Planning panel to consider issue of Newcomb Blvd fence

The long-standing Newcomb Boulevard fence feud, played out in New Orleans courts over the past seven years, will make its debut in a public forum Tuesday.

The City Planning Commission will hold a hearing that day on whether the public street, running four blocks from St. Charles Avenue to Freret Street, should be made private.

The Newcomb Boulevard Association, a group representing the street’s residents, wants to buy the street from the city in a bid to maintain a fence the association erected at the Freret Street end in 2006 and which a state appeals court has ordered removed.

The City Planning Commission staff has recommended that the request be denied on the grounds it is not in line with the city’s master plan.

If the commission approves the sale, the final decision will be up to the City Council. The street is in Councilwoman Susan Guidry’s district.

If the commission does not give its OK, the proposal would not even go to the council, according to opponents of the proposed sale.

Though constructed as a private street, Newcomb has been a public thoroughfare since 1916, according to city records. But it has been treated more like a private street since the fence went up.

In 2006, then-Public Works Director John Shires, at the request of the Newcomb Boulevard Association, issued a permit allowing an iron fence to be erected across the boulevard at its Freret Street end, meaning there was no longer any access onto Freret.

The street had a “problem of unsafe traffic” caused by its narrow width and lack of intersections, association President Christian Rooney said. Those conditions encouraged motorists to speed through, using Newcomb Boulevard as a shortcut to avoid heavy traffic on St. Charles Avenue, Rooney said.

Though the street remains open at the St. Charles end and can be traversed by pedestrians and bicyclists, the barrier makes it a dead-end street for vehicles, effectively limiting traffic to those who live on the street or are visiting residents.

A year after Shires gave the go-ahead for the fence, Uptown residents Keith Hardie and Derek Huston, along with Maple Area Residents Inc. and the Carrollton Riverbend Residents Association, filed suit against the city, demanding that the fence be removed. They said it was equivalent to a street closure and therefore needed City Council approval.

The Newcomb Boulevard Association, in defense of the city’s action, replied that the street was not closed because it could still be accessed from St. Charles Avenue.

That battle has since wound its way through the courts, with judges at both Civil District Court and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal ruling that the permit should not have been issued.

The appeals court ordered the fence removed in January, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office said the order would be carried out, but the fence is still standing.

The Newcomb Boulevard Association is asking the Planning Commission to let it purchase the street from the city, changing it from a public street to a private one that could remain closed. Under the City Charter, the commission must approve all dispositions of city property.

Rooney said the association will argue that the street should maintain its limited access because of ongoing concerns about traffic.

“The (fence) has been the solution to the unsafe traffic problem that plagued our residents for decades,” Rooney said. “Our goal is to keep Newcomb Boulevard the way it is now and has been for the past eight years.”

Rooney said the effort has 469 supporters.

They include Newcomb Boulevard resident Myriam “Mimi” Robinson, who said she would not have purchased a home on the street two years ago had she known that traffic might be allowed to move freely on it again. The street is too narrow to allow for motorists simply using it as a quick way to get to Freret Street, she said.

Newcomb Boulevard varies in width from about 50 feet to 60 feet.

“The fact that it was not a through street, to me, was important,” Robinson said. “We’re just trying to keep the traffic down.”

But Hardie said limiting vehicular access on Newcomb only pushes traffic to other nearby streets.

“The argument that the closure makes it safer is what I call ‘leaf blower planning,’ ” Hardie said. “A guy will come out and blow his leaves onto someone else’s lawn. If there are speeders there, those speeders aren’t going to move to Texas. They are going to move to the nearest available street.”

Reopening the street is “an issue of basic fairness,” he said.

That idea was reiterated in dozens of letters to the Planning Commission opposing the request.

Tulane Law School student Heather Murray said allowing the fence to remain sends the idea that New Orleans is only for the wealthy.

People on streets across the city have traffic concerns similar to those of the Newcomb Boulevard residents, Murray said.

“Maybe they don’t have the resources to buy up the streets if they want to,” she said. “It doesn’t strike me as a good or just act.”

In its report, the planning staff said converting the street to a private pathway is inconsistent with the goals of the city’s master plan because it would result in the “significant alteration of a public facility and public utilities” without providing a public purpose.

Planning Commission members are generally reluctant to overrule a recommendation by their staff, but they do so with some frequency.

The commission will consider the matter at a meeting starting at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in the City Council chamber.