The wall of a tunnel built beneath Canal Street and what is now Harrah’s Casino half a century ago as part of a planned riverfront expressway is buckling, and it is not yet clear how serious the problem could be.
For now, the city is restricting some traffic at the foot of Canal Street out of what officials describe as an “abundance of caution” as crews assess the bulging wall beneath the street.
“Safety is the No. 1 priority in this situation,” Department of Public Works Director Mark Jernigan said Monday.
The tunnel, which stretches from Canal to Poydras Street, was built in 1966 as part of a plan by city officials for a mostly elevated riverfront expressway along the edge of the French Quarter.
That plan was killed by federal officials in 1969, but the tunnel remained. It was eventually incorporated into Harrah’s New Orleans Casino, which uses a portion of it for parking and other areas for office space, Tulane University professor Richard Campanella wrote in an article for The Times-Picayune in 2014.
One of the walls of the parking area, located under Canal Street, became a concern for city officials after a bulge and leaking water were reported to Harrah’s facility manager on Friday.
Structural engineers are evaluating the wall and should have a better sense later this week of what is causing the bulge and what steps might be needed to fix it, Jernigan said.
“I think we caught it early enough where we can take some action when we get that report,” Jernigan said.
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A spokeswoman for Harrah’s did not respond to a message seeking more information Monday.
The wall where the problem was discovered is made of timbers reinforced with steel, unlike the other walls of the underground complex, which are reinforced concrete. Jernigan said there are no signs of problems with the rest of the tunnel.
The city has been in touch with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which said it does not appear that the presence of water in the tunnel indicates any problems with the Mississippi River floodwall in that area.
Although the site is in a highly developed stretch of the riverfront, Jernigan said there were no signs that any buildings in the area might be threatened or that the buckling is a sign of immediate danger.
It remains to be seen who is responsible for fixing the problem, he said.
Cracks in the Canal Street pavement have long outlined the edges of the tunnel. There also is a slight dip in the road at that point, and the city plans to examine whether that could have been caused by the buckling wall or is a cause for any concern, Jernigan said.
In the meantime, traffic from Convention Center Boulevard is being detoured around the area rather than allowed onto the lakebound side of the 300 block of Canal Street.
The tunnel — designed to allow highway traffic to head underground to bypass congestion in the Central Business District — is an odd relic of the ill-fated proposal to build an elevated expressway alongside the French Quarter, a plan that was backed by most business and political leaders in the city but that enraged the preservationist community.
Early in the planning stages for that project, the city spent $1.3 million to add the tunnel to the Rivergate Exhibition Hall that was planned for the site that now is occupied by Harrah’s Casino, Campanella wrote.
But after the tunnel was completed, U.S. Secretary of Transportation John Volpe sided with preservationists and killed the expressway project, saying that “the public benefits from the proposed highway would not be enough to warrant damaging the treasured French Quarter.”
Though never put to its intended use, the tunnel remained in place under the Rivergate until that structure was demolished to make way for the casino.
Harrah’s officials then turned the two stories of underground space into offices and parking.
Whether the solution to the buckling wall will require significant work remains to be seen, Jernigan said.
“We’re taking a careful, thorough approach,” he said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.