While the Livaudais Plantation was being parceled out in the 1830s to form the city’s fabled Garden District, New Orleans’ West End was already coming into its own as a lakeside resort and center of maritime commerce. Today, seven years after Hurricane Katrina, it stands as flashing beacon of stalled post-storm recovery. Never has the need been more urgent for the city to get off its duff and attend to the rehabilitation of this recreational jewel and potential economic engine.
Passing through the levee gates and into West End one enters a world of FEMA red tape and Army Corps indifference to interests other than its own. What one does not see are the numerous historic markers that would be appropriate to the sprawling oak-lined park and marina complex.
West End is where the second-oldest yacht club in the United States was founded, in 1849. Bruning’s, which opened in 1859 and was destroyed by Katrina, was the city’s third-oldest continuously running restaurant after Antoine’s and Tujaque’s. And West End was once the scene of a thriving jazz district accessible by streetcars from downtown. Greats such as Louis Armstrong regularly played there. The Higgins boats, the landing craft that Eisenhower said made the D-Day victory possible, were tested at West End. The historic list runs the gamut from the remnants of one of only two electric prismatic fountains still in existence to the training grounds that have produced 12 Olympic sailors and seven medals for the US, an accomplishment unrivaled by any other city.
Before the storm, West End was a bit neglected but nonetheless thriving, with successful seafood restaurants and a large group of small businesses, artisans and tradesmen who served the recreational and commercial boating world. Hundreds of people would trek out nightly for volleyball at Coconut Beach in the shadow of condo high-rises. On Wednesdays, West End hosted one of the nation’s largest starlight sailing regattas, with an average of 65 boats racing weekly.
Unfortunately, seven years after the storm many of these businesses are in dire straits or were wiped out completely by the pounding they took from Katrina. Residents and business people stare blankly as glacial bureaucracy and economic uncertainty undermine the rebuilding and enhancement of a recreational and commercial jewel.
Politically, West End is a difficult nut to crack. Multiple public and private entities have jurisdiction, including the two parishes the district straddles, Orleans and Jefferson. Part of the difficulty stems from West End having been originally developed on piers over a lake bottom controlled by the state. In the 1920’s the area was landfilled and reclaimed from Lake Pontchartrain with the state granting the city full administrative rights.
Over the decades, multiple government entities became involved and all now have a stake in West End: the two parishes, the Orleans Levee District, the Municipal Yacht Harbor Management Corp. and nearly 100 private parties who lease property over the water bottoms but own the physical improvements, chiefly boat houses. For added roux, after August 29, 2005, toss FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers into that gumbo.
In 2006 while Lakeview was being gutted and hundreds of boats rotted in Municipal Harbor, the City of New Orleans did what is arguably the best thing for West End – it turned the entire area north of the floodwalls over to the Municipal Yacht Harbor Management Corp. That put the Harbor Board in control of West End in its entirety, except for the small inner-harbor Orleans Marina, which is under the purview of the Orleans Levee District.
Created in 1979 as a public/private corporation under the direction of the mayor of New Orleans, the Harbor Board is now tasked with everything from running the marina to cutting the grass on West End’s 60-plus acres of parks and green space. Further, it is required by law to generate the funds needed to do this solely from West End enterprises, and all income must be reinvested in the area. For the past seven years, the Harbor Board has accomplished this by drawing on limited cash reserves.
As its kitty nears depletion, the Harbor Board has been forced to seek alternative revenue. The primary option, according to studies by the Regional Planning Commission, is to allow commercial development on large swaths of West End’s extensive parkland.
The largest public asset and income generator is the 595-slip Municipal Yacht Harbor, which was finally cleared of foundered boats in the summer of 2007. Today it offers about 160 boat slips leased at a heavily discounted rate, there being no utilities available. The marina is FEMA’s primary project in the West End—there are six others—and is eligible for what could amount to as much as $25 million in infrastructure improvements. Municipal Harbor is among the most expensive of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s “top 100” FEMA-eligible rebuilding projects.
An economic analysis by Michigan State University’s Recreational Marine Research Center shows that a public marina the size of Municipal Harbor located in the southeast United States should have a direct and indirect economic impact of $26 million every year and support 160 jobs on the Lakefront and surrounding neighborhoods. For lack of this economic engine, the marine service companies that have returned to the area are struggling.
