Jesuit High School, the largest Catholic all-boys school in New Orleans, is asking the city for permission to build a raised pedestrian bridge across Banks Street in Mid-City.
The school wants the walkway to help ensure the safety of its almost 1,400 students, who regularly cross the busy street to get to and from classes and after-school activities. But many residents in the neighborhood say a bridge is unnecessary and construction could damage the oak trees that line the street.
If built, the bridge would connect the Roussel Building, part of the main campus, to the athletic complex across Banks. Renderings submitted to the city depict a concrete slab base with wire mesh sides and a brown wood ceiling, topped with a metal roof.
Five years ago, facing slumping enrollment and the ever-rising costs of operating its network of Catholic schools, the Archdiocese of New Orle…
Mathes Brierre Architects first submitted an application to the city in December 2017. The school is located in an area zoned HU-RDS, or a historic urban neighborhood residential district, and is not allowed to encroach into corners or side yards.
A design advisory committee with the City Planning Commission on Thursday recommended that the project move forward. But before the bridge can be built, the school must submit an arborist's report and lighting analysis, and the request must be voted on by the Board of Zoning Adjustments, which is scheduled to take up the issue in March.
The city and the school would also have to negotiate a lease for the air rights over the street, an agreement that would have to be approved by the City Council.
In the meantime, concerned neighbors have been organizing.
Some have canvassed the neighborhood with fliers highlighting their objections. Others turned out for a neighborhood meeting Monday organized by Jesuit.
During the meeting, Jesuit consultant Mike Sherman said the bridge will improve student safety and ease traffic on nearby streets. He cited a study by J.V. Burkes & Associates that found that 2,090 pedestrian crossings take place at the designated crosswalk at Banks and South Solomon streets between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. Most of those come during peak arrival and dismissal times, with an average of 180 crossings every hour during the day.
The heyday of Catholic schools in the New Orleans area appears to be gone.
But safety isn’t in question, some neighbors said. Several people asked if there had been any recorded incidents from daily student crossings; Sherman said “multiple potential incidents” occur every day.
“We already know there had been none, even though you wouldn’t answer the question,” one neighbor said.
Larry Abshire, Jesuit’s disciplinarian, said he understands the community’s concerns but he puts student safety above all else.
“Every day I come to work and I’m responsible for 1,381 kids, and I don’t ever want to tell a parent, ‘Hey, something happened to your kid,' ” Abshire said.
While a bridge would alleviate pedestrian traffic during the school day, it would not affect the number of students who arrive in their own vehicles or are dropped off by parents. Neighbors questioned why the school is not focused on those traditionally congested arrival and dismissal times.
Kindergarten classrooms are getting emptier in Orleans Parish.
They also said they were worried the oak trees along Banks would be cut down to accommodate the bridge, but Sherman said no trees will be lost. A few of the live oaks will be trimmed, and Jesuit has hired a team of tree preservationists to approve any branch trimming before, during and after construction, he said.
The city's Parks and Parkways Department also monitors all tree activity during construction, Sherman added.
Sherman said Jesuit will continue to hold discussions on the footbridge, with plenty of opportunities for community input.
The school's president, the Rev. Christopher Fronk, also said he recognized the need for better communication on other issues, such as parking and traffic. Jesuit will host another community meeting at a later date to allow neighbors to offer ideas and share concerns.
“I need to listen more to what’s going on in the neighborhood,” Fronk said.
After operating in Norco for 60 years, Sacred Heart of Jesus School will close at the end of this school year, officials with the Archdiocese …
Advocate reporter Della Hasselle contributed to this story.