Sunday, January 29, 2012

I-310, The Vieux Carré Riverfront Expressway

The year was 1946.

Newspapers may have carried an article about the city planners of New Orleans consulting with Robert Moses, the "master builder" of mid-20th century New York City, Long Island, Rockland County, and Westchester County, New York.

Although he was the shaper of a modern city, he was also one of the most polarizing figures in the history of urban planning in the United States. And in the 1940s and early 1950s, city planners in many smaller American cities hired Moses to design freeway networks for them.

His idea for New Orleans? An elevated freeway along the riverfront as part of an arterial plan for New Orleans.

"The preservationists had been fighting for years to protect the character of the Vieux Carré. They believed that the proposed Moses expressway was an alien twentieth-century intrusion that would irreparably harm the fragile beauty of the old city.

"Supporters of the expressway believed that, on the contrary, the expressway would help preserve the Vieux Carré by taking traffic off the narrow streets of the French Quarter. Baumbach and Borah* commented: 'Thus, the Second Battle of New Orleans became more than just a conflict between environmentalists and downtown developers over a freeway; it was a clash of values, a clash in attitudes, a difference in priorities and perspectives about the character and personality of the city'" (

Over the next couple of decades, the debate continued. Early applications for designation as a National Historic Landmark were voted down by the City Council.

A tunnel, an elevated expressway, and a six-lane surface expressway were also proposed.

"On July 9, 1969, Transportation Secretary John Volpe made it official. A press release explained why he canceled the Vieux Carré Expressway:

'Secretary Volpe said a depressed route alternative is not acceptable either because of its disruptive effects, excessive costs and construction hazards which might cause damage to the levee protecting the entire city.... "A careful review of the highway proposal and the positions of various interests," Volpe said, "convinced me that the public benefits from the proposed highway would not be enough to warrant damaging the treasured French Quarter. The Riverfront Expressway would have separated the French Quarter from its Mississippi River levee and water-front"'" (fhwa. infrastruc ture/ neworleans. cfm).

Could you imagine New Orleans without an intact French Quarter? We much prefer the barricaded streets for use by street performers and pedestrians, the parked delivery trucks the make even one-lane traffic difficult, and the vehicles that park so near an intersection that turns are not possible to the congestion "relief" that I-310 was reportedly going to provide, and the views of weathered doors and balcony ironwork that would either be missing or obstructed due to the presence of an elevated highway.

Can you imagine a tunnel in the Quarter? Well, actually the tunnel was started in the early 60s and is only used for valet parking for Harrah's Casino. But, nonetheless, can you imagine a tunnel?

We are very grateful that "progress" has passed the Quarter by.

*Richard O. Baumbach, Jr., and William E. Borah, The Second Battle of New Orleans: A History of the Vieux Carré Riverfront-Expressway Controversy (The University of Alabama Press, 1981).

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