Saturday, January 10, 2015

If you lived here you'd be at Dave and Buster's by now

The tragedy of the Rampart Streetcar project is in its final phase; the part where the aggrieved neighborhood "stakeholders" lodge their final impotent and incoherent complaints.
The Regional Transit Authority (RTA) and its international conglomerate Transdev, which oversees it, met a tough crowd tonight at Joseph A. Craig Charter School, where engineers and planners presented construction plans for the Rampart/St. Claude streetcar line that will stretch from Canal Street to Elysian Fields Avenue.

Construction on the line will start Jan. 12 and will be completed within 18 months, according to Martin Pospisil, a manager with Transdev, though many in the crowd of about 100 residents and business owners expressed skepticism of that timeline — including French Quarter resident and former mayoral candidate Leo Watermeier, who said he was "leery" of the projection based on how long it took Transdev to complete its Loyola Avenue track. Watermeier asked if there was a more realistic projection.

Pospisil explained, "Every project is different, and every project springs different issues as you start the project. So the schedule may change as different issues may come up. Certain things can happen and you have to make adjustments to your schedule."

A half dozen other residents and business owners joined Watermeier in protesting the RTA's claim that it had reached out to local stakeholders for community input. "I live, work and own three buildings on North Rampart, and I haven't been contacted," Watermeier said. 
Gotta love that, "I own three buildings," sense of entitlement.  Watermeier's complaint about lack of "community input" is dubious.  The planning process has involved a series of public meetings.  This is from a Times-Pic report on a big one back in 2013.
Most people appeared to favor the overall idea of a new streetcar, even if noise and vibration did come up as potential concerns. Leo Watermeier voiced a minority opinion when he said "I'm against the whole project," having watched in "shock and awe" at the disruption that work on the new Loyola line caused last year.
So aside from his own participation in community meetings resulting in him being quoted in the newspaper, I'm not sure what other sort of input opportunities Watermeier is expecting.  Did he want a private audience? Did he offer any of his buildings as venue for such a meeting?

Of course we shouldn't let the fact that some of those opposed to the project are spoiled babies distract us from the fact that there are legitimate complaints against it.  For example, it's not really a public transit project.. you know.. in the sense that it is intended to provide the public with better transit. 
Mari Kornhauser, who has lived in the French Quarter for more than 20 years, asked Gambit. "I never wanted this project," she said. "It's socially inequitable transportation since it's only going to Elysian FIelds. With so many people getting pushed out of these neighborhoods, and with most of the people who work in the service industry...it should go all the way to St. Bernard."

Kornhauser suggested that the $42 million being spent on the project might be better allocated for buying more buses. Justin Augustine, the RTA's general manager, however, says that the bonds being used to fund the project are streetcar-project specific.

"The bonds that we acquired were used for streetcar related projects because that was the concept at the time," Augustine told Gambit. "It's a decision you make. At the time we had just spent a lot of federal money to buy 143 buses."
Augustine is correct about the grant funds.  But Kornhauser is right about their ultimate purpose. The St. Clause line, like the recently installed Loyola streetcar isn't really about better transit service. Rather, it is a prop designed to amuse tourists and "spur development" (i.e. sell luxury condos) along gentrifying downtown corridors. It's actually a common misapplication of the grant Augustine referred to afflicting other cities.
Yet another reason for streetcar caution, offered by transit scholar David King, is that few cities were demanding the lines before the federal government began to hand out money for them. King has wondered whether this temptation makes streetcars the "latest incarnation of the people mover," those old monorail systems that a few cities rushed to pursue with federal grants. Just last week he noted how rare it was for a streetcar feasibility report to find the streetcar line unfeasible — a sign that political interests, rather than mobility needs, are driving the trend.
There's little doubt that "political interests, rather than mobility needs, are driving the trend," in New Orleans.   In this article Augustine talks about his hopes that the new line to "spur economic development" like the Loyola line supposedly has.
Justin Augustine, the agency’s general manager, said the project will take about two years to complete once the work gets started. As with the Loyola Avenue spur, which opened in January 2013, city officials hope the investment will pay off by generating economic development in a part of the city where revitalization efforts have proceeded in fits and starts.

“When we first introduced the concept, we wanted to revitalize and renew parts of the city, and we knew that along that corridor, you’d be touching five historic neighborhoods,” Augustine said, referring to the French Quarter, Iberville, the Treme, the Marigny and the Upper 9th Ward. “We’re hoping with all of our projects that we spur economic development.”
That's always what they lead with. We want to "revitalize" a corridor.  They barely mention anything about providing a transit service. It's almost as if they don't really see that as their job so much anymore. Instead, they're busy trying to meet the political expectations of city leadership.. which, again, is closely related to what tourism and real estate developers are interested in.
(October 2014) The New Orleans Industrial Development Board this week approved a property tax break for the third phase of the downtown South Market District development, a mix of apartments, retail and parking under construction off Loyola Avenue.

The Beacon building is the planned $39.6 million third phase of the development, set to be at the corner of Girod Street and O'Keefe Avenue with 20,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor and 126 apartments.

The Domain Companies' plans for the whole $250 million project call for shops, restaurants, a hotel, 700 apartments and parking. 
The Loyola streetcar was a show piece for the Super Bowl crowd a few years ago and an "amenity" to help sell these condos.   The Rampart streetcar will serve a similar purpose as Pres Kabacoff explained during that 2013 meeting Leo Watermeir attended.
Pres Kabacoff, a real estate developer from the Bywater neighborhood, said he thinks the streetcar will help spur business. Kabacoff even argued that slowing down vehicle traffic might be a good thing, since having cars whip by "is not conducive for good retail development."

He added, "To the extent that people have a difficult time in traffic getting down the street it may cause them to want to live in the area and use an effective streetcar."
The explicit plan is to make the public transit system less efficient in order to make the targeted corridor more attractive to whoever can afford to live there. 

And it's nice for tourists.  Once the Rampart line is up and running, they'll be able to get from Habana Outpost all the way to Dave and Buster's riding streetcars from one "vital" end of the corridor to the other.

1 comment:

Nolaresident said...

Kabacoff even
argued that slowing down vehicle traffic might be a good thing, since
having cars whip by "is not conducive for good retail development."

Riiight. Explain that to the folks who actually use the street to, say, get to work and back.