New Orleans’ Claiborne Expressway: “There’s Really Only One Option”
Earlier this year, I wrote a piece for Metropolis about Amy Stelly, a citizen planner in New Orleans fighting to tear down the elevated highway that rips through the historic Treme neighborhood. While reporting that piece, I also interviewed local congressman Troy Carter and architect David Waggonner, whose firm has a long history with the road. All of this dovetailed with the passage of the infrastructure bill and the plans included in it for mitigating some of the impacts that the federal highway system had on urban communities. Recently, the New Orleans Advocate/Times Picayune reported that the Louisiana Department of Transportation had applied for a “reconnecting communities” grant in order to do two things: (1) activate the spaces underneath the highway, and (2) remove four ramps in the neighborhood. This seemed like a baby step backward. So for some perspective, I reached out to Kristin G. Palmer, who served two terms on the City Council and spent a fair amount of time working on the Clairborne corridor.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
KGP: Kristin G. Palmer
With your time on the council, you’ve got some experience working on the Claiborne corridor. Talk about your experience then, and we can flash forward to where we are now.
I’ve had two separate council terms: 2010 to 2014, and 2018 to 2022. In 2010, when I first got to the council, there was always the knowledge that the Claiborne corridor did not work.
I would argue for an obvious reason.
Probably for multiple reasons. Most of New Orleans was fortunately spared from urban renewal projects, as you know.
Thanks largely to Bill Borah.
Yes. Bill was a dear friend. There’s been an incredible amount of money, planning, and energy expended trying to beautify underneath the highway. And it still will never rectify the gross injustices, not just from a health and environmental standpoint, but socioeconomic as well. Our office wrote the first grant to study taking it down and to create some kind of public process. That is what led to the HUD money that came down to study the issue, which was part of the Livable Claiborne community initiative. That’s really the genesis of how that started. To me it’s always been very important when we talk about the feasibility of a project such as this: none of that can happen unless there’s a public-engagement process. Much of that early work was led by the neighborhood, by a very diverse group.
And then why did nothing happen?
I left the council in 2014, so I heard different things. I heard that by the time it came out with recommendations, there was significant pushback from the port. I can’t verify that. I think there were rumblings in New Orleans East, but there was a good contingency from there who understood the need to take it down. And then I also heard that there were some concerns from people along 610, and Lakeview.
A lot of the initial concerns came from a lack of understanding about what taking it down could accomplish. It was hard for people to visualize. It has been there for so long that you have whole generations that have known nothing but the elevated highway. People don’t understand that there are actually more transportation options on the ground than in the sky. It’s hard for people to understand that there are multiple corridors of getting people where they want to go. In fact, we’d have more transportation options if the elevated highway was removed.
New Orleans was built and expanded to our zenith population in 1960 of around 623,000. When Katrina hit, we were at 473,000. Today we’re at 400,000. We have significantly less people in the city, but we still have the same amount of streets. If you take I-10 away, we’ll still have the same number of streets and transportation options. Now, when I’m talking about transportation options, I’m talking about on the streetscape. We need to beef up our public transit, streetcar systems, and buses. But I’m talking about transportation infrastructure.
We have the same infrastructure that moved 600,000-plus people. Sometimes people can’t grasp that concept. If we look at the street grid, we have North Ramparts, Claiborne Avenue, Galvez, Broad. We have so many streets that used to be these economic corridors and hubs, where we had these thriving local businesses. The elevated highway siphoned off all of that economic activity. This is why once they ripped out the oak trees along Claiborne, they destroyed the economic middle class of Black New Orleans, because there was no life on the street. Then we can also talk about the horrible health and environmental consequences to that as well.
It seemed like a lot of the momentum around the issue, even the public discussion of it, drifted away in 2015, 2016. There was fear of gentrification. There were cultural connections to the underpass.
