BY KATY RECKDAHL | Staff writer Published Aug 15, 2020 at 6:30 pm | Updated Aug 16, 2020 at 5:56 pm
Retired architect David Dietrich spent Saturday morning protecting his French Quarter home, first by fixing a leaky rain gutter, then by heading down Orleans Street to pick up two yard signs at a rally protesting a city initiative that could ban automobiles on his street.
Like many of the others gathered at the meet-and-greet-style protest staged by his neighbors, Dietrich has no interest in seeing the French Quarter made more pedestrian-friendly, the goal of seven proposals a team of city employees and neighborhood representatives submitted to the city in June.
Photos: French Quarter residents rally against proposals to turn historic neighborhood into pedestrian mall
Dietrich, who has lived in the French Quarter for more than 30 years, posted one of the yard signs — “Save our neighborhood — no pedestrian mall” — by his front door. He gave the other to his good friend, James Windmiller, 74, who just bought the property next door.
The two men said the Vieux Carré in one proposal the city envisions — a pedestrian mall stretching from North Rampart to Jackson Square — caters more to tourists than local residents and workers. Another proposal would create a larger pedestrian mall at night by banning vehicles on Chartres, Royal, Bourbon, Conti and Iberville after 5 p.m.
“The Quarter would no longer be a real neighborhood,” said Dietrich, who worries the proposal will make it harder for him to unload groceries and hamper the work of carpenters who repair and restore historic buildings.
A decision won’t be made for weeks and the final plan must be approved by the City Council, but Mayor LaToya Cantrell and other city officials have said making the French Quarter more pedestrian friendly is crucial amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Ramsey Green, the mayor’s deputy chief administrative officer for infrastructure, has said the cratering of the tourism industry has ground French Quarter businesses to a halt and sending sales-tax revenue plummeting. As establishments there open up, they could expand outdoors by placing chairs and tables on sidewalks in pedestrian-only areas, attracting more business with less risk of transmitting the coronavirus than inside.
It’s not an entirely new concept for the French Quarter, where Bourbon Street has operated nightly as a pedestrian mall since the 1970s, and a portion of upper Royal Street functions as a mall during daytime hours. Jackson Square is also permanently off-limits to cars.
And workers who tend bar, tote luggage and work kitchen stoves say that there was an era when a more car-free French Quarter might have worked.
“All of my family used to live around here and they all walked to work in the Quarter,” said Renard Smith, 45, as he walked to his job at a hotel in the lower French Quarter. “But now the houses within walking distance of the Quarter are priced way out of our league.
Smith said that while he lives in the 7th Ward and can walk to work in about 45 minutes, most of his co-workers live in New Orleans East or on the West Bank. “So they have to drive, especially if they’re scheduled for a late shift, beyond the time when buses run.”
People who get paid tips also prefer to get picked up outside work after their shift, rather than walk with a roll of bills, Smith said.
Erin Holmes, executive director of Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents, & Associates, said she also fears that if a plan is implemented without major public-transit adjustments, adjacent neighborhoods like Treme and Faubourg Marigny would face parking and traffic problems as a result.
“The cars have to go somewhere,” she said.
Karley Frankic, executive director of the French Quarter Management District, said the French Quarter already gets “walkability” scores in the 90s, on a scale of 100.
“It’s already very walkable,” she said, noting that the city has identified some bond money that could fix impediments like cracked and damaged sidewalks and corners without American Disability Act ramps. This, she contends, has the potential to improve the pedestrian experience more than the elimination of automobiles.
Still, both groups the women represent agree with some of the city’s proposals, including the closure of French Market Place to motorized vehicles and a “slow car” plan, with a 20 mph speed limit on exterior French Quarter streets and a 15 mph limit on the half square-mile’s interior streets.