Update, 3:30 p.m. Tuesday:

After nearly two hours of debate, New Orleans city planners on Tuesday took no action on a request by the Regional Transit Authority to demolish the aging ferry terminal at the foot of Canal Street.

The City Planning Commission voted 4-3 in favor of allowing the request, which ultimately sends it to the City Council without an official recommendation from the group. 

The nine-member planning commission requires a majority vote in order to issue a recommendation. Commissioner Craig Mitchell recused himself from the discussion and commissioner Walter Isaacson was absent.

"To approve the demolition of something without knowing what's going to replace it in this circumstance is unwise," said commission Chairman Robert Steeg, who noted community opposition at the meeting as a factor in his decision to oppose the request.

The council will have the final say on the RTA's request.

The commission's vote came after a series of of Algiers residents and community leaders spoke out against the design of the proposed replacement.

Critics of the proposed design, including former City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, turned out for Tuesday's meeting — as many did last month, when the request was first considered and deferred — to speak against the proposed design.

They contended that it should include a covered walkway that would allow riders to get to and from the ferry without being rained on and a pedestrian bridge over the riverfront railroad tracks to forestall long delays when slow-moving New Orleans Public Belt Railroad trains are passing.

The proposed new terminal would accommodate two high-speed, catamaran-style ferry boats, designed for transporting more than 140 passengers each.

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A lack of money and a two-year-old lawsuit are the major barriers blocking changes to the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority's controversial plans for a new Canal Street Ferry terminal, planners said at a public hearing on Monday.

Those reasons didn't satisfy dozens of residents who showed up to denounce the terminal design presented at a meeting at the Federal City auditorium in Algiers, in what often felt like a replay of a similar meeting last month.

“There’s no safety whatsoever in this design,” said Eric Songy of the Algiers Neighborhood Presidents Council, one in an audience of about 100 people.

The City Planning Commission on Tuesday is scheduled to consider allowing the RTA to tear down the existing terminal. The commission deferred a decision on that matter earlier this month after residents showed up to criticize the project.

The RTA envisions the new terminal as a hub for development near Canal Street, with proposals to rework the Riverfront and Canal streetcar lines to connect through the site and tie in with the proposed World Trade Center redevelopment and work being done by the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center a few blocks upriver.

Under the redesign, the terminal would no longer present a barrier between Woldenberg Riverfront Park and the Aquarium of the Americas on one side of Canal Street and Spanish Plaza and the Riverwalk mall on the other.

Officials hope to have the work completed by early 2018.

The two big issues for opponents are the lack of a covered walkway for passengers boarding and exiting the ferry and the lack of a passenger bridge over the nearby railroad tracks.

Expecting passengers to board without any protection from the weather is inconvenient and hazardous, critics say, especially if they are running to catch a departing ferry.

And without a bridge, passengers could have to wait up to 15 minutes for a train to pass before they could even get to the ferry, they say.

But Justin Augustine III, vice president of Transdev, the French transportation conglomerate that runs the RTA’s operations, said there is little money for much of what residents want.

An alternative for one problem would be to partner with a nearby building, such as the city-owned World Trade Center on Canal Street that is due to become a Four Seasons Hotel, and ask it to open up a bridge that ferry passengers could use to cross the tracks.

But the World Trade Center project has been mired in litigation for nearly two years, and its backers have been cagey about any changes to design plans, Augustine said.

“This stuff is expensive,” he said. “So as much as we can coordinate the discussion between them and us, we can collectively come up with solutions on this.”

While the man behind the lawsuit that has long stalled progress on the World Trade Center recently suffered a setback when an appeals court upheld a court’s dismissal of his lawsuit, he has vowed to appeal to the state Supreme Court and also to sue in federal court.

It will cost at least $15 million to get started on the terminal project. The RTA has secured that much through federal grants. The rest of the money would need to come from other sources.

Still, opponents insisted that the pool of money the project does have should be spent another way. The RTA doesn’t need two brand new high-speed ferry boats, when those boats travel over the Mississippi River for less than a mile, they said.

Because people wait less time for a ferry than they do for a bus -- seven minutes on average -- perhaps the terminal doesn’t need air conditioning or restrooms, Ralph Bradshaw of the Algiers Point Association argued.

“Why not take that money and build a bridge?” he said.

Former City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer pushed for the RTA to withdraw its request to tear down the existing terminal, a move Augustine would not commit to. 

She said an average of six trains pass the site every day and urged the RTA to wait until this summer, when a new operator may be selected for the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad, before moving ahead with a ferry demolition.

 


Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.