New Orleans, LA–In recent decades, many U.S. cities have altered their downtown waterfronts. While proximity to water was what first enabled their industrial growth, this meant that their shorelines were long cut off from the public. Once residential quality of life became more of a factor, cities like Portland, Baltimore, and New York City transformed these spaces into parks and promenades.
But New Orleans has remained behind the curve. The city famously meanders along the Mississippi River in the shape of a crescent, hence its nickname. Thanks to warehouses, freight rail train tracks and flood control protections, though, it is tough to access the river in many parts.
Slowly, city officials have changed this. In 1984, the city opened Woldenberg Park, which stretches along the French Quarter portion of the waterfront. And in 2008, the city launched Reinventing the Crescent. This is an effort to open the waterfront far more, using a promenade, public amenities, and bridges that help pedestrians get over the train tracks. Recently while in Nola, I enjoyed breakfast and a tour with two people who are spearheading this project–architect Steve Dumez and developer Sean Cummings.
Dumez co-owns Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, a prominent local architecture firm with a vast portfolio throughout Nola. His firm was hired to draw the rendering for Reinventing the Crescent. Cummings is a major property owner along the portion of waterfront that passes the trendy Bywater neighborhood. This includes a brick warehouse that was once among North America’s largest rice mills; and two adjacent blocks that also feature historic properties. Cummings owns Ekistics Inc., a local firm that specializes in historic conversion.
Both men said that the waterfront initiative was inspired by Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out the city, and caused a period of civic soul-searching after people returned.
“Cities, like people, become a bit introspective when they experience trauma,” said Cummings. “You look within as a community and say ‘are we leading the life we were meant to lead, or is there some shift that we should make’.”
Among these post-Katrina shifts was overhauling the city’s school system, its public administration, and its zoning code. Reinventing the Crescent was another. The anticipated price tag will be $300 million, with $67 million to be paid by the city. The redesign, as drawn below by Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, envisions a promenade stretching from the Lower 9th Ward to Jackson Avenue in the Garden District. The firm also wanted existing waterfront property owners like Cummings to build mixed-use projects, bringing pedestrian intensiveness to this substantial underused asset.
Eight years later, this vision has been partially achieved. Cummings’ rice mill, which dates to 1892, and suffered years of abandonment and decay, was reconverted into a genuinely stellar architectural work, the Rice Mill Lofts. As the New York Times noted in a 2012 profile, the project is more than just your typical warehouse conversion. Cummings saved the old graffiti (including a piece by Banksy), installed historic and artistic artifacts, and built a rooftop pool and bar. Wrote the Times:
It’s a realm that in some ways mirrors the relaxed ethos of Bywater. The various parts of the building were created with the goal of bringing people together. Renters from wildly different backgrounds hang out and have cocktails on the roof deck, lured by a good sound system and the thrillingly close embrace of the Mississippi River.
According to the report, the building is at full occupancy, and commanding the highest per-unit residential rent in Nola.
The waterfront itself remains a work in progress. There is a 1.4-mile portion, called Crescent Park, that has already opened, connecting Bywater with the Marigny. The highlight of this stretch is a pedestrian bridge designed by David Adjaye, the Tanzanian architect better known for designing the National Museum of African-American History on the National Mall in Washington.
The promenade ends by running up against two privately-owned warehouses. On the other side of those warehouses is Woldenberg Park, the one built in 1984 along the French Quarter. But, as became evident once I viewed the promenade from the rooftop of Cummings’ building, the two parks cannot be connected, because the city has not managed to buy out nor circumnavigate the two warehouses. Instead, there is a huge gap where there could be a contiguous park.
This epitomizes the bureaucratic hurdles that, according to Dumez and Cummings, have hindered the project. There are 26 different state and local entities that regulate the waterfront, concerning everything from the railroad to the port to the levees. Having so many competing interests has made it time-consuming–and costly–to get anything done.
Another problem with having the government organize a public project is that basic measures of pragmatism and financial accountability go ignored. Take, for example, the city’s approach to land use along the waterfront. To help Reinventing the Crescent pay for itself, the city could have applied ‘value capture’–by using the added sales and property tax receipts that resulted from the park to help fund its debt. This strategy has multiple advantages, one being that it encourages governments to allow higher-revenue-generating uses near the amenities they build.
But in New Orleans, explained Cummings, the city did the opposite. In the process of building this expensive waterfront, it avoided any value capture strategy, and in fact downzoned adjacent properties from 75′ to 55′. This means Cummings’ Rice Lofts, at 75′, would now be illegal; and that his future waterfront projects must be shorter.
After we left his building, Cummings drove me by some yard signs at nearby houses that reflected the political momentum behind the downzonings. The signs showed renderings of his building, with warnings about a “wall” on the waterfront. But at 75′, the building isn’t even visible from several blocks away, does nothing to physically separate the waterfront, and is hardly overwhelming at ground level.
“New Orleans is a very provincial place,” explained Cummings. “The preservation community here is so strong, and they’ve done such great work in the past, but perhaps overplayed their hand a little bit in influencing public policy on the riverfront.”
Of course, NIMBYism from noisy neighbors likely will not stop Reinventing the Crescent. While navigating Nola’s waterfront from the Lower Ninth Ward to the Garden District, I saw several recently-built private projects, and there are more on the way, including from Cummings. He owns the two blocks adjacent to the Rice Lofts, and plans to incorporate their historic structures into larger mixed-use projects. As for the waterfront initiative’s public portion, progress may be more incremental.