By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

After more than a year of delay, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration soon will begin a long-anticipated federally funded study of how to revitalize the North Claiborne Avenue corridor, his planning director Bill Gilchrist said this week.

The study, which is expected to take more than a year of work by a city-contracted consultant, will be partially financed by a $2 million grant awarded to the city by President Barack Obama’s administration in October of 2010.

The study will look at the feasibility of redeveloping the city’s busiest interior highway, including the possibility of demolishing the elevated Interstate 10 expressway between Elysian Fields Avenue and the Pontchartrain Expressway, near the Superdome. A private study done by the Congress for the New Urbanism found that returning Claiborne to the street grid by turning the expressway into a multilane boulevard would cause minimal traffic delays — four to six minutes differences in most trips, traffic planners say — while reconnecting historic neighborhoods, making them more tourist-friendly and attractive for investment.

Built in the 1960s, the 2.2-mile highway’s construction destroyed the tree-lined commercial spine of the Treme neighborhood. For decades, neighbors have criticized it as an emission-spewing wall dividing vibrant downtown communities from less-affluent neighbors, and discouraging investment.

“It never should’ve been built, and it has never been a healthy neighbor to my community,” said Vaughn Fauria, president of NewCorp business assistance center nearby on St. Bernard Avenue.

And while many area residents, business owners and real-estate developers share that view, others are skeptical the move would benefit the people who have made home in theinterstate’s shadow.

Conde Monier, 25, and a business management student at Dillard University, could hear the interstate from his childhood bedroom in the 7th Ward. In February, he and his family opened a barebones daiquiri shop in a strip mall on Claiborne, near Laharpe St., Just Chill Food and Daiquiris. The expressway’s rumble is Monier’s white noise. Its traffic breaks up his skyline.

“It’s what I see,” he said recently.

Monier points to a blue Ford Expedition parked under the elevated highway.

“That guy parks there every day during his lunch break and takes a nap,” he said. He points to a faded painting of an oak tree on one of the highway’s concrete beams. “That’s where the second lines come.”

Conde Monier owns a daiquiri shop on Claiborne opposite the elevated Interstate. He questions how its demolition will benefit him. Photo by Ariella Cohen

The dreadlocked entrepreneur doesn’t believe that tearing down the expressway would benefit his business, or the second line parade-goers that refuel at his shop.

“Destruction is not where you start,” he said. “They say they want to tear down to build up. I feel like they are really tearing it down so then they have a reason to tell people not to be here, not to hang out here.”

Others share his doubts.

At a forum on the future of the interstate held Tuesday at the Louisiana Humanities Center, one person in the audience raised her hand to ask why more neighborhood residents hadn’t been surveyed on the issue.  A young man asked if planners were considering that that overpass was being used, if only as shelter from rain and sun during Mardi Gras parades and second lines.

For the older generation that remembers the shopping on a tree-lined, pre-interstate Claiborne, opposition to tearing down the intrusion is almost nonsensical.

On Wednesday afternoon, Conde Monier’s mother, Crystal Clay, sat behind the counter of her son’s empty daiquiri shop and reminisced.

“Tearing it down would be good for business,” she said. “Right now, people get on the freeway and they just keep going, never even seeing us down here.”

“Don’t you think?” she prodded her son.

The decision belongs to Landrieu and the federal government, which the mayor will depend on to help finance either a demolition of the highway or needed repairs that the Federal Highway Administration estimates will cost more than $50 million. The forthcoming study of Claiborne will weigh the cost of tearing down the expressway, as well as the cost of alternatives.

Advocates say removing the expressway will be cheaper over the long term than continuing to maintain the aging structure. For context, in Milwaukee, it cost about $45 million in 2002 to demolish a one-mile stretch of highway and reconstruct the road. The city, the state and the federal government shared the cost. Under the terms of the federal planning grant,  the city must contribute at least $758,000 in money or services as a match.

John Norquist, who was mayor of Milwaukee when it dismantled the inner-city highway and is now president of the Congress for the New Urbanism said it would have cost about $80 million to rebuild the Milwaukee freeway. Norquist’s group co-sponsored Tuesday’s forum, with a coalition of neighborhood groups called NewCity Neighborhood Partnership.

While Landrieu has remained somewhat taciturn about the potential teardown, the move would be aligned with his stated commitment to building a denser, more bike-  and pedestrian-friendly downtown. Gilchrist appears on board.

“This could be a tremendous opportunity to reconnect two of the city’s most historic neighborhoods,” he said Tuesday. “This could be a game-changer.”