Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Crescent Park - A Slice of Recreation in New Orleans

My wife and I recently spent a long weekend in New Orleans visiting some friends. Before our stay we made sure to tell them that we wanted to do things that New Orleaneans would typically do. We essentially wanted to stay out of the tourist areas, and venture to places other than the French Quarter (except for beignets from Cafe Du Monde, of course.)

During an afternoon drive through the Bywater neighborhood along Chartres Street, I noticed the large, rusty steel Piety Street Bridge. As an urban planner and general urban enthusiast, I asked the group if they wouldn't mind exploring the park. My wife and I being visitors had never heard about the park, and neither had our friends who have been living in New Orleans for almost a year. We climbed the raw but elegant rusty steel bridge to the recently opened Crescent Park and were rewarded with an undisturbed view of the skyline of Downtown New Orleans and the ship traffic navigating the Mississippi River. The park was the vision of the New Orleans Building Corporation and a number of other designers and city organizations dating back to 2008. The built portions of the park seem to have diverted from their original conceptions, but what has resulted is welcoming and invites residents and visitors alike to explore the Mississippi River shoreline by taking a walk or run.

Having lived near cities with large rivers, I can appreciate the challenge that it is for cities to manage and develop land along waterways productively, and to establish uses that will allow residents safe, visible, and active use.

Growing up near Detroit, the city missed many opportunities to develop their riverfront for recreational and public use, and finally came to its senses in the 1990's and early 2000's, resulting in the establishment of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. There are plans for 5 ½ miles of trails and walkways along the Detroit River. For those who know what Detroit's riverfront used to look like, the change is impressive.

During my time as a graduate student at Marshall University the Harris Riverfront Park in downtown Huntington was best known for hosting summer concerts and access to the Ohio River, but also for the loitering homeless it attracted. Much like Crescent Park in New Orleans, it is isolated by railroad tracks and flood walls, which serve protect Huntington from the Ohio River. Other riverfront park examples are available in more-forward-thinking New York and Chicago, and even upriver with Louisville's Waterfront Park and Memphis' Mud Island River Park.

Parks like these are not easy to establish and maintain, especially given their isolation. Maintaining security and vibrancy is important, and I hope that New Orleans is devoting the resources necessary to keep residents and visitors comfortable.

As we stood and looked at the Piety Wharf portion of the park, I immediately saw a setting for community events, especially an opportunity for outdoor movies. Piety Wharf's large warehouse wall and skyline backdrop would provide an amazing setting for a movie. Have residents bring their lawn chairs, and New Orleans has itself a nice outdoor movie theater. The blank concrete wall screams to be projected on. Partnering to host special events like the New Orleans Film Society's Moonlight Movies can help attract residents to the park, especially since the park is not open late on weekdays for evening exploration. And, when the Mandeville Crossing, Shed and Wharf areas are completed, routing many of New Orleans' running events through the park can help provide even more exposure.

The lack of restrooms at Piety Wharf may hinder a greater amount of use, but that can be mitigated for special events, especially with the support of groups like the French Market District, or other development and tourism groups. And, if you're visiting with a dog, or plan to picnic, look at the rules. There sure are a bunch. A final suggestive thought: there should be consideration made to allow a better view of Downtown New Orleans from the Piety Street Bridge. If you're over six feet tall, you can raise your camera for a good capture of downtown, however, for anyone shorter, you're out of luck. A grate-like cutout, or even select wider spacing between the steel panels that make up the side of the bridge, would provide a unique, undisturbed view of downtown.

The opening of a new park in Bywater will eventually mean more visitors to the neighborhood, especially if there is any programming or special events set to take place in the park. The gentrification banner will undoubtedly be raised high, and is already evidenced in the addition of the GraNOLA crowd, although this park may provide another outlet for working off the fried New Orleans cuisine enjoyed by so many. Increased traffic and attention in Bywater may continue to drive attention and development in the neighborhood, probably to the behest of many long-time residents. However, it seemed to me that the neighborhood can benefit from the new investment, as long as groups like the Bywater Neighborhood Association continue to showcase the heritage of their neighborhood, and educating those who move to, or visit the area.

I cannot tell whether New Orleans residents are happy about this park, as there does not seem to be a great deal of activity at the park (there weren't many people there for a Saturday afternoon, although I know the park is not finished yet), there are no indications of planned special events at the park, and there does not seem to be a very large amount of press about the park either. There is art critic Doug MacCash's review in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, a few other updates regarding the park's delayed opening on the Times-Picayune website, and a few Curbed NOLA articles from the park's opening, addressing the park's delayed opening, the soil with a dangerous pH level used in the park, the inevitable critics of the park (have there been any?), and a list of 10 things that residents need to know about the then-recently-opened Crescent Park.

A May 2014 article in the Next City Resilient Cities column outlined the recent boom of parks projects in New Orleans, noting that $134 million has been spent on parks projects since 2010, including Crescent Park, additions to New Orleans' largest park, City Park, as well as the multiplying of community centers and pools. Many question whether the city will be able to maintain such a large growth in parkland.

Cities like New Orleans, Detroit, New York, Chicago, and even here in Houston, are continuing to develop active and passive recreational opportunities that provide residents with waterfront access. It's something that residents demand, and something that can help increased economic development, and civic pride. Given all I have read about Crescent Park's development and construction after our visit, it sure did take a while for things to get moving and for the park to open up, but it sure looks like it was all worth the wait. We enjoyed our visit. I hope the residents of New Orleans recognize how fortunate they are to have a public place like Crescent Park.

And, if you're in the area, head to Omar's Designer Crafts and Millwork Co. (3023 Chartres Street) for some antique windows or doors, or head to breakfast at Elizabeth's (601 Gallier Street). You won't be disappointed by the service and hospitality at either. We weren't.