Path to Revitalization

I almost missed this story in today’s paper… There’s supposed to be an accompanying slideshow with audio on nola.com but I can’t find it here.

PATH TO REVITALIZATION

A group of hikers called the Friends of Lafitte Corridor are pushing for an abandoned railway right-of-way in Mid-City to be reborn as a park with a trail for cyclists and pedestrians

Sunday, June 22, 2008
By Jack Curry Jr., Staff writer

A largely abandoned railroad right-of-way in Mid-City connecting the French Quarter with Lakeview came alive again one Saturday this month with traffic. Not with the train or boat traffic this historic entryway to New Orleans carried in years gone by, but with bunches of hikers pushing for the blighted corridor to be reborn as a park with a trail for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Organized by the Friends of Lafitte Corridor (FOLC), the group of about 60 hikers walked the 3.1-mile corridor from Basin Street to Canal Boulevard, passing abandoned warehouses and an empty FEMA trailer park. The hike’s organizers hope it will someday lead tourists out of the French Quarter and into the culturally rich neighborhoods of Treme and Lafitte and be a vital link for bicyclists connecting with trails from all over the city.

“The time has come to see the potential for this corridor not only be used as a path for people to walk or bike to work and to better their health, but also to knit communities along the greenway together,” said Bart Everson, the FOLC’s board chair.

Work to make part of the greenway vision a reality is about to begin, said Everson, a multi-media artist. Within six months, construction will start on a half-mile stretch of paved path between the bike path at Jefferson Davis Parkway and North Carrollton Avenue, and money has been secured for another half-mile of path connecting the Jeff Davis segment with Broad Street, he said.

Plans have the greenway’s southern terminus at a trailhead on Basin Street. It then goes north passing through or near the neighborhoods of Treme, Lafitte, Mid-City, Faubourg St. John, City Park/Parkview and ends at Canal Boulevard in South Lakeview. More than a dozen schools, 26 churches and more than a dozen parks and recreational facilities lie within a mile of the corridor, Everson said.

A paved path in the greenway will give cyclists heading back and forth between the French Quarter and Lakeview an alternative to riding the busy streets they are now forced to use, such as Canal Boulevard, Orleans Avenue and Esplanade Avenue.

The history of the Lafitte Corridor began in 1794 when a canal was completed connecting Bayou St. John with the French Quarter. Sailing ships had difficulty sailing up the winding Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans so passengers and freight would come to the city from the Gulf of Mexico by Lake Pontchartrain and Bayou St. John then overland two miles into the city. Digging the canal eliminated the tedious overland transit. (A turning basin behind the French Quarter gave Basin Street its name.)

A railroad company, now known as Norfolk Southern, completed the railroad line along the canal in 1908. The canal was covered in the 1930s, but the completion of the railroad made the corridor a busy place. Facilities for the maintenance and repair of locomotives, passenger cars and boxcars along with warehouses and a large freight yard between City Park Avenue and North Carrollton Avenue were built, said Mike Palmieri, a railroad historian from Mid-City living in Texas.

Soon after the city’s railroad passenger service was consolidated at the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal in 1954, railroad activities along the Lafitte corridor quickly declined. The tracks from Basin Street to North Broad Street were removed in 1995 and several years ago were removed to North Alexander Street where the railroad serves a brickyard several times a week.

The idea of turning the publicly owned and generally undeveloped land of the Lafitte Corridor into a greenway was first proposed in a 1976 study by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. The greenway has been a part of urban planning studies since, and was endorsed by the New Orleans City Council in 2007, Everson said.

Everson’s trail epiphany came after a hike of the trail in 2006, the second hike of the corridor Everson made.

“The first year, May 2005, three of us hiked it as a lark,” Everson said. “Then the next year 16 did it, and afterward started talking about what a great place it would be for a trail. That’s when we thought of the group’s name.”

Since that time the group has raised almost all of the $114,262 needed for the Carrollton Avenue to Jefferson Davis Parkway stretch using a $20,000 grant from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, private donations and an $85,000 matching grant from the Governor’s Recreational Trail Program. Another $313,248 from the state Transportation Enhancement Program has been secured to pay for another half-mile of trail between Jefferson Davis Parkway and Broad Street.

Everson is optimistic that the $6 million he estimates it will take to complete the trail will be forthcoming and that a completion date is not far away.

“How much it costs depends on how many lights and benches we need, but with all the momentum we have we will have a useable trail within a few years,” Everson said.

Greenway proponents admit what the corridor will look like after the first mile is constructed is a work in progress. There are land issues to resolve to determine where the trail will go in the corridor and community input yet to be expressed, factors that mean the “grand scheme will take a while,” said Daniel Samuels, the FOLC’s president.

The city’s Department of Parks and Parkways has said it does not now have the resources to assume maintenance responsibility for a new park that size raising the question of who will maintain the greenway when and if it is built.

The majority of the land in the corridor is owned by the city but management of it is in several different governmental departments, some with their own plans of how the land should be used. FOLC plans show the Basin Street trailhead will be on the parking lot of a closed supermarket now in private hands.

To help with public input on how the greenway will be developed, the Lafitte Greenway Steering Advisory Committee, a nine-member group with six members appointed by the mayor and the city council and three FOLC members, held their organizational meeting this month.

Community input is important to the future of the trail because recreational facilities, such as the Lemann Pool, which is in the corridor and was in use before Katrina, promote the healthy lifestyle the FOLC encourages, said Samuels, a Mid-City architect.

Public meetings will be held in all the neighborhoods the greenway passes through or near and that these meetings will provide the opportunity to discuss what amenities the greenway should have, Samuels said.

Footnote: As someone who’s been quoted in the press a fair amount, I can testify that reporters usually exercise a certain amount of artistic license with regard to the words they attribute to their subjects. They can make you look like a genius or a complete asshole. I’m thankful that Mr. Curry tended toward the former and not the latter. But still, I must note, the phrase “as a lark” is not a part of my working vocabulary.

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