The Lower Nine can’t get a break.
Four years ago — overriding vehement, community-wide opposition and the dubious authenticity of a petition cooked up by a PR firm — the City Council approved a mixed-used riverfront development with 284 units and 500 parking spaces on the abandoned 14-acre campus of the old Holy Cross School.
Fortunately, that turkey didn’t fly. Nothing got built.
Now the proposal is back. Trimmed to 142 units and about 150 parking spaces, it remains architecturally ugly and an egregiously poor fit for an historic neighborhood.
Hundreds of empty lots throughout the Lower Nine remain unbuilt since the New Orleans Recovery Authority (NORA) gave the bulk of them — apparently the choicest — to not-for-profit organizations that don’t have the money for construction. Lot owners wanting and ready to build often don’t qualify for a mortgage and no subsidy is available.
No wonder observers question why the Katrina-devastated neighborhood is reviving so slowly.
And now comes the Army Corps in a renewed spasm of effort that calls for widening the lock that leads into the Industrial Canal, the neighborhood’s western boundary. The scheme, officially known as the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Lock Replacement, promises to keep the Lower Nine mired in construction for, the Corps estimates, at least 13 years — at a cost variously estimated at up to a billion dollars.
Two major components comprise the plan, which dates back to 1956.
First: The St. Claude Avenue Bridge, that is definitely in need of maintenance and repair, will be replaced with a longer, higher drawbridge. Meanwhile traffic will be diverted to a temporary bridge over the canal. The higher bridge at St. Claude requires longer approach roads on both sides; it will start at least a block west of Poland Avenue and run into the Lower Nine for at least a block beyond Reynes Street.
The bridge would accommodate more barge traffic, which is great if you’re a shipment of sulfuric acid, but not so great if you’re a motorist trying to get to work and have to wait out longer intervals in which the drawbridge is raised.
As the Corps maintains, the barges that approach the lock two abreast, keep the bridges closed longer because both the narrower bridge and canal require that the barges be uncoupled to pass through one at a time. Unfortunately for motorists, a wider lock and channel will only lengthen closure times because the barge clusters will be larger.
A 1990s study by St. Bernard Parish engineers estimated that the widened canal would increase by 40 percent the amount of time that bridges are raised and impassable, said John Koeferl, president of Citizens Against Widening the Industrial Canal (CAWIC). The Corps has never disputed that finding, adds Koeferl, a Lower Nine homeowner who has been fighting the Corps for 30 years. The whole point of the project is, after all, to accommodate more vessels — mostly barges — at one time.
The Corps argues for the lock replacement by claiming that vessels now sometimes wait 15 hours to pass into the canal. Koeferl dismisses that number as “preposterous.” The truth, he contends, is that “they call ahead to announce they’re coming miles and hours away, but actually passing through goes reasonably quickly once they arrive. Koeferl muses: “Do you think companies would pay personnel to sit and wait that long?”
He dismisses the Corps’ claim that the widened lock and canal will eliminate tow delays. A 2007 study, commissioned by the CAWIC, pointed out that there are and will continue to be many causes for delay — weather, maintenance, repair, surface conditions, tow breakdowns. The 2007 study put it bluntly: “Under these circumstances, the virtual elimination of all tow delays would be impossible,” it said. “This increases the likelihood that the lock is not economically justifiable.”
Moreover, even with another billion dollars poured into it, the canal could become obsolete in decades to come as rail, pipelines and other shipping modalities gain favor — hasty obsolescence being a hallmark of recent Crops projects including the $14 billion levee reconstruction project that followed Hurricane Katrina. Completed last May, the so-called Hurricane Risk Reduction System, will cease to afford full protection in as little as four years, the Corps has conceded in an obscure filing unearthed by Scientific American.
Bridge delays aside, building a new lock to replace the old one presents complex problems of its own. No matter that the current lock was overhauled in 2016, a four-month job that cost $20 million, under the Corps’ plan the overhauled lock would be replaced by a new one 10 to 12 blocks deeper into the canal, around Galvez Street. The current lock would then be eradicated
Unfortunately, this would allow the Mississippi River to further encroach into the canal, raising water levels. With sea levels also rising, due to climate change, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to anticipate more frequent storm flooding — a peril to future development in both the Lower Nine and in St. Bernard Parish.
Meanwhile, who would want to live with more than a decade of construction and bridge delays that are guaranteed to worsen?
Corps spokesmen have told the community that in all likelihood, floodwalls will have to be raised to 25 feet all the way down to the river. Cost? Who knows? It hasn’t been estimated. Current walls are about 17 feet.
Mind you, this is part of the same plan, under the same set of permits, that gave us the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (a.k.a. MRGO or “Mr. Go”) — the promised boon to shipping that turned out to be not only underutilized but a “hurricane highway” that brought storm surge barreling right into the heart of the city during Katrina. The last Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was in 1997 and much has changed in 22 years.
After Katrina, $30 million of rock was dumped along Mr. Go at La Loutre Ridge off Shell Beach in St. Bernard. You might have thought that was the end of it, but no. Mr. Go was “deactivated,” not closed. The rock put an end to its use by big ships passing from the Gulf to the river. But shallow-draft vessels still ply the 75-mile waterway: i.e. pleasure craft and towed barges.
It is enough to take your breath away, this imperviousness of the Corps to the lives and will of local residents.
Two lawsuits have delayed the lock-replacement project but have failed to stop it, thanks to opposition from prospective beneficiaries: the barge companies inconvenienced by the existing lock and the need to uncouple their barges before passing through it. Their political tentacles are long and strong.
And what’s it going to cost taxpayers to make the barge business even more lucrative? Sky blue. The community has been told the cost estimate is $941.8 million. But if you don’t think that number will burst above the billion-dollar mark over more than 13 years, I’ve got another bridge to sell you, and this one’s in Brooklyn.
There’s another unknown:
Building the new lock at Galvez means fewer homes would be destroyed than the 200 at the current site. (Three owners on the Upper Nine side of the canal are known, so far, to have received notice that their homes may be taken, Koeferl says.) But the Galvez Street site poses a hazard of another kind: release of toxic chemicals.
Two bypass channels need to be built. This will require digging up both the alluvial soil that supports the rebuilt levee — including the trees that have grown up there — and the extremely toxic soil up near Galvez Street.
“We don’t know the impact and risk involved by disturbing the soil that holds up the flood walls,” says Koeferl. “Trees are there to stabilize the lock and levee,” he adds. “Any major digging in the channel risks unpredictable disturbance of strata under not just the canal but the city.”
Along with nearby military facilities, sludge from old paint and barium-production plants left a legacy so poisonous that the Environmental Protection Agency proposed designating the area a Superfund site. (The EPA was overridden by the Army Corps.)
“The Corps maintains that samplings indicate the area meets industrial standards,” notes Koeferl, “but we want them to meet residential standards.” And, he adds, the Corps has not said where they would take that dredged soil — yet another unestimated cost.
If costs are squirrelly, common sense says that the projected 13-year timeline to complete construction is also wishful thinking. The project would need to be funded annually by Congress. With floods, fires and storms linked to climate change already wreaking havoc across the nation, Congress is bound to come up with reasons to delete optional or unnecessary items from the Corps’ budget every so often — and one of the first items to get slashed is likely to be the annual disbursement for a project the Corps dreamed up in 1956 and that New Orleans has managed to do without ever since.
Roberta Brandes Gratz is an award-winning journalist and author of “Battle For Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs,” and most recently, “We’re Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City.” Radio personality and filmmaker Harry Shearer also contributed to the column. Gratz and Shearer are Lens board members.
The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.