In a stunning example of “planning by surprise,” New Orleanians who visit our world-famous waterfront are witnessing the construction of a new, unsightly docking facility by a private, commercial enterprise that will permanently mar one of the best vantage points of the Mississippi River.
To add insult to injury, it is happening without a city permit.
Without public input or public process, the privately owned New Orleans Steamboat Company is permanently barricading off a section of the Vieux Carré’s Woldenberg Park, in front of the riverfront pavilion on Toulouse Street, for their new paddlewheeler, ironically named The City of New Orleans.
The ship, its docking facility and queuing area, including a gangway with guardrails, will not only limit views of the mighty Mississippi; it will obstruct them.
This proposed location, one of the most beautiful spots for seeing and experiencing the Mississippi River, is where the Woldenberg promenade juts out at a 90-degree angle, creating the most expansive vista. This is also the location of the beloved pavilion where bands perform for festivals such as French Quarter Fest and where newlyweds exchange vows. The location provides a picturesque background enjoyed by both residents and tourists alike.
Pedestrians will now be diverted from the river’s edge. Garbage, liquor, and supplies will be hauled up and down— again and again — to the service building further inland. Once built, the landing and docked boat will destroy a wide vista enjoyed from most of the park.
After learning their maritime industrial use required a conditional permit from the city, the New Orleans Steamboat Company held a noontime meeting on February 2, 2019, as part of the Neighborhood Participation Process (NPP). This was almost an afterthought, since they had already installed new bollards at the wharf’s edge and had built the boat. According to city guidelines, the company had six months thereafter to file for its conditional-use permit, which is required when the impact of a project requires special consideration.
It’s important to note that no conditional use may be established and no building permit may be issued for any conditional use until a conditional-use ordinance is adopted by the City Council and final drawings are submitted to and approved by the Executive Director of the City Planning Commission. That process should include ample opportunity for citizen input and discussion.
Louisiana Landmarks Society and the Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents and Associates (VCPORA), among others, have been diligently watching for and inquiring about the follow up steps in the process, yet none occurred after that initial NPP meeting in the allotted time.
Then, months after the six-month deadline — without any public process, without any notice — neighborhood activists observed continued construction. Now we are learning from city officials that, after getting pushback from preservation organizations, the New Orleans Steamboat Company apparently shifted strategies — abandoning the NPP process — deeming it suddenly unnecessary. Instead, the Port of New Orleans is claiming the riverfront as its jurisdiction, and has given the New Orleans Steamboat Company its blessing, thus aborting public due process altogether.
Citizens should rightly view these actions as a blatant grab of public parkland for a private, commercial enterprise. Such actions go directly against our city’s Master Plan which, in fact, specifically calls for the opposite: expanding access and expanding parks and public spaces along the Mississippi River.
Moreover, the Master Plan also calls for no loss of land dedicated to parks. Volume 2, Chapter 7, 5.A clearly states that the Plan’s goal is to “create parks and public spaces along the Mississippi River… and ensure access is kept open to general public and not dominated by specialized use facilities.”
When citizens voted on May 4 to reapportion the city’s parks millage, it was done in the hope that the guaranteed funding stream would help achieve the objectives set forth in the Master Plan – and alleviate the monetization of our greenspace with private and commercial enterprises.
This begs the question: Do city leaders and our citizens have any input as to what happens with our riverfront?
We hope the answer is that our riverfront is for all, not just for tourists queued up to ride a riverboat and for one company’s profits. Without process and citizen input, there is nothing to stop a long line of private commercial enterprises blocking our riverfront, subject only to the whims of the Port.
Sandra Stokes is the Chair of Advocacy for Louisiana Landmarks Society, an organization she recently served as president. She was the first recipient of the Peter Brink Award for Individual Achievement in Historic Preservation from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and in 2011 was named Preservationist of the Year by Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation.
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