Heritage Tourism in New Orleans

Connecting to the Cultural Fabric

Heritage Tourism in Mid-City


This report presents preliminary findings from the research and analysis of the Mid-City neighborhood conducted by the faculty and students of the Urban Planning + Design program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. This research was conducted from January through May 2006 with the assistance of the Urban Conservancy, Wendy Laker, Bart Everson and Amy Lafont of the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization and Billy Fields of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

The Planning Process

In December 2005, faculty from the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Urban Planning + Design program embarked upon a partnership with the Urban Conservancy based in New Orleans to develop a response to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina due to the failure of the levees built by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The purpose of this collaboration was to produce economic strategies for the recovery of neighborhoods and their commercial districts across the City of New Orleans. Other goals were to meet the needs of the Urban Conservancy in the postKatrina context by expanding the capacity of the organization and to enhance the Stay Local program to assist locally-owned and operated businesses with their recovery efforts.

Students from the Urban Planning + Design program were led by Dr. Jacob Wagner, Vincent Gauthier, AICP and Dr. Michael Frisch, AICP in an urban planning studio course focused entirely on the challenge of planning for the recovery of New Orleans neighborhoods. Students traveled to the city three times during the course of the spring semester to conduct field research in the neighborhoods and to collect empirical data about the status of the city’s neighborhoods and business districts.

In addition to the Urban Conservancy, the UMKC team partnered with Billy Fields of Rails-to-Trails, Jane Brooks of the College of Urban and Public Affairs at the University of New Orleans. Additional people assisted along the way, including John Quirk of the National Park Service, David Gladstone of UNO/CUPA, Malise Dennard and Family and Michael Valentino of Basin Street Station.

In Mid-City, students from UMKC contacted Wendy Laker, Amy Lafont and Rick Larusso who met with the students and provided our research team with valued input and insight from the neighborhood. For more information on the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, please see: www.mcno.org.

Heritage Tourism as an Economic Development Strategy

Tourism is one of three dominant sectors in the New Orleans economy. Before Hurricane Katrina struck the city and the levees failed, the retail and service sector of the city’s economy accounted for 52% of employment (Brookings Institution 2005, p.11). These indicators suggest that the reconstruction of the city’s economy will be closely tied to the recovery of tourism in the short term while more long term plans for economic diversification can be implemented.

According to a pre-flood plan produced by the Division of Housing and Neighborhood Development (DHND) of the City of New Orleans, small business development including business creation and retention is a high priority of the Nagin mayoral administration (Consolidated Plan 2003-2005). After the disaster, this goal will remain a serious challenge given the extent of damage and the need to restore local business activity as an essential aspect of economic recovery. The Mayor’s commitment to this stated goal is also questionable given recent efforts by his administration to court out-of-state businesses and “big box” retail firms.

While many businesses will be anxious to re-open, research shows that small business owners must adapt to the changed conditions after a disaster in order to survive for the long term. According to a study by the Center for Organizational Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, small business owners face special challenges after catastrophic disasters like Hurricane Katrina (Alesch, et. al. “After the Disaster”). Small business owners and employees face the double burden of working toward business recovery while trying to restore their homes and family life that have been adversely impacted by the disaster.

According to the Division of Housing and Neighborhood Development (DHND), the historic character of the housing stock in New Orleans is a significant draw for tourists who visit the city (Consolidated Plan 2003-2005, p.6). This housing stock has been severely impacted by the hurricane and flood. Nonetheless, most homes in New Orleans can be restored and conservation of the city’s historic housing stock is vital to the city’s economy. Restoration, rather than demolition, can and should be the basis for the economic recovery of the city’s neighborhoods and businesses.

Heritage tourism encompasses tourist activities focused on the history and culture of New Orleans. New Orleans and Louisiana are well known for their cultural heritage and many places and events that attract millions of tourists to the state every year are related to heritage tourism.

Heritage Tourism Nodes are the critical sites of concentrated cultural and economic activity, including areas of historical significance, cultural heritage sites, important public spaces, museums and heritage centers, religious buildings and facilities, schools and community centers, and small businesses, such as restaurants, music venues and other entertainment facilities.

As part of our planning process, UMKC and the Urban Conservancy identified 13 heritage areas throughout the city that could serve as key areas around which the recovery of adjacent neighborhoods could be organized. After field research in each of the nodes, our project team ranked the top three areas for further planning and design research. These areas include Mid-City (1), Trem{‘e} (5) and the Lafitte Corridor (4). Figure 1 shows a map of these heritage tourism nodes outside of the French Quarter.

