Iterative participatory design: can City Hall and the Vieux Carre pull it off?

The City of New Orleans has begun to sound out their ideas around creating more pedestrian-only malls in the French Quarter through some contact with residents and through the media. Part of their idea seems to be spring from the idea that those using the Quarter need more room in this era of 6′ safe spacing, and another aspect seems to be that since we lack the millions of tourists that our Quarter businesses depend on for revenue, we need to realign our 80+ blocks to bring our neighbors to use it and add more local-focused businesses.

If those are the actual goals, then I am for this idea, although with strong reservations. Those reservations include all City department’s ability to listen and learn from the varied number of Quarterites which includes more than those who are full-time homeowners or business owners who have easy access to the decision makers on Loyola. It also must include workers, culture bearers, unhoused people and their advocates, renters, and those part-time homeowners who do love it and care for it (so not the illegal Airbnb-ers of which there are dozens and no obvious recent enforcement to keep them from becoming unchecked again.) And of course, to take in consideration the ideas and concerns of residents in Treme, Marigny, CBD, Central City too because they are clearly impacted by decisions made for the FQ.

Because these ideas have seemed to come out of very recent, very serious COVID-era needs and so haven’t run the usual years-long cycle of public meetings, some folks have suggested that this new ped-focused design is going to become another Riverfront Expressway-type issue. Although the comparison seems a little overwrought to me, I can certainly see part of their point. For those new to this, the Riverfront Expressway was a 1940s-1960s elevated elevated six-lane expressway project, 40 feet off the street and 108 feet wide along the Mississippi River. It was added to the planned I-10 design which (contrary to a local legend) was always planned for Claiborne* and was not moved there when the FQ residents successfully fought the Expressway spur. The Expressway suggestion was made via a 1940s consultant’s report on New Orleans by the infamous Robert Moses who thought by keeping auto traffic flowing through (over?) the Quarter it would actually benefit it. Of course he and other planners didn’t understand the Quarter, but back in those days people like Moses were unelected kings and their opinions became policy without the need of any other input.

(*However, even though the story of it being moved to Claiborne from the riverfront is incorrect, the reality of the I-10 being built on Claiborne did happen for exactly those same racist policies: that the historic and beautiful tree-lined Claiborne Avenue was sacrificed because it was the Black St. Charles Avenue and therefore had no political power. So whether or not FQ residents saved their neighborhood by sacrificing another is or isn’t precisely true doesn’t really matter, as it does seem be true that they did little to nothing to stop their neighbors in Treme in getting carved up again and again, before the I-10 and after it, and is still happening.)

So to some, the idea of the City throwing an idea out that is hastily designed at City Hall or only takes in some of the needs of some seems familiar. And that the I-10 and Riverfront experience suggests that someone or many someones will bear some negative brunt of the idea through what many sociologists and others like to call “the unintended impacts” of these multi-level decisions.

The truth is any solution that assists our world-class (what probably should be a UNESCO site!) historic neighborhood and its surrounding area will only work if the input is tremendous, dynamic, and sensitive to the needs of many. Yet what anyone who has been in these discussions can see is that everyone is coming to this with a lot of assumptions; for residents, its often assuming the City is not acting in good faith; for the City, its often assuming that Quarterites are inflexible or not interested in benefits that help others. And I also suspect based on my interactions that many at City Hall don’t believe we actually have residents here or serve other needs than as the main corridor for tourism.

Based on all of that, even though I am more in favor of these ideas than others, I’d suggest that the City might start with simpler ideas and then ask a lot of questions. Maybe start with adding protected bike lanes in and out of the Quarter, work on safer bike parking (more and more business owners are cutting bikes locked up for a shift from their gallery posts and few employers offer safe parking), add many more public transportation options for workers and locals, come up with some dynamic parking ideas for residents and workers, deal with illegal STRs and noise infractions- and maybe start to test these ideas by using their French Market property first. A French Market property project could do a lot to calm residents fears and can also test out ideas before those unintended impacts across a larger area cripple and divide the residential and business community of the Quarter. I’ve jotted down many ideas on my blog previously for the French Market space that including adding a storefront library, community health agencies, maybe an evening Louisiana-id carrying-only splash pad, pop up food truck events, and lots more of what we saw this week: the sheds and public space used for sharing regular city departments information and health work as it was for the COVID site this last week with hundreds in line in the market space to get their free test.

Once successful, the City can then quickly move to testing out single or 2-3 block ped areas, such as some I have noted previously include Wilkinson Row, Madison Street, the 1100 blocks of Chartres (which has St, Mary’s the Old Convent, Keyes museum, a boutique hotel) and adding local-friendly partnerships to activate those such as those NOMF musicians You Got This events, other health screenings, walking circuits similar to the Big Lake at City Park, or just rows of potted trees to add shade and beauty.

In any case, let’s all take a deep breath, do some homework, create some short term pilots, check our own assumptions and privilege, and listen as much as we talk.

About DW

New Orleans resident, writer, activist. Public market consultant.

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