Bywater residents celebrate recent debut of multi-service Health Center on St. Claude Avenue. Photo by Alexei Kazantsev, used by permission.

By Michael T. Martin, The Lens contributing opinion writer |

With the opening of the Healing Center and the possibility of extending streetcar service all the way to Poland Avenue, it’s time to accord the St. Claude Avenue corridor the attention due to an “up-and-coming” neighborhood that is emerging as a New Orleans success story.

The avenue, a state highway, serves as the main commercial corridor for the Marigny, St. Roch, St. Claude and Bywater neighborhoods, an area that since Hurricane Katrina has attracted dynamic but heterogeneous development.

Art galleries, cafés and music venues share sidewalk space with fried chicken restaurants, beauty supply stores, and corner groceries with cash registers behind bulletproof glass.

And these are not the only dichotomous relationships on the avenue. The population mix is also a combination of newcomers and more established, if less privileged, old-timers.

Downtown neighborhoods have become havens for many young, highly educated transplants interested in urban living with a distinct cultural edge. In fact, living on “the edge” and experiencing “the struggle” is part of the draw. Lack of a full-service grocery store in the area, for example, has made urban gardening the height of hip.

At the same time, these downtown neighborhoods have long been home to lower and middle-income African-Americans who, over the past half-century, have stayed true to the neighborhood during its period of decline and more recent resurrection.

Bearing current and future needs in mind, I believe it’s time to formulate a master plan for the St. Claude Avenue corridor, one assuring that development is responsive to the community’s diverse character, but above all, is equitable.

Fear of gentrification is palpable among long-time tenants. The immediate danger is that they will be priced out of their homes by rising rents and increasing property values. Longer term, the area is confronted by a paradox: that its charm – the very thing that makes it “hip” – will be destroyed by the developers it attracts, one unsanctioned second-line and graffiti-ed building at a time.  These fears should not be brushed aside; they are real and evidence-based. (See: Williamsburg, Brooklyn; San Francisco’s Mission District; Downtown Los Angeles; Wicker Park, Chicago).

But while urgently important, fear must not impose a moratorium on development. Not only is the corridor lacking in many basic amenities, a decent-sized grocery store being only one of them, but there is also an overabundance of vacant and blighted buildings along St. Claude Avenue that could be rehabilitated to house much-needed providers of goods and services.

Boosters of the area must be as inclusive as possible, build alliances with each other, and take community wishes into account, while at the same time upholding relevant city planning values. The Equitable Development Toolkit, a collection of documents put together by the urban think-tank PolicyLink, can be of tremendous help in developing a master plan for the corridor.

The Healing Center, the Rice Mill apartment complex, the possible streetcar to Poland Avenue and Reinventing the Crescent Park along the riverfront are harbingers of accelerating development on or near the St. Claude Avenue corridor.  It is imperative that the corridor be recognized not simply for what it is now, but what for what it might be in the near future.

Visions for the corridor are as varied as the disparate neighborhoods it cuts through. A good master plan will reflect that variety while striving to achieve the broad consensus that preserves it. That requires community buy-in, the sense of trust that comes when both risks and opportunities are meted out equitably.

Michael T. Martin is a Bywater resident and a member of the St. Claude Main Street board. He works at the New Orleans Startup Fund, a non-profit that provides venture capital for early-stage businesses, and is pursuing a graduate degree at UNO in community-based urban planning.