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Wednesday, April 5, 2017

At public meeting, residents and business owners sound off about Bourbon Street closure and redevelopment

Posted By on Wed, Apr 5, 2017 at 10:26 AM

click to enlarge Dismayed residents and business owners expressed a variety of concerns about the project.
  • Dismayed residents and business owners expressed a variety of concerns about the project.

At an April 4 meeting that was supposed to be about a recent traffic study conducted by city contractor AECOM in connection with the Bourbon Street redevelopment project, frustrated French Quarter residents and business owners convened for a Festivus-style airing of grievances about the plan.

Organizers, including Mark Jernigan from the Department of Public Works and Derek Chisholm from AECOM, tried to maintain order by allowing comment only via comment cards, which were read aloud to the group. But even before the "public comment" segment of the meeting, audience members were interjecting with questions and complaints about prospective road closures, the economic fallout from the proposed conversion of Bourbon Street to a pedestrian mall, handicap access to businesses, potential interruptions to delivery service and more.

"They don't have the manners to ask us any questions about how [this project] is going to affect our lives," David Gamble, a resident of Ursulines Street, said. "We're second-class citizens in the city that relies on us."

Many of the 100 or so people in attendance at the St. Jude Community Center, which hosted the meeting, echoed Gamble's remark. The immediate problem seemed to be the failure to personally survey businesses and domiciles around Bourbon, rather than on Bourbon itself. Attendees argued that the French Quarter is a small neighborhood, and any changes to traffic patterns (such as proposed street closures on Bourbon-adjacent streets) necessarily affect them. They pointed to traffic jams during street closures for events such as the NBA All-Star Game and Mardi Gras as evidence of potential issues.

For their part, organizers seemed to be be selling the project as a way to address safety concerns in the city's most-trafficked tourist area. In a brief presentation about the findings of the traffic study, Chisholm made much of the high percentage of pedestrian-involved crashes in Orleans Parish (22.7 percent of the state's recorded crashes, though the parish comprises just 8 percent of the state's population.) He said the project could help remedy this problem, and also could create opportunities for new businesses along the pedestrian mall.

Jernigan went one step further. In an interview, he alluded to recent geopolitical events involving car traffic (such as the truck-based attack in Nice, France) as one reason for the spearheading of this project.

"I recognize there's a lot of passion [from residents] ... and rightly so," he said. "At the same time, we've gotta be realistic. There are security concerns. That's not something we want to have happen here."

click to enlarge A woman studies a map of French Quarter driveways.
  • A woman studies a map of French Quarter driveways.

In the traffic study, which took place over the last month, AECOM evaluated driveway usage, deliveries and traffic patterns in the affected area. Some proposed outcomes included temporal closures, where certain streets in the Quarter are blocked to vehicular traffic at certain times; rerouting of one-way streets to the opposite way or even occasional two-way traffic; and potential use of commercial parking garages for delivery.

Chisholm admitted that it's a very challenging environment, especially considering the already-tight parking situation in the Quarter. He encouraged those present to keep an open mind about solutions, particularly regarding pick-up and delivery.

"When you lump [problems] together, it's easy to assume the same level of access is necessary for absolutely every front door," he said.

The preliminary plans didn't go far with the contentious group, many of whom raised industry-specific concerns. A representative from one of the mule-drawn carriage companies pointed out that their business might be jeopardized by the inability to cross Bourbon. Another man asked about the frequent ice deliveries he receives at his bar.

George Peterson, a sales manager at a company that services ATMs, worried about the welfare of his company's employees. If they have to leave their trucks and potentially walk several blocks to or from a business carrying cash, he says, they could be targeted.

"It's less safe and secure. ... I don't want to have to put my people in that risk," he said.

Stakeholders in the project's outcome won't have long to wait for new developments. According to Jernigan, AECOM is expected to make its recommendations about changes to the Quarter traffic pattern by mid-May. He agreed that the timeline for this project is "aggressive," but also said Department of Public Works will definitely look into expanding the reach of the recent survey, in response to feedback received at last night's meeting.

"The point we were trying to make is that there aren't easy solutions," Chisholm told Gambit. "This is a very atypical project."

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