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Study to Tear Down New Orleans Claiborne Expressway Asks Hard Questions About the Future of Neighborhoods

Once thought of as a boon for businesses, the expressway is now considered by many as a scar on NOLA’s urban fabric

By Charles Linn, FAIA

Last October, the City of New Orleans received a $2 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER II) grant that it will use to study the implications of demolishing up to two miles of a section of U.S. Interstate 10, known to local residents as the Claiborne Expressway. The expressway is a six-lane elevated freeway that was constructed 45 years ago, directly over Claiborne Avenue, one of New Orleans’ beloved boulevards. It is generally acknowledged as being the city’s most hated piece of infrastructure.

Claiborne Avenue was one of the African-American community’s most important streets. Vaughn Fauria, president of New Corp, a New Orleans nonprofit that provides technical and financial assistance to small, women- and minority-owned businesses, grew up nearby. She recalls Claiborne as a pair of broad streets separated by a wide, grassy neutral ground lined with stately oaks. It was often used as a gathering spot for picnics, and even had its own Mardi Gras parade. “Our businesses were located on that street,” she says. “And the building of the interstate began the demise of our economy.”

A target of opportunity

The construction of freeways through densely populated urban areas seemed like a good idea in the 1960s. The car was king, and suburbs were growing rapidly. In New Orleans, businesspeople feared that their central business district would fall into decline unless high-speed, limited-access roads were built to it. But in New Orleans and elsewhere, the result was the wholesale destruction of many so-called blighted neighborhoods, particularly those populated by minorities. The Claiborne Avenue corridor was a target of opportunity. The land for the project did not have to be acquired from individuals because the city already owned it.

Residents of the French Quarter managed to stop a similar grade-separated highway that would have divided that neighborhood from the Mississippi River. The residents along Claiborne Avenue were not so successful. “The residents had no voice,” says Fauria, who also serves as co-chair of the Claiborne Corridor Improvement Coalition. “Well,” she corrects herself, “they definitely had voices. They were just not being heard.”

A report released last summer for the Claiborne Corridor Improvement Coalition and the Congress for the New Urbanism called “Restoring Claiborne Avenue” is credited with taking the idea of removing the expressway out of the realm of speculation and assigning real facts and figures to it. Waggonner and Ball Architects, of New Orleans, and Smart Mobility, a Vermont-based traffic-consulting firm, coauthored it. The report gives a comprehensive history of the Claiborne Expressway, and suggests alternate schemes for demolishing different sections of the road.

New Orleans architect David Waggonner, FAIA, is among those who believe removal is the only way the Tremé, Lafitte, and Seventh Ward neighborhoods torn apart by the six-lane colossus can ever be healed. “It was an urban disaster to run that freeway through there,” Waggonner says. “[But], if we are going to be constructive we have to resolve many issues in a holistic way.”

The ongoing debate about the Claiborne Expressway and the future of the neighborhoods it crouches over is just one of the issues bound up in the theme of the 2011 AIA National Convention--Regional Design Revolution: Ecology Matters. The convention and the expressway debate alike are about neighborhoods reasserting themselves, evolving attitudes on urban transit infrastructure, and how different scales of urban design can come together sustainably to form entire cities and regions. The convention holds a microscope up to a city that’s seen incredible design challenges and transitions forced its way (like the expressway), and asks architects to provide solutions.

And the issues that will be studied under New Orleans’ TIGER II grant are complex. For example, some residents fear that putting the highway’s traffic on surface roads will cause gridlock. However, John Norquist, the president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, points out that removing the expressway may actually improve the situation. “It is kind of counterintuitive,” he says. “A lot of the origins and destinations are in New Orleans itself, which means at rush hour, you might actually have shorter time trips. A boulevard functions better than a highway when you have peak loading.”

Waggonner also points out that Interstate 610, which cuts straight across the north side of New Orleans, and Interstate 12, north of Lake Pontchartrain, carry most of the area’s through traffic. “Less than 20 percent of drivers use I-10 as a route between east and west. It is not fulfilling its original purpose anymore,” he says.

Few can argue against the fact that removing the Claiborne Expressway would decrease noise and air pollution and create opportunities for public transit. About 50 acres of property would be freed up for public use for parks, bike paths, or transit corridors. However, the best argument for removal may be that the structure has exceeded its service life and is crumbling. According to the National Bridge Inventory of the Federal Highway Administration, $50 million in improvements and repairs are already needed. Ramps and interchanges do not conform to current safety standards, and choices must soon be made about whether they should be replaced or removed.

Even if the highway is repaired, it’s still not going to bring lost businesses back to the neighborhood. And to reverse New Orleans’ economic misfortunes, homegrown businesses that serve local neighborhoods must be made to flourish. “Any economic development specialist who came to New Orleans would recognize that we need to increase our tax base considerably, especially using commercial taxation,” says Fauria. “They would look at this area beneath the highway and see a boon. With its proximity to the river and the French Quarter, there is not a better place to regrow our indigenous businesses.”

Not so fast. . . ?

Wrecking balls will not be swinging anytime soon. William Gilchrist, FAIA, New Orleans’ director of place-based planning, cautions that it is not certain that the upcoming study will conclude that the Claiborne Expressway should be demolished, though he shares some of the same goals as the tear-down advocates. “We have to walk into this with no prejudice towards outcome,” he says. “Our overall goal is for improving circulation, for improving neighborhood investment opportunities, and to stabilize those communities along the corridor.”

He says the city is in the process of finalizing the terms of the grant with the federal government, and RFPs will go to potential consultants this summer. After that, an analysis could take two years. “We are going to have to go through an alternatives analysis where we are going to look at different options for achieving these stated goals,” Gilchrist says. “It may be at the end of the day the recommendation is not to take down the elevated roadway. It is one alternative, but it may not be the one that is finally adopted.”

For those advocating the expressway’s demise, it may take this time just to win over those who, ironically, would seem to stand to gain the most from demolition. According to Fauria, “After Katrina, people said, ‘We thought we couldn’t trust you, now we know we can’t trust you. So, if I thought I was going to let you take down the bridge then, I’m not sure I’m going to let you do it now.’ We had such poor leadership after the hurricane that many possibilities weren’t realized and will never be realized,” she says. “That’s why it is so critical that we get this one right.”


With the expressway removed, Claiborne Avenue could be a broad, tree-lined, and pedestrian friendly street. All images courtesy of Mac Ball, Waggonner and Ball Architects, 2010.


The Claiborne corridor as it is today.


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The AIA’s resource knowledge base can connect you to the AIA Best Practices article, “Lessons Learned: Urban Planning in New Orleans.”

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