When New Orleans voters choose a new mayor and City Council in November, the Lafitte Greenway will mark its second anniversary. The 2.6-mile linear park has drawn praise for dramatically increasing the open space avail-able to the public and spurring economic growth in the surrounding neighborhoods. At the opening of the Lafitte Greenway in November 2015, Mayor Mitch Landrieu told the city, "This is yours. You have to take care of it. You have to protect it, and you have to make sure it's here for future generations."
Almost two years in, the Greenway still inspires the optimism of that moment, but it also reflects the fears of a citywide increase in crime, development interests that displace residents of historically low-income areas and the threat of neglect that in years past has turned some public parks into undertended no man's lands.
The $9.1 million Greenway opened after several decades of dreaming, starting in the 1970s with an idea by civil rights activist Rudy Lombard and architect Clifton James. Following Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures in 2005, Friends of the Lafitte Corridor began a fundraising effort in 2006. It took nearly 10 years to complete the trail that stretches between Armstrong Park and New Orleans City Park and runs through neighborhoods spanning the French Quarter, Treme and Mid-City. Thousands of people now use the greenway regularly — to go to and from work, for recreation and for leisure.
"Our goals have always been multifaceted," said Sophie Harris, executive director of Friends of Lafitte Greenway, "but one of the biggest goals has been to build a space where people could come out and meet their neighbors."
Friends has grown into one of the most influential forces behind the Greenway's development, leading community-based programs and events that promote health, wellness and recreation. The nonprofit has about 300 members and works closely with New Orleans City Hall, staff from the four council offices that represent parts of the Greenway and community groups to connect communities along the 2.6-mile stretch of green space.
"I feel good about the future of the greenway, partially because of the financial and priority commitments from the city, but also because of how we've been growing," Harris said. "That combo of public input and private support is only going to benefit us."
The park has drawn significant development interest as well, most notably a 5-acre project by Sidney Torres IV and Edwards Communities that will have 382 housing units and commercial and recreational amenities.
The former Times-Picayune Annex warehouse (on St. Louis Street facing the Greenway) is undergoing a $4 million restoration to house offices, retail outlets and possibly eateries. A bike-friendly beer and wine garden facing the Greenway also is under construction and will have an outdoor fire pit and patio.
The city still is investing in the Greenway as well. Officials plan to complete Lemann Playground by September before the annual National Recreation and Park Association conference comes to New Orleans. The conference — which is expected to bring in nearly 8,000 people to the Greenway — has promised to donate several pieces of equipment, including bleachers, fitness machinery and a play area.
At the other end of the Greenway, the city is transforming a former brake tag station at North Lopez Street and Lafitte Avenue into an outdoor pavilion with roll-up windows. NORDC Director Victor N. Richard III said there are plans to place trash cans along the entire Greenway and they will be emptied daily.
The Greenway recently came under the authority of the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission (NORDC), which has hired workers to maintain and patrol the grounds. A team of groundskeepers, security officers and a site manager will oversee the Greenway every day from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Two vehicles and, in the future, a fleet of bicycles will patrol the Greenway, and the site manager will control daily operations.
Richard said his focus is creating a safe space that is open to everyone, which will encourage future development.
Security officers won't carry guns but will discourage littering and crime in the area, he said. Most law enforcement will be handled by the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD). Crime along the Greenway is scarce compared to other parts of the city, according to NOPD First District Commander Hans Ganthier. "There's not a lot of violent crime," he said. "Everything is pretty few and far between."
Regardless, NOPD officers will be more visible along the trail in the future, especially after a 27-year-old woman was mugged while riding her bike July 14, the second Greenway robbery this year. Ganthier said horse-mounted and scooter patrols will be more visible along the Greenway to deter crime, and bike patrols are slated for the future. Richard said he's planning a community meeting later this fall to further develop a security plan for the Greenway and hopes community members will attend as well as organizations with a stake in the area.
In addition to extra security patrols and anti-crime cameras, increased development — which means extra eyes on the green space — should deter criminal activity, said District A City Councilwoman Susan Guidry. She stressed there currently isn't a safety problem on the Greenway, but the city and area residents have to be proactive to ensure crime doesn't develop on such an open stretch of land.
"The people who live along the Greenway will, more and more as it's developed, take ownership of it and have a pride in it," Guidry said. "They will be eyes on the Greenway. They will be part of its future."
As long as they can afford to live there.
As the Greenway becomes a more attractive amenity and developers build more offices, restaurants and housing, some fear those new — and expensive — projects will price out people who have lived along the railroad and the old Carondelet Canal all their lives. Mid-City and Treme both have seen steeply climbing rent and home prices. In Mid-City, for example, rent for a two-bedroom apartment increased 42 percent from 2010-2015, according to a study by the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority.
"The Mid-City and Treme neighborhoods are becoming more expensive, in part because of public investments in the Greenway and Whole Foods [Market on Broad Street]," said Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, which was created in 1995 to eradicate housing discrimination. "Long-term residents — the drivers of our cultural and hospitality economy — used to be able to find a decent home close to our downtown job centers in these neighborhoods, but now are struggling to stay and enjoy the new amenities,"
Jacob Rickoll, president of the Tulane Canal Neighborhood Association, has heard neighbors' fears that expensive developments will make property values skyrocket, raising rent and property prices too high for those who were raised along the Greenway. As roads improve and new developments are built, property taxes also will go up, Rickoll said. That doesn't mean the city should stop improving itself, Rickoll said; it means residents should become more active in their own communities, attending neighborhood meetings and volunteering at improvement events.
Landrieu has proposed an "inclusionary zoning" mandate — which the Louisiana Legislature tried to block, without success — that would compel developers to include a percentage of units for low-income residents when proposing residential construction. The city's Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance contains incentives for developers to include a certain percentage of affordable housing units in the project, but sets no firm requirements.
"Incentive programs are a nice first step and indicate principalities' intention, but they don't actually produce that many units," said Maxwell Ciardullo, director of policy and communication for the Fair Housing Action Center. "Things that slow down gentrification are programs that have that requirement built in."
Guidry, who plans to continue working on Greenway issues after her retirement next year, says the City Council has been trying to find solutions to what is "unquestionably" an affordability crisis throughout the city, not just along the Greenway. Controlling property value assessments — especially in areas with new and expensive developments — is part of the solution, Guidry said. Placing property assessment restrictions based on residents' age and income is another key factor.
"Nobody should lose the house that they brought up their children in because it's now too valuable," Guidry said.
Over the next 10 years, Guidry hopes the Greenway flourishes and becomes a lush, well-developed space with strong management focused on sustained funding campaigns. She envisions a private-public partnership meant to maintain the Greenway's appeal for both locals and tourists, while ensuring art, recreation and child-friendly programming remains steady.
"I hope some of the most important aspects of community-building will continue over the next 10 years," Harris said, adding that community gardens along the Greenway are on the top of Friends of Lafitte Greenway's wish list.
More than a decade after Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures, Guidry still tears up as she recalls receiving an email in 2005 suggesting the creation of a bicycle and pedestrian path along the Carondelet Canal and railroad path. "And I cried. I just cried because I had not thought anything good could come of what we went through," Guidry said. "It was the first time I thought there could be something good."