(Amy Stelly)

Dear Mayor Landrieu,

It’s been a while since I’ve written to you about Treme. Thank you for repairing the ladies’ shower stall floors and installing showers on the pool deck at the community center. And many thanks for the sparkly lights over the pool. They’re great additions that make the natatorium look clean and fresh!

I’d also like to thank you for funding scholarships for me and 19 other citizens to enroll in the community development finance class at UNO. It’s a great class and a very worthy expenditure of funds from the Claiborne Corridor’s redevelopment budget. But what I find most amazing is the way the lessons we’re learning about community development contrast with the city’s proposal to jumpstart redevelopment in the corridor.

The Network for Economic Opportunity, a city agency, is proposing to create a Cultural Innovation District (CID) in the Claiborne Corridor under Interstate 10. The plan features a marketplace with commercial kitchens. The proposed marketplace is slated to be built between Orleans and Esplanade avenues.

Early renderings suggested that vendors would be housed in dressed-up shipping containers.  But the prototype  that was published by The Network in the November 2017 Community Design Charrette Report looks like a cage. It has all the charm of a dog kennel. Would you put these boxes in your neighborhood, Mayor Landrieu, or install them on Napoleon or St. Charles avenues? Of course you wouldn’t!

The plan envisions crate-like shops and eateries which the author contends have all the charm of kennels.

The whole notion of putting any type of “development” under I-10 is alarming. To begin with, it’s a challenging environment for seasoned business owners, let alone upstart entrepreneurs.

The plan calls for stand-alone bathrooms. There are lots of prostitutes in Treme, and they ply their trade along Claiborne. Providing amenities for them under the Interstate is sure to have unwelcome side effects. On top of that, the food emporiums will have to operate with generators.

What if there’s a fire?  We’ll be reliving the recent tire fire that closed parts of the high rise, except this part of the highway’s deck will be closer to the flames!

The intent to create an innovation district as a vehicle for redevelopment is noble. We all support development in the corridor, but the plan has to be thoughtful and good. As noted by Claiborne Reborn, the community group I’m affiliated with, The Network has never stated what the innovation really is. Based on their proposed plan, the district, which stretches from Tulane to St. Bernard avenues, is best described as an entertainment venue and marketplace featuring those crate-like units.

They’ve never discussed the urban planning aspirations and goals with the community and how we might realize them, or what the district should look like.  Should it be established as a zoning overlay with architectural guidelines to better curate the redevelopment of the corridor? This question is especially important since the proposed CID abuts historic neighborhoods and will dramatically impact an historic corridor.

There are zoning issues that further complicate the plan. The proposed site is a patchwork of 10 zoning districts that run along the river and lake sides of Claiborne.  All of the proposed uses straddle two zoning districts with the exception of one, which spans four districts! And that use, an Outdoor Amusement Facility featuring a skateboard park, a roller skating rink and vendors, is prohibited in one of the districts. So you can’t build it at all!  The outdoor amphitheater at St. Peter Street can’t be built either. It’s prohibited in one of its districts, too. And it’s important to note that the proposed bioswales will require a conditional-use permit.

Neither the architects, nor the landscape architects, nor the engineers, nor the non-profit managing partner, nor the staff, has done due diligence. Why are we rewarding them with taxpayers’ money? This plan is “bad enough to go to jail,” as the saying goes. So it must be legally rectified before moving on. And the city should set a positive example by following the law.

The Network refused to field questions during their session at the summit, only deepening community worries.

Many have been asking who made the decision to follow the current strategy, and when was that decision made? It’s one of three options proposed in the $2 million Livable Claiborne Communities study, a project jointly funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation. However, at the city’s recent Neighborhood Summit, The Network’s cadre of consultants only presented the options that supported their proposal. They intentionally failed to let the community know that the study also proposed the removal of the elevated Interstate as a strategy to restore the corridor. That was disingenuous, to say the least.

