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New Orleans Considers Removing Its Claiborne Overpass

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(This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Dec. 17, 2012 edition.)

No matter where you live in New Orleans, sooner or later you'll find yourself on Claiborne Avenue, speakers said at community meetings in December on improving the corridor. The tree-lined boulevard was the heart of the local African American community before a 2.2-mile expressway, carrying part of Interstate-10, was built in the 1960s.

Construction of alternative I-610 in the 1960s and 1970s reduced the need for the Claiborne overpass, however, and officials are considering removing it to reconnect neighborhoods. Community meetings held from Dec. 8 to 13 solicited views from residents. The feds and the city will ultimately decide whether the expressway goes, or if the structure stays and its wear and tear are repaired.

A $2.8 million study, led by the city's Office of Place-Based Planning, is under way to evaluate four miles along Claiborne from Elysian Fields to Napoleon Ave. and between Broad St. on the lakeside to Magazine St., Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., Rampart St. and and St. Claude on the riverside.

Funded by the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Housing & Urban Development and by city sources, the study responds to decades of concerns about the overpass from Treme, Lafitte and other residents. In 2010, local architects Waggonner & Ball, with consultants Smart Mobility, Inc. in Vermont, considered the corridor's role in a study commissioned by the Claiborne Corridor Improvement Coalition and the Congress for the New Urbanism, a national group.

Speaking at a citywide meeting at Dillard University on Dec. 8, New Orleans Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant told residents, community group members and school kids "this study is an opportunity to think big, and your input is critical." He said "it typically takes eight years to build a road project so this is for the long haul. It's important to get something done. But if the project isn't balanced, it will die."

Also speaking at Dillard, Bill Gilchrist, the city's director of Place-Based Planning, said the study's organizers are "ground truthing" by asking residents their views about the overpass and what they desire for transportation, development, jobs and sustainable living. With this study, "we're a guinea pig of the federal agencies, who are breaking down silos and working better together," Gilchrist said. In addition to DOT, HUD and the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and the Dept. of Energy will probably get involved, he said.

President Barack Obama has asked federal agencies to work collaboratively to achieve walkable, mixed-use, healthy communities, adopting eco-friendly lifestyles, speakers noted.

At the Claiborne meetings, held on different days at Dillard and in four areas across town--Gravier and the Central Business District; Iberville, Treme, Lafitte and the Seventh Ward; Broadmoor, Freret and Milan; Central City and B.W. Cooper--residents grouped by tables were asked to identify issues, including what should and shouldn't be changed along the corridor. A leader from each table read results to the room. According to those discussions, many residents favor the expressway's removal but others don't. For all its faults--separation of neighborhoods, destruction of homes and businesses and lost green space--the overpass has yielded a few benefits. Some residents want it for access to hospitals, quick commutes to work and hurricane evacuation. Others said that it's a spot for outdoor markets, art, shelter from rain and good acoustics for Mardi Gras Indian drummers.

At the Dillard University meeting, elementary to eighth grade students from Joseph A. Craig School presented a long wish list for the corridor, including more playgrounds and trees, fewer cars and an amusement park.

The city-sponsored study is examining alternatives for the corridor's future, and expects to come up with scenarios that combine better transportation with economic development. At the Tulane-Gravier meeting on Dec. 10, Joel Mann of Kittelson & Associates said planners want to help residents become more mobile via mass transit, walking and bicycling. His national firm leads a consulting team hired for the city's study.

Planners said they have to be cognizant of truck traffic generated by the Port of New Orleans and of workers' commutes to other areas. Residents of Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard Parishes are encouraged to participate in the study. One idea is to build passenger rail lines, connecting East Jefferson Parish and Slidell in St. Tammany Parish with communities along the way to downtown New Orleans.

At the meetings, residents said affordable housing should not be forfeited as the city develops the corridor. Some said they're wary of developers, especially those who might be eying property near the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Residents also said that local people should be hired in any new construction.

Outside of the meetings, Jerome Smith, founder and director of the Treme-based, Tambourine N Fan youth group, said in December "the expressway broke up neighborhoods and families in the 1960s and destroyed much of the city's African American heritage." He's a founder of Super Sunday, an annual parade with Mardi Gras Indians and brass bands, held in March.

"I wish they could somehow grandfather families and businesses that lost so much because of the expressway into the benefits of this Claiborne project," Smith said. He hasn't decided if he wants the expressway torn down or not, and said "they've thrown a lot of development issues into the mix with the study." Work prevented him from attending December's community meetings.

Smith said post-Katrina development hasn't necessarily been favorable for African Americans. "At the worst, it can be a modern-day lynching," he said. "We're still on the bottom of anything that happens here." And he said, despite the community meetings, "the authorities may already have a plan for what to do about Claiborne."

Smith also said "since the expressway was built, much of what Louis Armstrong Park represents is gone now. Kids used to walk around outside, playing instruments and emulating our great, local musicians. But you seldom see that now. "

Money for the Claiborne study comes from a Community Challenge Grant from HUD and a TIGER II planning grant from DOT, with matched funding by local nonprofits, private participants and the city. Two city-appointed committees have been asked to ensure that the study responds to neighborhood issues.

On Dec. 10, Yolanda Takesian of planners Kittelson & Associates, said at the Tulane-Gravier meeting "after another round of community meetings in early 2013, by next June we'll have alternative futures which will be tested and pulled together." The study is to be completed by August.

Outside of the meetings, Director Gilchrist in early December said "the current study will produce a series of alternatives at its conclusion--consistent with a "Stage 0" analysis of federal transportation systems. The city will then need to apply for a review of those alternatives under the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA, for which additional funding will be required." How long the development process might take won't be clear until all alternatives are determined, he said.

According to the 2010 study by New Orleans architects Waggonner & Ball, removing the elevated expressway would free up more than fifty acres for use as neutral grounds, bike and pedestrian paths, transit corridors and water management, and would allow development on additional acres. A simplified interchange between a restored Claiborne boulevard and the Pontchartrain Expressway could make land near the Superdome available for development.

Waggonner & Ball's study found that less than 20 percent of local drivers depend on the Claiborne expressway as an east-west route. And the architects said "with most through-traffic using the I-610, the Claiborne I-10's usage does not match the intended function of an interstate highway."

The Waggonner & Ball report also said "the Claiborne expressway is not a hurricane evacuation route designated for contra-flow traffic. It serves a role as a collector during times of evacuation but this function could be better served by a surface boulevard."

After the expressway was built, residents were forced to adjust to its presence and found uses for the space underneath. Architect David Waggonner said in December "people adapt to things that make them less healthy, it seems." On a positive note, he added "design can also adapt for people, and it can do more than one thing." He supports removing the overpass, depending on how it's done.

Milwaukee, San Francisco, Providence and other U.S. and foreign cities have torn down elevated highways. According to the Federal Highway Administration, it would take many millions of dollars to repair several, deteriorating interchange ramps along the Claiborne overpass. end

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