City poised to transform old rail corridor into park

Ball fields, trees, pathways planned for Lafitte Corridor

More than eight years after the first interested residents began hiking along the abandoned railroad tracks running from the back of the French Quarter through Mid-City, imagining what this unused seam of open space in a crowded city might become, construction crews are finally poised to begin transforming what’s known as the Lafitte Corridor into the Lafitte Greenway.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration signed a contract with Durr Heavy Construction in January, and the company will start work in the next few weeks, installing a 12-foot-wide, 2.6-mile-long path for walking and biking, while also laying out ball fields, improving drainage and planting more than 500 trees.

The $9.1 million project, funded by Community Development Block Grant money from the federal government, will begin near Basin and St. Louis streets in Treme, run through Mid-City along Lafitte Street and end at North Alexander Street, a few blocks west of North Carrollton Avenue.

The city expects construction to take about 11 months, with most of the work going on between 7 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. weekdays.

Like the newly opened Crescent Park running along the river in the Bywater and Marigny neighborhoods, the greenway is an effort to convert old industrial space into a public attraction, just as wharves and railroads in older cities across the country are giving way to gardens and bike paths.

And for the neighborhood activists who have been pushing the project since shortly after Hurricane Katrina, the beginning of construction will be a welcome, tangible step forward in what has been an arduous, stop-and-go journey.

“This is an apex for us,” said Sam Spencer, chairman of the Friends of the Lafitte Corridor, a support organization for the project. “A lot of people have put in a lot of volunteer hours and gone on hikes and advocated and really wanted this.”

Spencer said this won’t be the end of his organization, though. The group, which has been holding an annual hike along the corridor since 2006, will continue to lobby for further development of the space.

He noted, for instance, that the park could in the future continue past North Alexander and into Lakeview.

There also could be more done on the property in the area of stormwater management, part of a broader effort in New Orleans to capture water in place during heavy rains rather than immediately pumping it into Lake Pontchartrain.

Nevertheless, Spencer said, the plans Durr is getting ready to carry out exceed his own expectations.

“With this initial build, there was some fear that we’d get nothing but a sidewalk through a field,” he said. “This will include things like baseball and softball fields, soccer goals, native plants, rain gardens, 541 trees, lighting, all those kinds of things.”

Getting to this point has taken a while, in part because the planning process spanned two different mayoral administrations. Former Mayor Ray Nagin got to the point of hiring a firm to design the park, then let the contract expire without ever telling the company to start work, said Bart Everson, one of the founders of the Friends of the Lafitte Corridor.

“We were all excited,” Everson said. “And then we started hearing that Mayor Nagin didn’t think things had been done quite right.”

After that, Landrieu took office and more or less restarted the process. The city bought the 16.5-acre parcel in 2010 from a company that was originally planning to build a movie studio on part of the site. A year later, the mayor announced another series of community meetings to gather input on what residents wanted for the space, which used to be the Norfolk Southern railroad corridor.

The city ultimately hired a company called Design Workshop to create the plans, and Durr signed the construction contract Jan. 17. There will be one more public meeting March 19 to explain the project to residents, with a groundbreaking sometime after that.

For activists such as Everson, getting construction underway will mark an important accomplishment for those drawn to civic engagement as Katrina’s floodwaters receded.

“Post-Katrina, there was this planning process underway and people were feeling a lot of civic pride, but also fear and anxiety about what the future of New Orleans was going to be,” he said. “We’ve been hearing that construction is going to begin for a long time, but we’ve never been to this stage before.”