At one point I saw one proposal done by a couple of Tulane students that removed the highway, but left a few of the ramps up, to reinforce that cultural connection and history. I thought that was an elegant solution to it. But those understandable fears speak to what I said earlier: We’ve had several generations now that didn’t see the culture that happened on a beautiful, open, neutral ground. They didn’t experience any of that. They didn’t see the economic vitality of Black-owned businesses up and down the corridor. And you’re always going to have distrust any time there’s an infrastructure investment that is going to create displacement. So in my mind, I absolutely think the only way to mitigate the health consequences, the economic consequences, and the socioeconomic consequences, is to take it down. That’s the only way to mitigate anything. But that being said, there’s a right way to take it down, and there’s a wrong way to take it down.
If we don’t truly invest in the conversation, we can’t do this right. We have enough time to figure out how to do it. How to reinvest, make sure that the corridor, before the highway is taken down, has opportunities for our Black communities, our Black business owners. To make sure that we have viable housing opportunities to ensure that people are not displaced, and make sure that our cultural community is also not displaced. Those are the hard conversations.
Let’s flash forward to where we are now. I read the article in the Advocate about the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development [DOTD] putting in a proposal for $95 million to take some ramps down. I know some neighborhood activists would be against partial removal. Where do we stand here?
Well, I don’t know where we stand. I chaired a transportation hearing in my last term, and there were two sides. One wanted to invest and create economic opportunities under the highway. The other was pushing for removal. And it was really fascinating. By the end of it, both sides were talking differently. They were like, “Well, of course, it should come down. But we just never thought it was an option.” So what are the options? I’m speaking as a private citizen, but I still believe that there has to be a robust community engagement process first, because anything that we do is going to create implications that we need to be aware of.
I don’t think there’s enough money to take it down, even if New Orleans got $500 million of the capital funds. There’s only a billion and change for the whole country. New Orleans is not going to get the whole thing.
Correct. But that’s one pot of money. There are other potential pots of money. And regardless: Do we go ahead and do something that doesn’t have public engagement because “Well, this is the money that we have”? That’s the top-down approach. I’ve never heard of a proposal where you just take the ramps down until recently.
The DOTD wants to get in line. If they’re giving out money, they’ll take it. So take a few ramps down, but it won’t solve the problem.
It’s not going to solve the problem. And DOTD also knows that there’s a shelf life to that highway anyway. My understanding is that it’s going to be obsolete within 10 or 20 years.
Twenty might be on the high side, too.
Now, if they’re taking the ramps down—again, I’m talking now as a private citizen—that’s going to be even more problematic. The only reason I can see them just taking ramps down would be to absolutely ensure that it’ll be obsolete within five years. The standstill traffic that will occur up there, the safety issues—especially if we want to talk about storm evacuations—you won’t be able to get anybody out if there’s an accident up there. The safety of cars breaking down, the physical safety of people up there, all of that will be compromised, if there’s no way to get off. When you’re on a street grid, you can turn right or you can turn left. And I don’t know if there’s ever been a safety analysis done with the ramps down, but I’ve never heard of one. I’m sure this proposal has some traffic studies attached to it.
Regardless of how much money they get and what they decide to do, they will have to do another traffic study, you’d think.
Right. But let’s be clear, there have been so many studies on this thing. It’s been studied to death.
That’s what Troy Carter says.
And it never worked. The money invested underneath for beautification that has not worked. There have been fountains under there, there have been paintings under there—nothing’s worked. The only thing that works is they store towed cars there.
I know. I’ve had a car towed there.
And then the other issue that we also need to talk about is: Is anybody concerned about flooding, about global warming, about the negative economic impacts of having infrastructure like that? If we’re serious about the life, health, safety, and economic equity of our citizens, then really there’s only one option. That should be first in this whole conversation. And the opportunity to have unobstructed green space in the heart of our city is huge. Before the highway, Treme never flooded. The French Quarter never flooded. We have to look at how we repurpose our places. There’s also a potential with all of that concrete for recycling, for creating berms, for creating wetland restoration.
I’m a little worried that it’s going to be a half-measure.
All the half-measures have never worked. And it doesn’t make sense to start with plans on trying to create economic opportunities underneath an existing structure, when you have so much vacancy and blight of existing storefronts up and down Claiborne. Why aren’t we focusing on the existing Black-owned businesses there?
Featured image: a view from underneath the elevated highway.