(Amy Stelly)

This article first appeared in Common Edge.

Architect David Waggonner calls the effort to tear down the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans — an elevated urban highway that cuts through the historic neighborhood of Treme — a “hero’s project,” and he’s right: removing it is a monumental political, cultural, and logistical challenge. But there’s a reason it’s an idea that never completely dies. The highway is an unhealed scar, and dismantling it would be a transformative act of urban rebirth. 

His firm, Waggonner & Ball (W&B), has a long history with the hulking overpass. In 2010, the firm conducted a thorough study of the roughly 2-mile roadway, examining virtually every inch of it. Even earlier, as part of the New Orleans Water Plan, which the architect spearheaded, the firm envisioned a revived Claiborne Avenue, lined with trees and water. But Waggonner is also a realist. He knows big change takes time and occurs in painfully slow and incremental steps. While reporting my piece in Metropolis on [Lens opinion editor] Amy Stelly, the New Orleans neighborhood activist and citizen planner, I talked to Waggonner about his long history with the highway, its dreary condition, and why removing it is not an all-or-nothing proposition.

Martin C. Pedersen: Tell me a little bit of the history of you working with Amy and the Claiborne Alliance.

David Waggoner: The history is more about the history of the thing itself. After Katrina—here we go again, the obligatory start of most New Orleans narratives—but after the storm our firm looked at that overpass. A lot of people were asking, “Why do we have this in our city? Why have we allowed it to rip apart that community, that part of the city?” 

So, we looked at Claiborne, all of it, from St. Bernard Parish to Jefferson Highway. We drew and looked at land use along the whole thing. Then at some point, there was a little bit of money from the Congress for New Urbanism. We and a traffic planner conducted a study: If it were removed, what would that mean? It was good enough that we worked with a coalition of people, and the city to put together a Tiger grant application, which was successful. It was a $3 million grant. There was a neighborhood coalition behind it, trying to figure out what could be done with it. It wasn’t just people from uptown coming over and saying, “Do this.” But the work that was ultimately done marginalized the scale of the opportunity. I can say from a water perspective that it really didn’t even gauge the scale of the water problem.

MCP: They talked about activating the spaces underneath the highway, which seemed like a modest approach. 

DW: It started with that. They didn’t end with that. You could end with that. But if you end with that, you’ve kind of condemned yourself to that. But it’s where you start. This was frustrating, because it didn’t build on the opportunity that had been set up. So that’s where we’ve gotten, to a point where there’s a portion of the neighborhood that disbelieves. There are people that go way back to what occurred in the 1970s, with the good work of Skip James and others. They looked at how you could make the underside better, which was completely reasonable to do in the 1970s. It had just been built and was not in deteriorating condition.

Part of Waggonner & Ball’s planning study for the Claiborne corridor (2010).

MCP: What’s the condition of the overpass now?

DW: Pretty dismal. It will require reinvestment before much longer. I looked at it recently and, oh my gosh, you’re going to have to put a lot of money in it. Concrete, of course, has steel inside it, and steel rusts, certainly in New Orleans. The overpass also has metal components that are all rusting. It’s a hulking mess. 

MCP: I’ve heard that it would cost more to fix the bridge than it would to dismantle it. Is that true?

DW: Normally it would cost less to demolish something than it would to restore it. You wouldn’t necessarily demolish the in-ground components. You don’t pull out the pilings. You’re going to leave some of that in the ground. I would. So, you won’t have to do that expensive part of the demolition. But the condition of [Interstate] 10 is poor. What year was it built? 

MCP: I want to say late 1960s. 

DW: So, yes, we’re past the 50-year time. We looked at all this a decade ago, because at the time this hulk was an obvious problem. It was a period in New Orleans when the city was attracting people to move to it, like you. It was becoming this magnet for possibility. Now we’ve slipped back into a period where nothing much seems possible. We’ve seen the inability to execute. 

The Tiger grant was a huge opportunity, because you had three federal agencies working together on that. That’s a key point to think about. You had HUD, DOT, and EPA, all in the game. You weren’t dealing with just a transportation problem. You were dealing with a community issue. And if you care about community, as anybody who lives in New Orleans had better, you have an opportunity to build in things that prioritize equity, that minimize disruption and disconnection.

MCP: If you’re inclined to a little bit of optimism, there’s potentially infrastructure money available to address the highway. Congressman Carter is on the transportation committee.

DW: Biden talked about it during his appearance in the city. But friends of mine—like Ray Manning, whose opinion I respect—don’t think we can get it down and think the money should go into community redevelopment. And I struggle, because I listen to him, and have a kind of caution that asks: Can we actually do something big? As a city, I think if you’ve lost confidence or faith in yourself, you’re going to have trouble.

MCP: I think it would be a hugely powerful gesture to remove it. It would, I don’t know…lower asthma rates, clean up the environment, reduce traffic in the neighborhood—take your pick. 

