Ideas for post-construction Uptown neutral grounds: walkway, trees, public art _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--Workers with Boh Brothers excavate and replace piping on Napoleon Ave. in New Orleans, La. Friday, May 23, 2014. According to the US Army Corps of Engineers the projects have staggered finish dates the upper portions of Napoleon and South Claiborne will finish drainage construction in 2015 with the lower portions to be completed by 2016.

With contractors tearing up South Claiborne, Jefferson, Napoleon and now Louisiana avenues to install massive new drainage canals, Uptown New Orleans residents have been asking questions about what the neutral grounds will look like when the projects are finally done.

On Tuesday night, those residents got their first look at possible answers, which include a continuation of the walking path down Napoleon Avenue, public art installations on Claiborne, tall palms restored to Jefferson and a variety of landscaping options on Louisiana.

For many, of course, those concepts only led to more questions, such as whether the projects will incorporate ideas from the city’s new water-management strategy, whether trees could reduce traffic visibility in certain locations and whether there will still be tree canopies over the avenues when the projects are finished.

The drainage canal construction on the four corridors — part of the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project — has been starting at intervals since 2010, with the final Louisiana Avenue leg starting this month.

The projects have staggered finish dates as well: The northern portion of Napoleon and the western end of South Claiborne will be finished in 2015, followed by the lower portions of Napoleon, Jefferson and South Claiborne in 2016, then the northern part of Jefferson in 2017 and finally all of Louisiana in 2018.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Sewerage & Water Board have held public meetings before the start of each portion, and they promised at each meeting that neighbors would have input into how the roads would look after the completion of the projects. On Tuesday, they presented their initial findings — a broad overview of the factors affecting each corridor and three possible ways of restoring each.

For each corridor, residents were given a choice between two basic approaches — either a “natural” concept, with a variety of trees and greenery scattered throughout the neutral ground, or a more manicured, formal approach, with trees placed at regular intervals. Those two basic concepts were then modified in view of specific conditions affecting each corridor.

For example, one of the options for South Claiborne includes a handful of spaces for public art installations — specifically, at the entrance to Orleans Parish near Monticello Street and near Palmer Park at South Carrollton Avenue. The idea, said Keith Villere, of the landscape architecture firm URS, is to create the opportunity for monuments at landmark locations along one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares.

Many residents have long hoped to see the walking path on the portion of Napoleon in Broadmoor extended down the full length of the avenue when the drainage project is complete. Thus, the options for Napoleon include the “natural” approach, the formal approach (called “basic” in the renderings) or a third option with a walkway surrounded by clusters of small trees, similar to Broadmoor.

Straight or meandering?

Ann Farmer, a Napoleon Avenue resident, took issue with the off-center, straight-line design of the proposed walking path, saying she would prefer a meandering path like the one in Broadmoor. She also called for larger live oaks instead of the small trees in the plan, in hopes of restoring some of the leaf canopy cut down during the project.

“The people who have lived through three years on a construction site deserve better than what was taken away,” Farmer said.

Villere said the straight design of the walking path would serve two purposes. First, he said, it is a reminder of the streetcar tracks that once ran down one side of the neutral ground, with trees and lights in the center. Second, the path will likely serve as a viewing area for Mardi Gras parades, and in fact, it may switch from the downtown side of the neutral ground on the river side of St. Charles to the Uptown side of it on the lake side, to match where the parades actually roll. But it is possible, he said, that live oaks could be planted on the opposite side of the neutral ground from the pathway.

“It’s still under discussion whether the walkway should go on the parade side or the other side,” Villere said.

Jefferson and Louisiana have narrower neutral grounds, Villere noted, so the options for them are more limited. The root structures of live oaks and other large trees run too deep and would interfere with the new drainage canal just a few feet under the surface, he said. However, many Jefferson Avenue residents have asked for the return of the tall palms that formerly were home to monk parakeets, so the palms are included in the renderings.

Some residents were concerned about how the new vegetation will affect visibility for drivers, particularly on Jefferson and Louisiana, where the neutral ground provides less room for turning cars to wait.

“You want to be able to see a block down, so you don’t get stuck in the middle,” said Jay Seastrunk, a resident of the Audubon area.

Based on that feedback, Villere said, trees with fewer leaves around the bottom of the trunk may be a better fit for those two avenues, so drivers can see around the trees — though the presence of power lines above them also will be a factor.

Water management urged

A group of Carrollton neighborhood leaders expressed concern that the landscaping plans do not incorporate the sort of water-management features envisioned by the Greater New Orleans Water Collaborative, such as rain gardens or water-retention ponds to increase the amount of rainwater absorbed by the soil and decrease the amount funneled into drainage systems.

Those concepts are intended to protect the city’s future by slowing the sinking of the land, and it was disappointing not to see them included, they said.

“This is one of the largest infrastructure projects this community will see for a long time,” said Barbara Johnson, of the Central Carrollton Association. “It’s incredible if we’re not able to create spaces to capture some of this water. … We’re seeing a lot of talk about being a model for water management, but when we have these major capital projects, these opportunities aren’t being implemented. It’s just a head scratcher.”

Villere said planners discussed those ideas with city leaders, but he said they have drawbacks as well. If the wet areas become bogs, they can be hard to maintain, difficult to mow and possible breeding grounds for mosquitoes, he said. But because the neutral ground will be green space, he noted, it will help absorb rainwater by its very nature.

“The cumulative effect of the plantings on each one of these right of ways is going to soak up a lot of water,” Villere said. “As the trees mature, they’re going to soak up a lot of water as well.”

Synthesizing the concerns

Tuesday’s meeting was just a preliminary step, said Lori Wingate, of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Officials will begin going over the comments they received on each corridor and will try to synthesize the concerns into single proposals for each avenue. In several months, they’ll hold another meeting to show those designs, then receive feedback on those before creating a final plan.

“Some people like the ‘basic’ linear look, and some like the ‘natural’ look,” Wingate said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to compile all that.”

The landscaping of each corridor, however, is not scheduled to begin until construction on all the drainage canals is finished, now scheduled for 2018. That, too, could change, Wingate noted.

For other residents, the prospect of three more years of construction and traffic headaches overshadowed any discussion of landscaping.

Rosalind Peychaud, of the Milan neighborhood, arrived at the meeting frustrated by the announcement that Louisiana Avenue will be closed at South Claiborne until June.

“If they had any respect for the residents who have to take these streets, they would have fixed the side streets. Why can’t they finish something before they start something else?” Peychaud asked. “I’m just so traumatized, I can’t even look at trees.”