There’s good news and bad news for anyone whose commute currently involves sitting in construction traffic on Convention Center Boulevard between Poydras and Henderson streets.
The good news is that the announced January 2021 completion date applies to the entire $65 million project, but the new roadway could be completed and open as early as April.
The bad news is that there will still be intermittent closures as crews work on creating a 7.5-acre linear park, pedestrian walkway and transit hub. And Convention Center Boulevard’s days of being a four-lane vehicular thoroughfare are gone for good.
In September, traffic in both directions was shifted to the two lanes on the river side of the boulevard while crews began building the new two-way street where the southbound lanes were.
When they open this spring, those two lanes will debut as a thinner, slower Convention Center Boulevard as crews begin converting the riverside lanes into a pedestrian mall better suited for the heavy foot traffic generated by the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
A transportation hub with 19 bus bays under the elevated approach to the Crescent City Connection near Convention Center Hall G will be the marshaling point for event shuttles, taxis and ride shares, many of which now line up outside of the giant building along the street. A pedestrian walkway will help move attendees to the facility without blocking traffic.
Tim Hemphill, the Morial Center’s vice president of sales and marketing, said the primary goal is to create a safer space for attendees, and that traffic-calming measures were necessary for what had become a major commuter thoroughfare to and from the Central Business District.
And using the other lanes for a park with a tree-lined promenade, event spaces, public art and water features will help the Convention Center stay competitive, he said.
“Cosmetically, the attendees of modern-day events are demanding this outside experience as well,” Hemphill said, though he noted that the park will also be an amenity for cruise ship passengers, other visitors and residents.
Hemphill said planners had some sense of how drivers would adjust to the loss of two lanes from previous closures of Convention Center Boulevard. Many shift to Tchoupitoulas Street.
“People found, as they tend to do, another way,” he said. “There are several other alternate routes, and traffic seemed to find its own rhythm. It’s still heavy traffic during two parts of the day, just like it was, but there hasn’t been an outcry.”
“It will be a much better experience when all is said and done,” he said.
Calls to Mulate’s restaurant and the Omni Riverfront Hotel, which face the street behind the chain-link construction fences, were not returned.
Hemphill said the Warehouse District has changed dramatically since the street grid near the Convention Center was designed almost four decades ago. He said overburdened intersections, particularly along Tchoupitoulas, have been targeted for another $13 million in improvements.
That work hit a snag in the fall, however, after the city's Department of Public Works took issue with the recommendations of the Convention Center's traffic study, particularly for Tchoupitoulas at Andrew Higgins Boulevard and at Calliope Street.
DPW hired its own consultants, who found proposed changes there would be inadequate. The city is now looking at turning the stretch of South Peters Street between St. Joseph and Calliope streets — now one-way headed north, toward Poydras — to one lane in each direction, said LaTonya Norton, a spokeswoman for Mayor LaToya Cantrell.
It is not clear, however, exactly when that work will take place, and the New Orleans Exhibition Hall Authority, which operates the Morial Center and is funding all of the work, is holding that $13 million in escrow until it is ready to begin.
“We are pushing to have this done quickly to not hold up the project any further,” Norton said.
Hemphill said there may be some inconveniences with the Mardi Gras balls the Morial Center hosts, and the Police Department will be working with krewes to figure out how the construction will impact where floats will be allowed to line up and how they will get in and out of the area.
The work along Convention Center Boulevard is part of a larger development plan for the area of the Convention Center, which includes a controversial proposal for a 1,200-room hotel and 39-acre mixed-use project on property at the upriver end of the giant assembly hall.