket and the blight that now mars the neighborhood would disappear as investors move in, said David Waggonner with Waggonner and Ball Architects, one of a number of firms involved in post-Katrina planning.

It would also create a scenic and vibrant corridor running through the medical district, seen by many as the linchpin of the New Orleans recovery.

This is not a radical concept, Borah said.

Existing precedent

Cities such as San Francisco, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Seattle, Buffalo, N.Y., and Portland, Ore., have revitalized troubled neighborhoods in recent years by tearing down elevated highways and replacing them with scenic boulevards.

Milwaukee tore down the Park East Freeway that displaced 16 acres of neighborhood land and replaced it with McKinley Boulevard at a cost of $45 million, according to the Congress for New Urbanism. The average assessed land value in the footprint of the demolished freeway grew by 180 percent between 2001 and 2006.

In 2002, San Francisco tore down its Embarcadero Freeway and built a boulevard in its place for less than $50 million. Along 100 acres of waterfront property once dominated by the elevated freeway, a new public plaza and promenade were built. Dense commercial development now lines the street, housing in the area increased 51 percent and jobs increased 23 percent, according to a CNU report.

San Francisco also replaced the Central Freeway with Octavia Boulevard in 2002. The neighborhood surrounding the Central Freeway had long been troubled by blight and crime, but everything changed when the freeway came down, said Ramiro Diaz, a designer with Waggonner and Ball and San Francisco native.

The renewed boulevard spurred investment, increased property values and now resembles Magazine Street, Diaz said.

Of course, there is a danger when talking about increasing property values along Claiborne Avenue.

“It would really spur development, but the double-edge sword is that you could end up with gentrification,” Diaz said. “There’s a real fear of that now in some communities when discussing the master plan.”

Price for progress

Gentrification was never a worry for the residents of Treme 50 years ago. At that time, the historic neighborhood was the heart of black New Orleans and Claiborne Avenue was its epicenter. In addition to boasting the longest stretch of oak trees in the country, Claiborne was home to dozens of successful black-owned businesses and the focal point of black Mardi Gras.

In the 1950s, however, things took a turn for the worse after President Dwight D. Eisenhower championed the creation of a national interstate highway system. The idea was to interconnect cities with highways, but city leaders desperate to lure back former residents who fled to the suburbs didn’t want the highways to end at the city limits, Borah said. Instead they rammed them through neighborhoods straight to downtown areas leveling acres of homes.

By providing direct access to downtown shopping centers via highways, it was believed that people would return and save the ailing retail businesses whose bottom lines were hurt by the suburban flight, Borah said.

“This is how New Orleans was supposed to bring retail back downtown and supposedly compete with Dallas, Houston and Atlanta,” Borah said.

The Claiborne Expressway was the first major highway built through New Orleans. The city touted it as an economic miracle and the majority of people, even black business owners along Claiborne Avenue, backed the construction of the expressway, Diaz said. There was zero opposition except for a handful of people such as Borah.

“People didn’t know the effects of these highways at first,” Borah said. “In those days, citizens presumed that politicians and the government were working in their best interests. They talked about progress and the public went along with it. But then they saw the negative effects and realized it wasn’t in their best interests and it didn’t help their neighborhoods.”

After the Claiborne Expressway, the next step in New Orleans’ planned highway expansion was the construction of an elevated freeway down Elysian Fields Avenue and along the riverfront running the length of New Orleans past Audubon Park.

However, once New Orleans residents witnessed the destruction the expressway wrought in Treme, resistance grew. Borah and a small group of opponents successfully stopped the construction of the riverfront expressway using historic preservation laws that declared the French Quarter a landmark.

“Every major player in New Orleans backed the idea of a riverfront expressway,” Borah said. “They said, ‘Put it over the railroad tracks. No one goes there anyway. What’s the big deal?’ But they didn’t think what could be there. And if they got their way, there would never be streetcars along the river or the moonwalk or aquarium. There would be no French Quarter. “If it happened we would never have had access to the river ever again.”

