In August 2010, the city of New Orleans acquired a 16.5-acre parcel of land stretching from Claiborne Avenue to North Dorgenois Street — the former site of the failed Louisiana Institute of Film Technology studio. That chunk of land would add to the city's plans for its first park in 20 years. But when will ground break? The project is part the Lafitte Corridor, where a years-in-the-making "greenway" will link downtown neighborhoods to Lakeview over a 3-mile-long stretch of bike paths, green space, public gardens and other community resources.
Last spring, national urban planners, conservationists and politicians descended on the site for a think tank and workshop centered around the Lafitte greenway's future. Then-U.S. Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao and other officials made appearances and voiced their support — but a year later, the soil remains untouched. Community meetings, which will offer input on how planners should utilize the site, have yet to be held.
Bart Everson, president of the Friends of Lafitte Corridor (FOLC), hopes that won't deter residents. The project, he says, can't go on without their input — or their vision.
"(The corridor) goes through a number of different neighborhoods, and people presumably coming from different areas and backgrounds are going to have different ideas about the process," Everson says. "The greenway has to reflect the communities' desires or it's not going to be successful. It's our role to make sure the process at this stage is an honest, open, transparent process and the community really is engaged."
In November 2009, the city picked Austin, Texas landscape architecture and urban planning firm Design Workshop to turn a former railway into a 3-mile linear park. The project was backed in part by an $11.6 million Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), but an audit by the Department of Housing and Urban Development screened all projects using CDBG funds, which led the city to prematurely terminate its contract with Design Workshop in January 2010. Incoming Mayor Mitch Landrieu asked Mayor Ray Nagin, who was leaving office, to freeze all city contracts. Therefore, by the end of Nagin's term, no bidder had been selected for the project. When the project was rebid, Design Workshop was re-selected in August 2010.
Despite enthusiasm from the Landrieu administration and City Council members, the greenway project has yet to find its legs; Design Workshop and FOLC are waiting for word on whether the city will put its seal of approval on the contract.
"We're trying not to be impatient," says Everson, who has been following the project since 2005. It has been the topic of several planning meetings and has garnered neighborhood interest since the '70s. Everson, who commutes by bicycle, founded the FOLC in 2006 after exploring the corridor a year earlier, and the group has held annual Hike the Lafitte Corridor events since. In 2009, Everson says, "Spirits were at an all-time high," with more than 200 attendees hiking the course of the proposed greenway and anticipating a groundbreaking by the following year. But in 2010, following Nagin's cancelation of the Design Workshop contract, the group lost its morale, Everson says.
"Time and money and effort spent — once it's gone, it's gone," says Design Workshop principal Steven Spears. "It wasn't just lost time on our behalf. The city staff spent a significant amount of time and effort under the Nagin administration. They've also looked at this opportunity as, 'That was the past, this is the future, we're going to make this right.' There are no hard feelings. Everyone has the momentum to move this forward."
And the momentum has been building. A 2010 conference held by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit turning former railways into usable public spaces, brought national attention to the Lafitte project. "We were able to compare notes with people from other communities that have been working on these projects even longer than we have," Everson says. "We've had it easy by comparison."
Earlier this year, the American Institute of Architects honored Waggoner & Ball Architects with an award for the project's sustainable water management plans, which utilize former canals and waterways to manage stormwater and provide natural drainage.
"From an ecological point of view there's significance, dealing with storm water in an innovative way, that's on our radar," Spears says. "From a community point of view, the river half of the trail lends itself to some tourism activity, but it also connects to culturally significant neighborhoods like Treme, whereas the lake end links to the existing neighborhoods. We don't foresee it as just another tourist attraction. It'll be something more profound. Tourists and locals will be able to use and enjoy (the greenway) for alternative transportation (and) recreation."
Spears says the firm anticipates its contract getting a thumbs up from the city in April, after which Design Workshop will hold dozens of community meetings to discuss the greenway's features and to develop a master plan for revitalization projects for neighborhoods within a half-mile radius of each side of the greenway.
"I look forward to a robust public participation process facilitated by a creative and motivating design team," District A councilwoman Susan Guidry says in an email to Gambit. "I am certain our residents will let their creativity flow during the design process, and that the greenway will become one of the great natural gems of our city, as well as a powerful economic engine."
Spears estimates the meetings will last a year before ground breaks on the greenway. Construction on the project — paving its pathways and grooming the landscape — would take less than two years. The most vital part, Everson says, is the citizen-driven planning process.
"Now is the time go get involved," he says. "You can be at the forefront of the design process. Come with an open mind (and) say 'Here's what I would like to see.'"
Hike the Lafitte Corridor
10 a.m. Saturday, April 16
Stemming from an informal tradition founded in 2005, the Friends of Lafitte Corridor (FOLC) hosts an annual hike through the proposed 3-mile linear green space linking the French Quarter, Treme, Mid-City and Lakview. The event includes live music, food and access to community resources along the Lafitte Corridor. Visit www.folc-nola.org for details.