To preserve the wide expanse of the Napoleon Avenue neutral ground, scheduled to be significantly slimmed to make way for bike lanes when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wraps up construction of an underground drainage canal, nearby residents are pitching a counter-proposal: Keep the green space the same width and cut a lane of traffic instead.
The alternative plan seeks to preserve what has long been a favorite spot for thousands of Carnival paradegoers and what some describe as the grand nature of the roadway.
While such issues often divide neighborhood residents and cycling activists, the plan to cut down the number of lanes available to cars was developed through a partnership between the two.
While backers of the plan are still working to get buy-in on their idea from the half-dozen neighborhood associations that touch on the area between Constance Street and South Claiborne Avenue that would be affected, there has been widespread opposition to the Corps’ plan for narrowing the neutral ground.
“I think we all agree on one thing, that we don’t want the median narrowed. Period,” Napoleon Avenue resident Faye Lieder said.
Lieder and other residents said they were shocked when the plan was unveiled earlier this summer and have been working on their own alternative.
The construction on Napoleon Avenue is some of the most intense now underway as part of the Corps’ Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, or SELA, aimed at improving drainage throughout the region. With that part of the project nearing completion, the Corps last month unveiled its plans for what the area would look like when it’s rebuilt.
The Corps’ plan would reduce the neutral ground from 47 feet wide to about 38 feet wide. It would add a walking path to the neutral ground and add bike lanes in either direction between the traffic and parking lanes.
It also would add lots of trees, going from four or five per block to about 19 per block. That idea too has generated backlash from residents who say that much foliage would block their ability to see across the street and, during parades, would quickly fill with beads that would linger throughout the year.
The design was aimed at meeting city guidelines that call for providing more bike lanes throughout the city, said Lori Wingate, project manager for the Orleans Parish portion of SELA. That means finding room for the lanes either in what is now neutral ground or in the traffic lanes.
Eliminating one traffic lane is the proposal many residents are pushing.
“It’s always been a boulevard, and I think that’s what it should remain, not a superhighway,” Lieder said.
But the impact that loss of a lane would have on traffic could prove to be a problem.
“The traffic flows on Napoleon do not allow for reduced lanes at this time, and the city continues to grow,” Wingate said.
Many residents don’t buy that argument, noting that the lengthy construction project has constricted Napoleon to one lane in either direction with no parking lanes.
While the construction, and other projects nearby, has snarled Uptown traffic, Dan Favre, executive director of Bike Easy, said adding a bike lane to Napoleon would allow for more bicycle-friendly improvements Uptown. But the concerns of residents worried about the neutral ground should be taken into account as well, he said.
“We can have healthy transportation and a full-size neutral ground; that’s really what we’re working toward,” Favre said.
Carnival weighs heavily in the concerns of many of the residents in the area. Virginia Saussy, who rides in the Muses parade and had dreamed of living on a parade route before moving to Napoleon, said the neutral ground is an important public space for the city as a whole.
“It’s where all sorts of people from across the region come with their families, and we don’t want to see it butchered,” Saussy said.
The Corps’ plan would mean less space for paradegoers, and the trees included in the proposal would further restrict people’s ability to watch the parade, she said.
Some residents along the street also worry the Corps’ plan would make the roadway less safe. Adding bike lanes would require those crossing the street to brave two more lanes of moving vehicles than they have to now.
Other proposals are being bandied about as well, including having a lane that could be used by bikes and cars.
What might seem to be the easiest solution, putting bike traffic inside the neutral ground, isn’t an option, planners say. Doing so isn’t considered safe for bicyclists because drivers might not be looking for them as they cross the neutral ground.
The city is soliciting comments about the plan at nola.gov/dpw/napoleon-avenue-landscaping-and-roadway/ through Wednesday. After that, the city’s Department of Public Works will decide how to move forward.
The state’s Division of Historic Preservation also is reviewing the plans for the roadway, which is in a historic district.
Residents said they’ll continue to fight against any efforts to shrink the neutral ground.
“I just think green space is restful,” Lieder said. “Nine feet of green space or 9 feet of asphalt? To me it’s a no-brainer.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.