Undaunted, the city next proposed an expressway running down Napoleon Avenue, but Uptown residents quickly put an end to that plan. So the city then proposed the construction of an expressway through a black community between Napoleon and Louisiana avenues. City leaders thought no one would care if another poor black neighborhood was destroyed, Borah said. But the white and black communities took the city by surprise when they banded together to stop that project as well.

The defeat of these proposed highways was considered a great success, inspired by the damaged caused by the Claiborne Expressway. But for Treme it was too late.

“There’s a saying, ‘White man’s highway through black man’s bedroom and there was no better example than this one,” Borah said. “It was terrible and a stupid idea to begin with but now we finally have the opportunity to correct what was done. Tearing down the expressway would be instant revitalization and to an African American community no less. What a novel concept.”

Winds of change

Opposition to the demolition of the Claiborne Expressway comes mainly from business owners in eastern New Orleans concerned that it would limit access to their stores and people worried it would slow down traffic.

But a freeway doesn’t necessarily allow vehicles to get from point A to point B faster than a boulevard, Diaz said.

Unless the expressway is completely free of traffic people can move just as quickly using the city streets, especially on an expanded Claiborne Avenue, Diaz said.

Even if the removal of the expressway causes minor delays, it’s difficult to understand how people would stand in the way of progress and economic development simply because they may be slightly inconvenienced, Diaz said.

“People making that argument tend to be the people who take the freeway across town to go over and avoid those neighborhoods — people going from New Orleans East to Metairie or Uptown to the other side of the city. But the people who live in the city on the ground can see the terrible effect the freeway has had and the need to change,” Diaz said.

In the end, the Claiborne Expressway makes no sense, Waggonner said. A neighborhood was destroyed so people could drive their cars on an elevated highway even though there is a perfectly good, four-lane road below that could be expanded to handle additional traffic.

“I don’t need to get up on the expressway. All I’m doing is ruining everything below me. It’s absolutely redundant. Why is it so hard to get people to understand this? You don’t build freeways through your city. And if you want to see what happens when you do, go look at Treme,” Waggonner said.

Part of the problem and why no one has seriously considered tearing down the expressway before is that the people of New Orleans seem wired to believe that they are incapable of successfully tackling large projects, Waggoner said.

“The naysayers are always dominant here. There is a lack of belief in ourselves that we can do things smarter and better,” he said.

Before the storm politicians and residents were cautious and content with the status quo, Borah said. Nobody was looking to undertake massive projects with the goal of transforming the city. But after the storm, everything changed.

“In virtually every area of interest — planning, health and education — there’s hope now,” Borah said. “The provinciality in this town and the wall against ideas from the outside came down after Katrina. And now the best and brightest from every profession are moving to this town so there is hope.

“I think New Orleans is in a transition from the old way to the new way and that allows us to finally have a serious discussion about tearing down the Claiborne Expressway.”

The proposal also comes at an opportune time as the freeway is nearly 50 years old and in poor condition, Waggonner said. In the 1990s, San Francisco decided that it didn’t make sense to repair the earthquake-damaged Embarcadero Freeway and that the benefits of replacing it with a boulevard far outweighed the costs.

New Orleans now faces a similar decision.

Diaz is hopeful the freeway will come down at some point in the future but worries it is not a priority to some people.

“They say that fixing the infrastructure that protects us is more of a priority then taking down a freeway, but I would argue it’s the perfect time to do this because we can get the federal money now,” Diaz said. “There are obviously so many other things we have to deal with but this would be a real economic shot in the arm.

More importantly, it would rectify an injustice perpetrated against the black community more than 50 years ago, Borah said.

“If I’m an African American and I have political ambitions, I would wrap myself around this issue and run with it yesterday,” Borah said. “It’s a no-brainer.”

Source: New Orleans CityBusiness

Filed under: Healthy Communities | Rebuilding New Orleans | Transportation | Urban Design

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