CNU pushes to undo highway mistake in Big Easy

New Orleans — long-revered by CNU members for its world-class urban fabric and the site of intense new urbanist-led recovery planning following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — is the latest community to seriously consider removing an elevated freeway in order to stimulate economic and cultural renewal in an important corridor.

After putting the elevated Claiborne Expressway, which runs through New Orleans’ Tremé and lower Mid-City neighborhoods just northwest of the French Quarter, on its 2008 “Freeways Without Futures” list of the ten urban highways with the most potential for conversion to surface boulevards, CNU and its coalition partners initiated a flurry of actions this summer that boosted the prospects of those hoping to replace the overpass with a boulevard featuring a restored New Orleans median, or “neutral ground” as they’re called locally.

The activity centered around the July release of Restoring Claiborne Avenue: Alternatives for the Future of Claiborne Avenue, commissioned by CNU and its partners in the Claiborne Corridor Improvement Coalition and authored by Smart Mobility and Waggonner & Ball Architects. CNU and coalition partners complemented the release with a busy two-and-a-half days of briefings with elected officials, a lunchtime community meeting and extensive print and broadcast press outreach. For a few days before Tropical Storm Bonnie threatened the Louisana Coast, CNU’s teardown proposal was front-page news in New Orleans, with an active and growing coalition working to turn the new attention into steady momentum.

Demolition of the aging elevated expressway would remove an eyesore that has dominated and damaged the Tremé landscape for more than 40 years and held back serious attempts to spur economic development. Claiborne Avenue had long served as the main street for the city’s African-American and Creole business, music, and culture. The replacement of its oak-lined median with an elevated expressway occurred over the protests of largely disenfranchised residents and set off a long decline of the corridor.

Plans go back to 1976
The new campaign builds on planning efforts stretching as far back as Clifton James’ and Dr. Rudy Lombard’s 1976 “Claiborne Avenue Design Team Report,” commissioned by the Louisiana Department of Highways. With the highways-to-boulevards movement that CNU has championed, giving the idea new life, James became a founding co-chair of the diverse new coalition working to evaluate needs in the corridor and re-establish Claiborne as “a healthy, vibrant boulevard to serve as an anchor for the immediate neighborhoods and the whole city of New Orleans.” Other co-chairs of the Claiborne Corridor Coalition Improvement Coalition include CNU board member and Smart Growth for Louisiana officer Jack Davis, Tremé businesswoman and civic activist Vaughn Fauria and Jim Kelly, an executive with Providence Community Housing and Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Signing on as a coalition member, CNU successfully sought support from the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts to bring technical assistance and expertise with highways-to-boulevards transitions to the cause. Called wacky when it resurfaced a couple years ago, the idea of replacing the Claiborne overpass with a restored boulevard has been rapidly gaining currency lately: the city’s new draft master plan gives it serious consideration and just a week before the CNU team made its late-July trip to New Orleans, the city’s Mayor Mitch Landrieu told a ULI luncheon audience that the project could be a “game changer” and that it deserved to be explored.

First detailed traffic impact analysis

In this context, the CNU report acts as something of a game changer itself by providing the first detailed traffic impact analysis of several teardown options and by concluding that they’re feasible from a traffic perspective and beneficial economically. Restoring Claiborne also strengthens the case for the next needed step: a comprehensive engineering study of formal plans to replace segments of freeway and restore the boulevard, as recommended in the draft of the New Orleans Master Plan. That study would involve coordination among the City of New Orleans, the Regional Planning Commission and the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.

Study co-authors from the transportation engineering and modeling firm Smart Mobility, which specializes in innovative urbanist transportation solutions, used state traffic data to compare transportation system performance under both the current configuration and scenarios that would replace all or part of the freeway between the Pontchartrain Expressway and Elysian Fields Avenue.  It finds  that a boulevard and nearby surface streets would have ample capacity to absorb and efficiently move traffic in the absence of the freeway. The majority of drivers use the Claiborne for short trips and would see minimal increases in travel time and benefits from fewer surface street obstructions. Even those using the freeway for longer trips would see small increases in travel times, just 2-3 minutes under one scenario and 3-6 minutes under another that would replace a longer stretch of freeway. The report is available for download at

Signs of the coalition’s penetration of key New Orleans civic circles were ample. The coalition followed a promising meeting with Mayor Landrieu on July 20 with a substantial lunchtime community meeting the next day at the legendary Dooky Chase’s restaurant in Tremé, where President Obama has dined multiple times, bookending this activity with briefings of city council members Jon Johnson, Kristin Palmer, and Stacy Head. The New Orleans Times-Picayune made the release of the report its top story in both its e-mail alert and print edition, which was extensively illustrated with both historical and current photographs and renderings of the restored boulevard. Between busy days, coalition members relaxed at a jazz camp fundraiser under flowering myrtle trees in the manicured yard of co-chair Vaughn Fauria’s historic Gentilly home, alongside New Orleans jazz legends such as Ellis Marsalis and Deacon John Moore, who joked about experiencing the funeral of the character he played on the HBO series Tremé.

The project would free up 50 acres of freeway-covered parking lots and empty lots for public neutral ground, bike paths, transit corridors, and redevelopment. Although political and financial challenges still lie ahead, the project would ultimately be a money-saver, since the expressway is in need of $50 million in short-term repairs to deteriorating interchanges and a full rebuild after that. With aspects of the restoration of Claiborne Avenue being considered for inclusion in federal TIGER 2/Sustainable Communities grant applications, project backers have cause for optimism.

“When John Norquist started actively pushing this three years ago, I thought we’d be lucky to get this in the public spotlight in a decade or two,” says Davis. “But almost overnight we’ve helped make this one of the top issues in New Orleans ­— with surprisingly broad popular support and encouragement from our new mayor and key members of the City Council. This monster just might be down before Mitch Landrieu finishes his second term.”

“Claiborne Avenue was an elegant setting in a neighborhood with important economic and cultural value,” says John Norquist. “If the avenue is restored, a great wrong can be righted and new opportunities pursued.”