(This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Feb. 25, 2013 edition.)
New Orleans officials hope to move residents toward a consensus this spring about whether to remove or keep the 1960s-era Claiborne expressway that destroyed African American neighborhoods in Treme, the Seventh Ward and vicinity.
Last week, Peter Park, a Denver-based city planner who oversaw the tear-down of Milwaukee's freeway, advised New Orleanians 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 in New Orleans on Feb. 20. He was joined by John Norquist, president of the Congress for the New Urbanism in San Francisco and a former Milwaukee mayor.
The New Orleans study, funded with $2 million in planning grants from the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development and the Dept of Transportation and more from local nonprofits and the city, is mulling what to do with the overpass.
Flozell Daniels, Jr., president of the Foundation for Louisiana and chair of the Livable Claiborne Communities project, spoke last Wednesday about the city's study--which he noted will make recommendations on land use and transportation for the stretch of Claiborne between Napoleon Ave. and Elysian Fields.
Late last year, over 400 residents attended workshops held across town by Mayor Mitch Landrieu's
Office of Place Based Planning. Locals grouped by tables pored over maps and identified issues they want 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 workshops in mid-March.
According to the city, the Claiborne study will help communities improve transit; connect housing to jobs, schools and healthcare; promote livability through economic development; and manage water and soil.
Views from residents in public meetings from last fall to March 2013 will be compiled this spring for a presentation by the city 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, 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's wrong with urban highways? Built forty to fifty 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 drives to work may take a bit longer but little time is wasted in big traffic jams.
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 whether tax dollars should be spent on projects that hurt 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 after Harley-Davidson, based in Milwaukee, said if the highway were gone, the company would build a museum in the revitalized area.
Also speaking at the Sojourner Center on Feb. 20 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 income levels 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 on a biblical teaching that humans are implements of a divine plan.
As for New Orleans, Park said the city impressed the world with its resilience after Katrina and can be a role model for other urban areas if it revives the Claiborne corridor.
The Feb. 20 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 Communities will hold workshops on March 16 at Joseph A. Craig Elementary School on St. Philip St. in New Orleans and on March 18 at Ashe Cultural Arts Center on O.C. Haley Blvd. To learn more, visit www.LivableClaiborne.com on the web. end