Coffee house
Coffee house

Mid-City is well situated to benefit from an economic development strategy that includes heritage tourism as a primary component. This opportunity is the product of existing conditions and features that make Mid-City a unique place to live and work. These attractions include:

  • Close proximity to the “tourist bubble” of the French Quarter and Convention Center.
  • Direct accessibility from Mid-City to the Quarter via the Canal streetcar line
  • City Park, including the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Besthoff Sculpture Garden
  • Historic homes and buildings that comprise the Mid-City national historic district
  • Unique locally-owned businesses, especially restaurants along N. Carrollton Avenue from Bienville to City Park Avenue
  • The Rock-and-Bowl and other locally-owned music venues that serve residents and visitors alike
  • Diverse historic cemeteries throughout the area that provide a distinctly New Orleans experience

Mid-City Heritage Map

Restaurant District
Restaurant District

Situated near the intersection of Canal Street and N. Carrollton is a small neighborhood business district serving the Mid-City neighborhood and visitors who arrive on the streetcar. This is an important concentration of businesses, many of which are restaurants. One landmark business in this area is Brocato’s — an Italian ice cream and sweet shop that has been in business in New Orleans for 100 years.

The rehabilitation of these blocks in Mid-City (100-200 blocks on N. Carrollton) is crucial for the revival of this important business district and surrounding neighborhoods. The mix of store fronts along N. Carrollton provides a “Main Street” style commercial district that should be maintained as properties are renovated.

Figure 3: Robert's Site
Figure 3: Robert’s Site

Figure 3 shows a plan view of a redevelopment scenario for the “Roberts” site at the corner of the intersection of Canal Street and N. Carrollton (on the downtown/riverside corner). Currently the site is developed in a suburban style in which the Robert’s building is situated in a large parking lot at the back of the parcel. This type of suburban development has many flaws.

Redevelopment of the Robert’s site provides an opportunity to re-think the development pattern along N. Carrollton in Mid-City. Figure 3 above shows a redeveloped site with a smaller commercial store at the corner of Canal and N. Carrollton with a parking lot situated behind businesses along both Canal Street and N. Carrollton. Redevelopment of the site with multiple new buildings would provide a greater diversity of businesses that could include offices and/or apartments above ground floor businesses.
This type of redevelopment pattern would be more consistent with the traditional development pattern in Mid-City. Single-use blocks with only one business are rare in Mid-City and suggest a loss of the basic urban pattern that makes New Orleans unique. Moving buildings to the front of the lots (with little or no setback) would help support a strong streetscape along both Canal Street and N. Carrollton and would enhance pedestrian activity. Redevelopment of this block in this manner would also encourage the rehabilitation of other businesses in the immediate area.

Figure 4: Bienville
Figure 4: Bienville

Along Bienville Avenue there is a vacant block between N. Scott and N. Cortez that should be studied for redevelopment. According to data from the City Planning Department the land use of this block is designated as Parkland/Space. However, this site is not currently accessible to the public as a park. The Mid-City Neighborhood Organization in collaboration with City Planning Department and other consultants should develop a plan for this block. Figure 4 shows one possible scenario: develop the street frontage of the block along Bienville as housing with a corner store while keeping the remaining portion of the block open for a neighborhood park. Such a scenario would require a rezoning.

Other development options include creating a neighborhood dog park, community gardens or playground facilities — depending upon the needs and interests of the Mid-City neighborhood (and soil quality issues). Residents of the neighborhood have expressed some interest and need for more neighborhood parks within MidCity, so such an option would seem feasible here. The future of the adjacent Lindy Boggs Medical Center will be an important consideration for the planning of this site on Bienville.

Heritage Node #2: Mid-City Cemeteries (Canal St. and City Park Ave.)

Figure 6: Visitor Center
Figure 6: Visitor Center

The history of the city is on display here for visitors; however, the UMKC team found that this area is underserved in terms of facilities and services for visitors to the area. Redevelopment of this node will require new facilities to serve visitors and tour guides as well as interpretative signage to make the heritage of the area more visible. Our major proposal for this heritage tourism node is to develop a Cemeteries Visitor’s Center. This type of facility could be located on the vacant lot at the corner of Canal Blvd. and City Park Ave. Figure 6 shows the site along Canal Boulevard.

Redevelopment of this vacant lot could provide off-street parking for tour buses, a visitor’s center with restroom facilities, a small theater for information about the history and proper etiquette at New Orleans cemeteries and a place for tour guides to meet visitors for tours.

