Picture of paved neutral ground on O.C. Haley
Community groups have criticized the city's use of concrete for the neutral ground on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, saying it violates the administration's pledge to use porous construction materials. Researchers have shown that allowing stormwater to soak into the ground can reduce the subsidence that causes potholes and cracks concrete. Credit: Bob Marshall / The Lens

The restoration of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard to a thriving commercial strip in Central City has drawn praise from the Committee for a Better New Orleans.

Until last week.

That’s when some of its members saw the city replacing the narrow grass neutral ground on the historic boulevard with a wide concrete walkway.

“This is a line-in-the-sand moment,” said Keith Twitchell, president of the community organization. “It is against the city’s own plans.”

Since 2013, civic groups have championed replacing concrete throughout the city with porous materials that allow water to pass through. That’s when the landmark Urban Water Plan argued that the city has to learn how to live with rainwater rather than pump it out immediately. The report said impervious landscaping materials are a major reason that land in New Orleans is drying out and sinking, causing roller-coaster streets, tilting homes and pothole-ridden streets.

In 2014 the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans pledged to follow that plan as part of a consent decree settling a lawsuit by the federal government. The city’s 2015 Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance limits the total surface area that property owners can convert to non-porous surfaces.

Since then, the administration created the city’s first office for stormwater management and started a plan to use rain gardens and swales to capture more rainwater.

Civic groups responded with praise. But they have also railed about the city’s decision to rebuild the Napoleon Avenue neutral grounds with a rise in the center, which pushes rainwater into the street.

The work on the O.C. Haley neutral ground is part of a $1.85 million project to improve sidewalks and landscaping, install bike lanes and repave the roadway in the half-mile between Calliope and St. Andrew streets.

The narrow grass median has been replaced by a 16-foot wide neutral ground of concrete, textured to look like old stone pavers. Every 75 feet or so, a 7 by 12-foot section has been left open for plants.

Twitchell said that’s “contrary to the plans presented to the community, which showed the neutral ground being green.”

He said the paving of the neutral ground is worse than what happened on Napoleon because O.C. Haley is a city project. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers handled Napoleon, with input from the city.

The New Orleans Water Collaborative also criticized the new neutral ground on O.C. Haley. Its more than 300 individuals, businesses and organizations have pledged to adopt rainwater practices recommended in the Urban Water Plan.

Nathan Lott, the group’s coordinator, said members were “dismayed by the design. If the city wanted a hard surface so the neutral ground could have other uses, there are options such as porous pavers on top of gravel that would have accomplished both goals.”

Hayne Rainey, spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, said other features in the O.C. Haley project would offset any loss of rainwater storage from the concrete neutral ground.

“We are making improvements to allow the existing rain gardens to function more efficiently,” he said in an email. “Additionally, the project expands the width of the new neutral grounds and other grass covered areas.”

Twitchell wasn’t persuaded by that logic.

“So what?” he said in an email. “This area had had flooding, so why go for net neutral? Why not go for maximum impact?

“When is the city going to follow the urban stormwater plan and best practices?”

After this story was published, city spokesman Hayne Rainey sent an email about this story. You can read it in the comments below.

Bob Marshall

From 2013 to 2017, Bob Marshall covered environmental issues for The Lens, with a special focus on coastal restoration and wetlands. While at The Times-Picayune, his work chronicling the people, stories...