The Network’s presentation did reveal that this proposal is a resurrection of ideas from a 1970 s plan. But here’s the rub: the context has changed. The plan is more than 40 years old, and the elevated expressway is 50 years old! Why are we even considering a proposal to build under an aged-out highway without discussing its future? Moreover, the city’s Climate Action Strategy calls for a 50 percent reduction in auto traffic over the next 12 years as we move toward multi-modal transit options. Why aren’t we looking at removing I-10 in support of this goal? Its continued existence defies city policy, and perhaps sanity as well.

To be clear, the proposed strategy will never right the social, economic and place-based injustices heaped upon the community by the construction of the Interstate monster in the first place. Furthermore, we would be remiss if we didn’t discuss the proposal’s privatization of publicly owned land, rather than its restoration as public open space. The community would be better served by improving the existing building stock, constructing infill on vacant land and properly restoring the median instead of pursuing a proposal to build beneath the deteriorated overpass.

What’s even more troubling is that the community engagement for this project has been exclusionary. The Network refused to field questions during their session at the summit, only deepening community worries. After the presentation, neighborhood leaders plastered the proposed site plan  with a sea of red stickies, enumerating a ton of concerns. The Network’s previous meetings catered to special interests rather than the affected residential and business communities. And, as we’ve learned in our community-development finance class, meaningful, inclusive engagement is fundamental to good community development.

To make matters worse, The Network for Economic Opportunity hasn’t done any market analysis. Therefore, they can’t answer serious questions: What are the real needs of the residents and merchants who live and work in the Claiborne Corridor? Do we need more retail? More services? More affordable housing? Would we be better served by a unique mix of uses? Better yet, who is the district really meant to serve? The things I really need aren’t sold in a cage.

The Network estimates that it will cost $1.9 million to build the first phase of their plan. Why isn’t this money being used to develop a real and sustainable business incubator on vacant land or in one of the large, vacant buildings at St. Bernard Avenue? The business owners in the corridor have been neglected for years. What is The Network planning for them?

There hasn’t been any discussion about the homeless under I-10, either. Is there a proposal to help them relocate? Moorish fountains have been proposed for their campsite. So they’ll have to move. Quite frankly, there hasn’t been an honest discussion about any of the social issues or the poor health outcomes resulting from sustained exposure to emissions. The city collected this data in collaboration with the Trust for Public Land. There’s no reason to avoid having a meaningful discussion.

The August floods swamped Circle Foods. The Claiborne plan does not realistically address the issue. Credit: Rahn Broady

And, finally, the proposed site plan does not realistically address flooding. We’ve all seen the paradoxically beautiful photographs of a flooded Circle Food Store. But the plan proposes a nebulous Spirit Circle and light installation at St. Bernard Avenue, steps away from the beleaguered grocery. Further west, near the bioswales in Back-A-Town Plaza, the plan calls for movies to be projected from the elevated highway onto the St. Louis Cemetery walls, a feature that some will see as sacrilegious.

In sum, the proposed plan for the Cultural Innovation District is an inadequate response to history, to community and to the conditions that we face along the corridor. The social and economic woes of this community can’t be solved by turning North Claiborne into a winding snake that surrounds pods of vendors, stages and misplaced design and landscape elements that block access to the neighborhood. It will take a lot more. So, Mayor Landrieu, I trust that you will not go forward with your plan to build a piece of this ill-conceived scheme in time for a Tricentennial photo-op. Regardless of the satisfaction you might get  personally, it would be a show of utter disregard for our community.

Think about it this way: New Orleans is a city of boulevards. They make this place breathtakingly beautiful. The boulevards form the city’s bone structure and determine how it looks and how it moves. They influence the vibrancy of the economy and the spirit of the culture. So when one boulevard ails, the entire city ails. That’s why it’s incumbent upon all of us to thoughtfully plan a beautiful and sustainable Claiborne Corridor.

Sincerely yours,

Amy F. Stelly

Amy Stelly is an artist, designer and planner who lives in Treme. She is a member of Claiborne Reborn, a coalition of residents and property and business owners committed to the renewal of the Claiborne Corridor.

Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.