Heritage Node #3: The Lafitte Rail Corridor

The Lafitte Rail corridor has been recognized as an important and underutilized public space that connects Mid-City to the French Quarter. This area is known by multiple names including the Old Basin Canal, the Carondelet Canal, the Lafitte Corridor and the KC Southern Rail Corridor.

The presence of the rail spur has influenced the development of industry and commerce in Mid-City. The American Can Company and other businesses located along the rail line as a matter of necessity. Today this area in Mid-City is still very much an area of active industry and business for land uses that require large warehouse space for their operations. The redevelopment of the American Can Company as a mix of residential apartments with commercial space on the ground floor, however, suggests a shift in the land use of the area. With the uncertainty surrounding the future of Lindy Boggs medical facility, the possibility of a Home Depot in the old Winn Dixie site on N. Carrollton and the on-going efforts to develop a bike path and pedestrian trail along the Lafitte Corridor from N. Carrollton to Jefferson Davis Avenue, it is clear that there are significant and perhaps conflicting visions for the future of this area.

Figure 7: Lafitte Greenway
Figure 7: Lafitte Greenway

Figure 7 shows one possible scenario for the redevelopment of the corridor using a mix of rehabilitation of existing structures as well as new in-fill construction. At the center of the image is the Lafitte Corridor park path shown in green and running from N. Carrollton down to Jefferson Davis Parkway near Bayou St. John. The creation of a bike path and pedestrian trail in this abandoned rail corridor could provide much needed recreation opportunities in Mid-City while also providing an important connection to existing bike paths. Mid-City residents and residents from other neighborhoods have expressed a great interest in this project and a Friends of Lafitte Corridor group has been formed to plan for the development of this path.

Policy Recommendations: Heritage Tourism in Mid-City

Several opportunities exist to enhance the Mid-City neighborhood and to use heritage tourism as an economic development strategy to drive the recovery of the neighborhood and locally-owned businesses. In this report we have outlined the following strategies:

1. Restore the urban fabric in Mid-City

Redevelopment of commercial and mixed use sites along N. Carrollton between Tulane Avenue and Orleans Avenue should follow a more urban pattern with smaller setbacks from the street and a reduction in the size of allowable parking lots. The tendency to “suburbanize” N. Carrollton by allowing suburban scale commercial development is counter-productive to the pedestrian and mass transit (streetcar) orientation of the street.

2. Develop N. Carrollton Ave as a pedestrian-friendly, neighborhood business district

The “Robert’s” site on the corner of Canal St. and N. Carrollton should also follow a pattern that is more urban in character and more consistent with the existing streetscape in the 100 and 200 block of N. Carrollton. This area is the “Main Street” of Mid-City and efforts should be made to ensure that any new development enhances existing historic buildings and the overall streetscape. Mid-City residents have expressed an interest in maintaining the “restaurant district” as a strong commercial anchor of locally-owned businesses. The re-opening of Brocato’s and other local restaurants is an important trend that should be encouraged. Other economic development strategies should include forming a business or merchants association for independent businesses in Mid-City, pursuing a “Main Street” approach to business organization, design and collective marketing, joining Stay Local! and developing an oak tree re-planting program for N. Carrollton.

3. Redevelop the Vacant Block on Bienville

Further study of the vacant block on Bienville at N. Cortez. This block should either be developed as a useful public space for neighborhood residents or it should be partially converted to residential space to meet the immediate need for affordable housing units in the neighborhood. A corner store or commercial business is also suggested to support the traditional Mid-City development pattern in the neighborhood and along Bienville. This space could also be developed as a mixed use site with an office for the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization or a “one-stop” business center for Mid-City merchants.

4. Develop a Heritage Trail and Bike Path in the Lafitte Corridor

Development of a bike path and pedestrian trail along the Lafitte rail corridor in Mid-City is an important strategy for increasing recreation opportunities and non-motorized commuting. Such a path will serve both visitors to the neighborhood as well as locals throughout the city who commute by bike. With historical signage and other interpretative tools, a heritage trail could also increase the awareness of local history and provide a way to tell the history of the neighborhood, its development and its residents.

5. Develop secure funding for City Park

City Park Gateway
City Park Gateway

City Park has struggled for years due to the lack of a dedicated line item in the city or state budgets. As one of the premier urban parks in the United States, City Park’s financial security must be established so that the park can continue to provide important recreation and cultural uplift to the people of New Orleans and visitors to the City.

Download PDF versions of our Stay Local! Neighborhood Guide & Map series celebrating and documenting New Orleans’ neighborhoods as cultural and commercial destinations.