Bicyclists and joggers aren't the only ones waiting for a three-mile strip running through the center of New Orleans to be developed into the Lafitte Greenway. Neighboring businesses hope to serve residents and tourists using the stretch of park from historic Basin Street and Mid-City to Lakeview. The 40-year-old, corridor idea has gathered steam, with ground likely to be broken early next year.
"We've committed $7 million to the greenway's development and have begun an extensive, community planning and design effort," said Ryan Berni, press secretary to Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Residents have attended city-sponsored meetings on a Lafitte Corridor Revitalization Plan since last summer, and land ownership issues are being sorted out now.
Alonzo Knox, co-owner of Cafe Treme, expects an eventual flow of path users to help his business, located a block from the greenway behind Armstrong Park near Congo Square. "Friends of Lafitte Corridor has held meetings in our cafe and been very good to us overall," Knox said. He noted that the federal government supports the new park. "I attended a local meeting in December where Interior Secretary Salazar spoke and said the greenway is a priority project." The corridor has been allocated more than $7 million in U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development block grants since Katrina.
Knox and co-owner Gladys Marigny opened Cafe Treme on St. Philip St. last September to fill a need for a gathering spot. Knox has a business background and Marigny renovates historic buildings.
"If they do it right, the greenway will be a path connecting a number of neighborhoods," Knox said. He plans to explore areas in Mid City that he's unfamiliar with now. "And it will get kids here off of Canal St. and other busy avenues into a healthier, safer environment," he said.
The corridor will add to redevelopment and around Treme of the Iberville housing complex, Craig Elementary School, the African American Museum and the North Rampart streetcar line, Knox said. He added "at the same time, they're studying tearing down the I-10 overpass," a structure that has deterred adjacent, commercial activity.
Knox expects the greenway to help other businesses nearby, including Dooky Chase and Willie Mae's Scotch House restaurants, the Candlelight Lounge -- where the Treme Brass Band plays every Wednesday -- the Basin St. Bar, the Vieux Carre Lounge and Kermit Ruffins' Treme Speakeasy -- with the latter scheduled to open this year. The 72-year-old Q Lee Laundry and Cleaners, the city's second-oldest cleaning and tailoring business, should also benefit.
Knox cites his reasons for optimism about the greenway, saying civic engagement has grown in the six years since Hurricane Katrina, with more voices being heard. "There's a meeting of the old and new, with a respect for the past," he said. "There are more checks and balances and more eyes on the street, so to speak, watching what's going on." He and his wife Jessica Knox, a FOLC board member, moved to Treme from Washington, D.C. in 2003. He grew up in Baton Rouge and Jessica is from Waynesboro, Miss.
Friends of Lafitte Corridor provided some of the greenway's history. Architect Daniel Samuels, who served as FOLC's president from 2006 to 2008, said the concept dates to the 1970s and re-emerged after Katrina as a strategy to stimulate investment in storm-damaged neighborhoods. The route traces an old rail line and a canal. "The city's vision calls for transformation of this former, industrial corridor as a mixed-use district," surrounding the greenway, he said.
The project is slowly materializing. Mark Venczel, the current FOLC president, said "the Nagin Administration raised some questions about the contract bidding process and canceled a contract with landscape architects Design Workshop." But when the contract was rebid under the Landrieu Administration, the Austin, Texas office of Colorado-based Design Workshop landed the work again in August 2010. Design Workshop in conjunction with New Orleans city agencies will manage greenway construction -- including bicycle and pedestrian paths, open spaces and recreational areas.
Samuels said businesses developing along the corridor include the recently-announced Mid-City Market and a new, retail cluster that's included in the master plan for Iberville. In September, HUD awarded the city $30.5 million to revitalize the Iberville Housing Development and the Treme neighborhood.
As for incentives, "The entire Lafitte corridor is encompassed within three, contiguous Louisiana Cultural Districts, which offer state tax credits for the sale of original art and the rehabilitation of historic structures," Samuels said.
At Mid-City Market, "Some of the buildings will face the greenway, and shops and cafes will have entrances looking out onto it," said Townsend Underhill, vice president at Stirling Properties, which is developing the site. "Companies that have signed leases are market businesses, and I'm not aware of any tax incentives for them."
He said other cities, including Charlotte, N.C. and Denver, have greenways, and he noted that in south Louisiana, "The Tammany Trace passes through downtown Covington, and surrounding retail businesses do well."
Companies that have signed leases in Mid-City Market are Winn-Dixie, Office Depot, Neighborhood Pet Market by Jefferson Feed, Felipe's Taqueria, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Pei Wei Asian Diner and Pinkberry. "We are 80 percent leased so far," Underhill said. The site hopes to sign a lease with a bicycle shop.
Mayor Landrieu gave Winn-Dixie permission to cut a road across the greenway so the store can connect with a parking lot. Separately, the greenway also crosses Claiborne and Carrollton Avenues and several other thoroughfares.
Berni said in addition to Louisiana Cultural District benefits, "We have a number of citywide incentives, such as the Fresh Food Retailer Initiative, which could be put to use along the corridor." He added: "We believe that capital investments in the greenway will attract development along the entire corridor." The revitalization plan for the greenway will address market forces and public-private partnerships, he said.
Cafe Treme has received no special tax breaks or incentives but Knox said "now is the time for entrepreneurs looking to open or expand a business in Treme." Treme is having a renaissance, with a renewed focus on its culture, music, second lines, art and history within the civil rights movement. "This year, we're having our bicentennial as the nation's first, free black neighborhood," he said. "We're building our brand as a neighborhood."
On April 14, Friends of Lafitte Corridor held a community hike to raise awareness about the path and explain what needs to be done to construct it.
This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the April 9, 2012 edition.