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A Ruinous Road In New Orleans

Tom Condon

August 08, 2010

Back in the 1960s, a vibrant, compact city built an elevated highway right through downtown, against the wishes of those in an adjacent African American neighborhood. The road-builders prevailed, as they always did, on the theory that easy auto access would boost prosperity.

The passage of time has exposed the disastrous flaws of this idea. Instead of bringing affluence, it brought blight. The expressway divided and walled off neighborhoods, added to noise and pollution, caused disinvestment in public transit and urban business and encouraged middle-class people to move away.

Now the expressway is nearing the end of its useful life, and a growing group of residents want to tear it down.

This could of course be a summary of the citizen-led effort to remove the I-84 Aetna Viaduct in Hartford, but it is actually a very similar story, taking place as we speak in New Orleans.

The elevated Interstate 10 expressway over Claiborne Avenue has been unloved for decades in the Big Easy. A recent — and very cogent — study of the aging highway says the Claiborne Avenue corridor "suffered serious decline following the construction of the I-10 expressway in the 1960s." The study the highway replaced "a lively strolling street, oak-covered neutral ground and business corridor with an eyesore that made Claiborne Avenue both a physical and symbolic barrier between the area's neighborhoods."

Three years ago the Congress for the New Urbanism, the national group that promotes smart growth based on traditional urban design, began pushing the idea of removing the expressway. A strong citizens group, the Claiborne Corridor Improvement Coalition, formed around the idea of replacing the highway with a handsome urban boulevard. What has surprised the group's co-chairman is how fast the idea has taken off.

That, by the way, would be my old friend Jack Davis, former Courant publisher and founder of the Place section. A longtime New Orleans resident before his productive sojourn in Hartford, Jack is now the president of Smart Growth for Louisiana. He said in an e-mail that when the coalition began calling attention to the I-10 expressway, "I thought we'd be lucky to get this in the public spotlight in a decade or two."

"But almost overnight this is one of the top issues in New Orleans — even with the oil spill — with surprisingly broad popular support and encouragement from our new mayor and key members of the City Council. This monster could be down before Mitch Landrieu finishes his second term."

The coalition's report, done in part by the highly regarded consulting firm Smart Mobility Inc., of Norwich, Vt., explores the idea, with some variations, of turning the 2.2-mile stretch of expressway into a surface-level boulevard tied into the city's regular street grid. It says eliminating the expressway would remove an eyesore, reduce noise and air pollution, increase opportunities for public transit and promote investment in the Tremι and 7th Ward neighborhoods.

This isn't pie in the sky. Cities across the country — Boston, Milwaukee, New York, San Francisco, Buffalo, Seattle and others — have or are in the process of removing downtown highways. John Norquist, who was mayor of Milwaukee when it dismantled an inner-city highway and is now president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune it would have cost about $80 million to rebuild the Milwaukee freeway but only $30 million to demolish it and replace it with a surface street. Once completed, the new corridor drew considerable private investment. The Congress for the New Urbanism also has the removal of the Route 34 connector in New Haven on its top 10 list of highways that ought to be relegated to the dump truck of history.

Jack Davis sent along encouragement to the Hub of Hartford group that has pushed — now with city and state support — to somehow remove the elevated highway that walls off and diminishes downtown Hartford. They are awaiting a final consultant's report, and are reportedly mulling over some good ideas. Stay tuned.

What was not understood in the 1960s was how much space would have to be sacrificed to downtown highways — the roads themselves, street widenings, parking lots. And the highways were never necessary; the street grid and public transit would have kept the city intact. The New Orleans post-Katrina city plan predicts that by removing two miles of I-10, the city will gain 35 to 40 city blocks no longer be blighted by the freeway and 20 to 25 blocks of open space along Claiborne Avenue.

In my admittedly limited experience, no one goes to New Orleans to visit I-10. They visit places where there are buildings, plazas and sidewalks, even streetcars.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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