New Orleans' Claiborne Expressway (Interstate-10)
Settled in the heart of New Orleans, a once thriving commercial district filled with cafes and restaurants, grocers, music venues, and other businesses sustaining daily neighborhood activities lined the streets of North Claiborne Avenue. Giant oak trees and greenery loomed in the middle of the boulevard, creating a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly atmosphere, acting as a congregation center connecting one side of the town to the other. The area became so integral to the surrounding neighborhoods of Tulane/Gravier, Tremé/Lafitte and the 7th Ward that some of the earliest Mardis Gras parades ended with large celebrations up and down North Claiborne Avenue. It was the ultimate display of public space.
Despite the success of the commercial sector, the areas surrounding North Claiborne Avenue experienced decentralization and disinvestment similar to other places during the post-WW II era. Yet the North Claiborne district received something in addition to its declining atmosphere: the Interstate-10 Claiborne Expressway, a massive, elevated highway bisecting the town that further devastated the existing structure, character, and vitality of many surrounding neighborhoods.
Highway Construction & Consequences
In the 1950s, the Federal government strongly incentivized urban freeway construction by covering 90% of the costs. Interstate-10’s construction commenced above North Claiborne Avenue at this time to increase access in the Central Business District. Robert Moses proposed the Vieux Carré Riverfront Expressway through the French Quarter following the completion of Interstate-10 to enhance the accessibility of the area. The French Quarter proposal was stopped by preservationists after a long-fought battle persuading the federal government to withhold funding. Unfortunately, citizens located along North Claiborne Avenue, some of the oldest African American neighborhoods in the country, did not have the resources or political power to prevent the I-10/Claiborne Expressway from moving forward.
The oak trees lining Claiborne Avenue were removed (most supposedly relocated to other parts of town), along with clearing 500 homes to prepare for the highway that opened in 1968, permanently changing the once actively green streetscape with concrete. Soon afterward, the business district quickly declined and the quality of life of neighborhood residents dropped as their neighborhood center disintegrated.
Following Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent rebuilding efforts, the call became prominent to rethink the I-10 elevated expressway's role for the North Claiborne Corridor and City at large. Already at or beyond its designed lifespan of 40 years, the structure also endured damage sustained from the hurricane, making a highway removal decision vital and urgent. The community design charrettes held by the United New Orleans Plan and NOLA Master Plan groups encouraged residents to voice their hopes of what they wish to achieve within their community. Both plans called for traffic and environmental impact studies and feasibility reports of removing the inner-city portion of the Interstate-10 elevated expressway. The findings from these products would provide feasibility and cost estimates for various alternatives within the corridor. Particularly along North Claiborne Avenue, residents were hoping to unveil the potential hidden behind the concrete pillars of I-10.
In 2012 the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) jointly awarded a $2 million grant-with matching funds put forth by the City of New Orleans and local non-profits-to engage stakeholders in the area to develop three alternative for the Claiborne Corridor. The Livable Claiborne Communities study concluded its final meeting in October 2013, and outlines the following scenarios:
Construction costs increase with each respective option, particular increasing from Scenario 3a to 3b. However estimated tax revenues greatly increase with each option as well.
As residents and government officials look to restore the city, new urbanists have urged that the historic character should form the basis of rebuilding efforts, including the restoration of the street network. With the removal of I-10 over North Claiborne Avenue, the city will experience a reconnection with surrounding neighborhoods, a rise in economic development with increased use of previously underutilized connector streets, and most importantly, the reinstatement of the oak tree lined boulevard that the street was so well known for, replenishing the cultural value and working to correct the attempted urban renewal phase of the 1960s.
"Re-Imagining Claiborne Avenue" -This coalition event in March 2012 explored the equity and access issues within a potential highway teardown project. Speakers included: Jacky Grimshaw of Chicago's Center for Neighborhood Technology and Jeff Tumlin of San Francisco's Nelson/Nygaard. Click on the links to view the clips on YouTube: Jacky Grimshaw speaking on community organizing and Jeff Tumlin speaking on transportation and social equity mechanisms. You may also view the presenters' PowerPoint presentations: Jacky Grimshaw's presentation and Jeff Tumlin's presentation.
"Big Uneasy Street: The History of Claiborne Avenue" - John T. Magill, Louisiana Cultural Vistas Magazine
"Are Freeways Doomed?" - William Doig, Salon.com
New Orleans Master Plan and Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance Transportation goals with I-10 removal (this may take a minute to load).
Unified New Orleans Plan I-10 removal Proposal within Recovery Planning Projects
New Orleans' Times Picayune "Planners push to tear out elevated I-10 over Claiborne" 7/13/09
New Orleans City Business I-10 public hearings coverage, 4/3/09
To keep updated on this project, check out the Livable Claiborne Communities Study.
Image credit: Skooksie, Flickr
Claiborne Avenue circa 1960 (source top, The Times Picayune) and Claiborne Expressway/Interstate 10 above Claiborne Avenue today
Oak trees painted on to the concrete columns of the Claiborne Expressway (left); Decorative art livens the concrete atmosphere underneath the expressway (right), source: UNOP
Existing conditions of current highway structure, source: UNOP
Proposed removal of Interestate 10, source: UNOP
"Local Street Networks and the Future of Claiborne Avenue"- In December 201, CNU and the Claiborne Corridor Improvement Coalition brought together local and national experts to explore the transportation implications for a potential highway teardown project. Speakers included: Eric Dumbaugh, John Norquist, Councilmember Kristin Palmer, Bill Gilchrist and John Renne. Click on the link above to view the event on YouTube: December lecture video.