The Riverfront Expressway Is Defeated

Jul 10, 1969

An organized preservation effort led to the 1969 defeat of a six-lane elevated riverfront expressway proposed for the Vieux Carré.

The controversial Riverfront Expressway had its origins in the regional transportation study prepared by New York-based master planner Robert Moses in 1946. Moses’ report, which recommended ways to relieve congestion and improve traffic flow into and out of the city, included a proposal for a six-lane-wide, 40-foot-high elevated riverfront expressway connecting Elysian Fields Avenue to the anticipated Pontchartrain Expressway. Temporarily tabled while the city focused on bridge building and rail improvements, the expressway concept was resurrected once the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 made federal funding available for highway construction.¹

At a 1958 City Planning Commission hearing on the expressway, there were few dissenting voices. Even the Vieux Carré Commission (VCC), the Vieux Carré Property Owners and Associates (VCPOA), and the Louisiana Landmarks Society (LLS) cautiously supported the idea of a ground-level alternative that would keep heavy congestion and vibrations away from the Vieux Carré’s fragile buildings and interior streets.² When subsequent engineering reports favored an elevated option, however, the preservation community withdrew its support, fearing that an above-grade roadway would harm the Vieux Carré’s historic character and permanently sever its relationship to the river.³

By the early 1960s it was clear that a national battle was emerging between those who viewed urban renewal and highway construction as signs of economic progress and others, including activist and author Jane Jacobs, who feared that such actions were destroying the physical and social fabric of urban neighborhoods.⁴ In New Orleans, local and state officials pressed onward and in 1964 Congressman Hale Boggs had the planned Riverfront Expressway formally added to the federal government’s interstate highway system. Construction soon began on the tunnel beneath the Rivergate exhibition hall, which was to connect the Riverfront Expressway to the Pontchartrain Expressway and Greater New Orleans Bridge.⁵

In 1965, opposition to the Riverfront Expressway grew more organized and vocal. Preservationists began staging protests, writing letters, funding alternative studies, speaking out in the national press, and lobbying local, state, and federal officials.⁶ They received support from Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, who in 1965 deemed the Vieux Carré eligible for both National Historic Landmark and National Register of Historic Places status.⁷ This decision was especially significant because in 1966 two pieces of critical legislation—the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the Department of Transportation Act—were passed, both with provisions to protect historic sites from highway construction.

Aware of mounting opposition to the elevated expressway, in 1967 the Federal Highway Administration held a public hearing in New Orleans and shortly afterwards reversed its support for the elevated option, proposing instead a grade-level roadway. Approval for the surface alternative was formally granted in January 1969, but withdrawn eleven days later because the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation had not yet commented on the project as required by Section 106 of the NHPA.⁸ The council's report released in March 1969 found that a surface roadway would indeed have an adverse effect upon the quality of the historic district, and urged Secretary of Transportation John Volpe to either seek an alternative location for the expressway or depress it below grade.⁹ The recommendation was celebrated by preservationists but criticized by highway proponents, which included local and state officials, business leaders, and The Times-Picayune.

In July 1969 the federal government withdrew support for the Riverfront Expressway, effectively ending the controversial project. Volpe stated that the “public benefits from the proposed highway would not be enough to warrant damaging the treasured French Quarter.”¹⁰ Volpe’s decision, which marked a turning point in the agency’s approach to heritage conservation, was one of the first major tests of the Section 106 process. For the first time, concerned citizens were able to stop a segment of the interstate highway system on the basis of social and environmental concerns.¹¹

 

1. Richard O. Baumbach and William E. Borah, The Second Battle of New Orleans: A History of the Vieux Carré Riverfront Expressway Controversy (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1980), 30-34; and Ari Kelman, A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 201.

2. Baumbach and Borah, Second Battle, 37-38; and Kelman, Nature of Landscape, 197-198.

3. Baumbach and Borah, 41-44.

4. See Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Random House and Vintage Books, 1961). Another example of an elevated expressway impacting a local community was the segment of Interstate 10 built over Claiborne Avenue, which effectively bisected the Tremé neighborhood. That segment between St. Bernard Avenue and the Pontchartrain Expressway appeared on the city’s transportation plans as early as 1954, construction started in 1966, and the roadway was substantially complete by 1969. See Michael E. Crutcher, Jr., Tremé: Race and Place in a New Orleans Neighborhood (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010), 59-60, and Gene Bourg, “Interstate Sections Completed on Schedule,” The Times-Picayune, January 30, 1966.

5. Baumbach and Borah, 49.

6. Baumbach and Borah, 61-66; Kelman, 206, 208.

7. Richard F. Weingroff, “The Battles of New Orleans—Vieux Carré Riverfront Expressway (I-310),” for the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Division, October 27, 2013. 

8. Baumbach and Borah, 174; “No More Expressway Delays, Please,” The Times-Picayune, January 29, 1969. 

9. Baumbach and Borah, 176-177.

10. “Expressway Doom Has Confirmation,” The Times-Picayune, July 10, 1969; and Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, “106 Success Story—Riverfront Expressway: French Quarter Threat Demolished by Preservationists.” 

11. Kelman, 213. 

 

Suggestions for Additional Reading and Research

Edward B. Silverstein and Associates Office Records. Southeastern Architectural Archive, Tulane University. 

Donaldson, Milford Wayne. “The ‘Economic Development’ That Nearly Doomed New Orleans Tourism,” The Lens, April 30, 2013.

Louisiana Landmarks Society Records and Collection. Southeastern Architectural Archive, Tulane University. 

Moses, Robert, and Andrews & Clark, Consulting Engineers. “Arterial Plan for New Orleans.” New York: Steidinger Press Inc., 1946. 

Place Tags: 
The RivergateLouisiana Landmarks Society and the Pitot HouseVieux Carré Property Owners, Residents and Associates, Inc. (VCPORA)
Person/Entity Tags: 
Vieux Carré Commission (VCC)Louisiana Landmarks Society and the Pitot HouseVieux Carré Property Owners, Residents and Associates, Inc. (VCPORA)
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