Business owners are disheartened and feel West End is being ignored in favor of public investments elsewhere in the city. They ask how seven years could have passed without even a start to rebuilding a wooden fishing pier and a marina? And even if construction were to begin tomorrow, by most estimates it would be late 2015 before the Municipal Harbor reopens.
It’s not only about local boats and dollars either. West End, even with its unrepaired marine infrastructure, is home to rapidly growing national regattas because of our mild winters and midpoint location between the East and West coasts. The regattas draw competitors who bring in very expensive boats along with crews who stay in downtown hotels, patronize local bars and restaurants, and support the area’s marine businesses. Frank Hefner at the College of Charleston estimates that Charleston Race Week regatta brings in $2 million of direct spending over five days. The National Sailing Hall of Fame recently held its second induction ceremony out at West End, a clear signal of the area’s potential prominence on the nation’s regatta roster.
The primary culprits in this travesty are FEMA and the Army Corps. FEMA’s haggling has stalled the marina rehab, and the Army Corps has requisitioned the parking lot and footprints of the old seafood restaurants at West End – the most valuable commercial real estate on the Lakefront. This easily redeveloped space is being used as a staging yard during construction of the permanent pumping station for the 17th Street Canal, an industrial-strength eyesore, replete with diesel tank farm that will become the gateway to West End.
This valuable real estate has and will be held in limbo by the Corps for a minimum of six more years to store materials and equipment with zero compensation to the Harbor Board. This has forced the Harbor Board to consider permanently hacking up historic parks for commercial development. The Corps and their failed flood protections have already left lasting scars on the city; their remediation efforts should not add insult to these injuries.
The uncertainty surrounding future Army Corps work also has an inhibiting effect on West End’s revival, and directly resulted in the loss of the very successful Coconut Beach volleyball complex to Kenner. A more open process, involving public review of contractor plans and designs, is long overdue.
The fate of the once popular restaurants is the gravest concern; they are more than likely lost. The Corps holds that they want to ensure there’s a free flow of water from the 17th Street Canal during the one or two times a year the gates would be closed and the pumps roaring. The Corps’ alleged concern is that debris would snag on the restaurant piers, causing a logjam or that the water pressure would scour around the pilings and cause potential instability. But if this were more than an assertion of political egotism on the Corps’ part, wouldn’t they long since have removed the hundreds of restaurant piers still standing? A simple solution has long since been implemented in Miami and along the Mississippi Coast: Allow restaurants to build on floating barges and charge them long-term docking fees.
Sure, West End needs to make sacrifices for the safety of the city as a whole, but in that same spirit can’t the pumping stations be designed in ways that respect and support the area’s commercial and recreational traditions? Confronted with citizen resistance, too often the Army Corps invokes its all-purpose reply to detailed questions: “You don’t want the city to flood again, do you?”
No, clearly we don’t want the city to flood again. Neither do we want West End reduced to a supply dump when, with a little leadership from City Hall, it could be so much more.
West End is this river city’s other waterfront and home to a maritime culture that could again become robust. No one at West End is asking for a handout; they are asking for government at all levels to stop shuffling papers and get to the business of rebuilding.
The other two public marinas in Orleans Parish have been rebuilt as have all of the public marinas on the Mississippi Coast, and new ones are under construction. A stone’s throw across the 17th Street Canal, the new Bucktown Marina is rising along with future plans for restaurants and fuel stations and the tax revenue they will generate.
A few years ago, the City of New Orleans erected a sign outside the harbor: “Our Recovery in Progress – Municipal Yacht Harbor.” A couple of homemade bumper stickers were slapped on it almost immediately. The first said: “Katrina Damaged in 2005;” the second read: “Sign Erected in 2008”. Two years ago a third bumper sticker appeared: “Still Waiting in 2010.” The sign was removed before it attracted yet more stickers. The very real economic losses continue, however.
Troy Gilbert is a freelance journalist and author who covers the environment, sailing, travel, history and culinary topics. He is a third-generation resident of the New Orleans Lakefront.