Dividing Line

While New Orleans continues to debate the fate of I-10, local design students propose solutions.

Tulane School of Architecture

New Orleans

New Orleans prides itself, rightly, on being a singular place. But for all its charming idiosyncrasies, the Big Easy possesses an urban feature common to just about every city in America: an interstate highway, I-10, that cuts right through town just north of the business district. While the highway does no favors for any of the neighborhoods in its path, a 2.2-mile section along Claiborne Avenue—once the heart and soul of the city’s African-American community—is particularly destructive. For 50 years, I-10 has divided the French Quarter and the neighborhood of Treme, and cut off the rest of the city from its historic core.

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Known as the Claiborne Corridor, that particular stretch of highway is the subject of intense study by the city, the academic design community, and organizations like the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). The questions being raised are: Should New Orleans—like San Francisco, Milwaukee, Providence, and other cities—tear down the elevated highway that divides its neighborhoods? Or can the city devise innovative solutions that alter the spaces underneath the highway and make the overpass less of a barrier?

The Tulane School of Architecture recently completed a student-design studio that explored these questions and offered some possible urban-design solutions. Entitled “Claiborne After I-10,” the studio is the result of a series of unique collaborations. The idea originated with Daniel Etheridge, the assistant director of the Tulane City Center, the architecture school’s public-outreach program. He pulled in Jonathan Tate, an adjunct professor at the school, and Judith Kinnard, a landscape-architecture professor, and contacted John Renne, an associate professor at the planning department of the University of New Orleans, who agreed to conduct a semester-long research effort on the neighborhoods affected by the overpass. “Renne and his students did a huge survey,” says Tate, who led the studio. “That served as the foundation for us to move forward with project development.” Since the city was about to embark on a federally funded Claiborne study of its own, the studio reached out to William Gilchrist, New Orleans’s director of place-based planning, who acted as a consultant and later served as a visiting critic.

The idea of dismantling that stretch of I-10 has been in the air for a while now, largely because the state of Louisiana constructed a bypass in the late 1970s that siphoned off a considerable amount of the interstate’s traffic. Even so, I-10 is heavily used, so doing away with it entirely is a fraught proposition. There is also no clear consensus among neighborhood residents about what to do with the elevated highway: many of them want it gone, some are concerned that its elimination would flood the neighborhood with traffic (an unfounded fear, judging by the experiences of other cities), and others are afraid of the rapid development that seems sure to follow the removal of the overpass. To complicate matters further, because the acoustics underneath the highway magnify the sound of drums, the Mardi Gras Indians have grown quite fond of it.

“That’s what’s so rich about this project,” Tate says. “How do you delve into all these complexities and then come up with a design response to them? In general, I’d say there was a split opinion about I-10. We had students who said, ‘Let’s keep it, work with what’s there, and try to respect the culture that’s grown up around it.’ We had students who left fragments and others who wiped it away and treated it as a clean slate.”

Hee Cho’s reimagining of Claiborne Avenue is complete with a huge Ferris wheel that serves as a visual metaphor for what removing the highway could mean. Claire Tritschler took a more surgical approach, leaving parts of the overpass intact. “I wanted to preserve certain ‘artifacts,’ ” she says, “so I choose the pieces that were most interesting, such as the mural columns. Keeping the highway ramps gave me an opportunity to both create public spaces and make elevated views of the city that would be accessible to pedestrians.”

The real-world debate is ongoing. John Norquist—the president and CEO of the CNU and the former mayor of Milwaukee (where he famously tore down a highway)—has been lobbying for I-10’s removal for the past three years. The road comes in at number five on the CNU’s list of “Freeways Without Futures.” Meanwhile, New Orleans’s study has just kicked off. And while the politically nimble Gilchrist is quick to point out that a portion of the study (less than half) addresses issues other than the elevated highway, Tate is more than willing to acknowledge the urban-design elephant in the room: “Bill will hedge it and say, ‘We’re really looking at the larger area,’ but the fact is, what everyone cares about is not planting palm trees at the corner of Claiborne and Napoleon, but the larger question: what are you going to do with the overpass?”

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