DW: The highway noise is not good for you either. Freddie King is the council person from the district. At Amy’s event, he said that he wasn’t sure what to do. He said, metaphorically, that if a can is thrown into the woods, after 50 years, there’s an ecosystem that develops around it. This seems a tragic analogy, because it compares us to bugs, instead of noble citizens walking along an avenue. Have we totally lost our ambition? Are we really that unable to do it? But in real time, with our conditioning, we have to start somewhere. Part of the damage is done by the ramps. Those create some of the worst real estate in urban America.

MCP: And gobble up land. 

DW: They are killing opportunities for necessary redevelopment. Now you go back and you understand that the perspective, after Katrina, when you’re looking at Claiborne is: We’ve got to reclaim this vital artery. Fortunately, we’ve gotten more of the city back in geographic terms than we then feared. But we haven’t gotten back this heart.

The current condition of the highway (top) and a proposed solution without the highway (above). Images courtesy of Waggonner & Ball.

MCP: So where do we go from here?

DW: Amy said something to me about how she’s not gonna support any ramp removal unless you take it all. In the world I live in, design involves negotiation, and progress is incremental.

MCP: I get it. You can accept a half a loaf, if that’s all you’re gonna get. 

DW: But at the same time, you don’t want to be putting big money into repairing that thing. Good money after bad is a bad idea. To do that would be shameful. It would be a tragic indication that New Orleans refuses to look ahead. It would basically say: It’s the convenience of a few people riding over it that is most important.

MCP: You’re referring specifically to the port?

DW: Well, there are others, but the port was always part of our thinking. We knew the port was vital to the city, and it had to have a connection to I-610. And you must connect the West Bank Expressway to 610. That was identified in our early study. It is a necessary piece: If you’re gonna remove this, you have to build that. 

All these things have two or three parts. The ramp removal is one, the connection to Tchoupitoulas and the West Bank is another, in addition to the reconstruction of a legitimate Claiborne Avenue. And I would argue, as I always do in New Orleans, that you really need water on Claiborne, a canal. That location in the water plan is the right place for a transfer canal or connector that could probably do more to stop the downtown flooding than anything else.

MCP: Interesting. So, what would that hook up with?

DW:  It would be a transverse canal, shown as one of the major elements of the Water Plan, running all the way to the Industrial Canal. 

MCP: With or without the highway?

DW: You need water there; without the highway would be the way to do it. You can’t really build it with a highway there.

MCP: It would parallel Claiborne?

DW: It would be in the right of way. We made drawings that show that it doesn’t have to be one place in the right of way. It could be in one or two or three places. That can be figured out as the right of way is redeveloped, in coordination with transportation and community concerns.

MCP: And it would return Claiborne to its glory. 

DW: It would be a different Claiborne. Instead of just being trees, it would be trees and water.

MCP: Better.

DW: If the city had been laid out by the Dutch, they probably would’ve done it that way in the first place. But they had a few hundred years on us. If you don’t want to move water, you have to let it be where it is. It costs less to let it be where it wants to be. And then to develop with it. That Claiborne right of way could be a substantial asset to the community and the city. It’s not just downtown that would benefit. It would benefit all of Treme, all the way across the Seventh Ward, around to the Upper Ninth Ward. We’ve got this chance now to bring people forward in the conversations, but a split community will make that difficult.

MCP: They’re justifiably fearful of development. When the highway goes away, there’s a huge swath of land that’s opened up. Who does that benefit? That’s a legitimate question to ask.

DW: Absolutely. It’s the first question, really. I think that distrust, which is endemic in New Orleans, is our plague now. We don’t think we can work fairly together. But this is another example that if we don’t, then what? That’s the challenge. Some people will tell you, “We’ll never get that done.” Some people think that you have to do all of it or nothing. How about if we start? We can build a coalition that brings in people and develops trust. The Tiger grant didn’t build a coalition. It wasn’t inspiring. It didn’t work as a process. 

If you can’t see how bad I-10 is for that neighborhood, then you haven’t been underneath there and don’t understand what it’s done to hollow out the heart of the city. The evidence is there. Don’t we care enough about each other? Are we that distrustful? Are we that afraid that we can’t do it? Is that the issue: That we really don’t think more of ourselves and one another? And yet I don’t think it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. I’d be careful with that perspective.

Martin C Pedersen is a design and architecture writer and editor. He is executive director of Common Edge Collaborative, a non-profit organization and online publication. Martin was a longtime executive editor of Metropolis Magazine. During his tenure, the magazine was nominated twice for a National Magazine award for general excellence and was cited as one of the leading editorial voices in design. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, The Nation, Fast Company, Architectural Record, and other publications. He is co-author of Robert Polidori’s Metropolis (Metropolis Books, 2003). He is also on the board of directors for The Lens.

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 Opinion Editor Amy Stelly at astelly@thelensnola.org.

Martin Pedersen

Contributing writer Martin Pedersen is the chair of The Lens' board of directors. He is also executive director of Common Edge Collaborative, a nonprofit organization and online publication dedicated to...