One week after the city removed about 160 homeless people from an area underneath the Pontchartrain Expressway, the City Council voted Thursday to turn much of the area into a fenced-off parking lot, provided that the state agrees.
A second measure, which appeared aimed at making it easier to crack down on future homeless encampments, was deferred after a period of debate made clear that the council was divided on the idea.
Both measures were introduced by Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell at the request of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration.
Last week, the city issued a notice giving 72 hours for the area under the expressway between South Claiborne and St. Charles avenues to be cleared of people and belongings. The city called the site a public health hazard and said it needed to be vacated so that it could be cleaned and treated for rodents.
Before the order, a large number of homeless residents had been using the area as an encampment for many months, outfitting it with tents and even couches. Since the order, the site has been blocked off by police barricades.
In issuing its notice last week, the city did not announce a permanent plan for the state-owned expanse. On Thursday, though, the council unanimously approved an ordinance that would turn much of the area under the expressway into a parking lot.
The ordinance authorizes the mayor to enter into an agreement with the state to transfer control of four sections of the site — all between Simon Bolivar Avenue and Carondelet Street — to the New Orleans Building Corp., the public-private entity that operates as the city’s real estate arm.
Cantrell did not mention the former encampment when explaining her support for the measure.
“Given the need for parking in the CBD, I am encouraged that we would make the most of all available space we have for parking,” she said.
The proposed agreement, between the NOBC and the state Department of Transportation and Development, calls for the NOBC to manage and operate a parking lot at the site on behalf of the city. The agreement would be in effect for five years.
Landrieu aide Eric Granderson said the Mayor’s Office has not decided whether the area will be used as parking for city employees or leased to a third party to operate as a private lot. The second option would require further City Council approval.
The measure passed 7-0.
The administration had less luck convincing the council to pass an ordinance that city attorneys said is intended to “clarify” the law related to obstructing public rights of way. The ordinance would add language that specifically defines as obstructions “any tent, item of household furniture not intended for outdoor use or other semipermanent structure.” Those are all items that were used at the expressway encampment and are in use at new camps that have popped up in the past week, such as at Camp and Calliope streets.
Councilman James Gray said he didn’t see the need to clarify the law because obstructing the public right of way with “any other articles whatsoever” is already illegal.
“Is there something in the new provision that is not covered by ‘any other articles whatsoever’?” Gray asked.
He also took issue with a portion of the ordinance that would make tents and furniture “de facto obstructions” if they are located in a public space, even if they aren’t obstructing passage.
“Is that what we want to do here?” Gray asked.
The administration said the erection of tents has become a serious public safety issue and the law is aimed at alleviating it.
Council members Jason Williams, Nadine Ramsey and Susan Guidry also expressed reservations about the ordinance, which they said was clumsily worded, making its intent and potential impact unclear.
Guidry said it could make gatherings of Mardi Gras Indians violations of the law. Williams wondered if peaceful protests might be banned.
Although the matter went before the council’s Community Development Committee on Monday, discussion was cut short.
Committee members hurriedly passed it on to the full council for discussion so they could get to a news conference announcing the retirement of Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas.
To the chagrin of a handful of residents who showed up to speak on the ordinance Thursday, the council heard no public comment on the ordinance. It was sent back to the committee and will be taken up again at the council’s Sept. 4 meeting.