Streetcar Named “Not So Fast FTA!”

Wayne Curtis recently wrote an article called “A Desire Named Streetcar; what the oldest operating transit system in the U.S. can teach us about planning for tomorrow.” for Architect Magazine regarding transit-oriented development (or TOD).   This article struck a cord in me.  Not only am I leery and cautious of the mentality supported in this article, but I am siding with the people of New Orleans who’s skepticism, I feel, is warranted.  The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) recently signed an agreement with the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority for $45 million in federal economic stimulus funds to build a new, 1.5-mile streetcar line.  The folks of New Orleans desired to route this system through communities that already have a dense residential population.  The line will link Canal Street with the Union Passenger Terminal, a 1954 structure that’s now home to the Amtrak and Greyhound stations.  I do agree that connecting to a regional transportation center is a sensible thing.  However, the intention to route the streetcar through an underused part of the city boasts to “bring vacant blocks and a sea of parking lots to life almost immediately.” 

I can see it now, cheap, poorly constructed developer housing, being sold as new luxury residences to minorities.  Poor blacks, Hispanics, and country white folk coaxed into spending their hard earned dime at just as poorly constructed retail outlets distracted just enough to become complacent.  I picture flocks of workers crowding an undersized transit system until another natural disaster comes and washes it all away.  Call me a conspiracy theorist or a crazy, but am I the only who can see communist China written all over this? 

The planner in me, says why not do it?  It sounds like an amazing way to encourage development in an abandoned city.   After all, in New Orleans, transit and development have helped build the city we picture in all it’s French Creole glory.  The Big Easy is home to one of America’s earliest urban transit systems – ye olde horse-drawn cart and track system.  These carts were guided on tracks, for a trip from Canal Street five miles up river to the new town of Carrolton, which was essentially carved out of an old plantation. Many in the community assumed the line would trigger development, and among its supporters were those who sought to sell lots along the way. As a result, the Garden District and other neighborhoods were born.  In the case being made today, these supporters are The Domain Companies, a developer specializing in mixed-use developments with projects in New York and Louisiana.  I checked out their site and tried to find some resident reviews of their properties…. None to be found. Hmm.

My message to the people of New Orleans:  Stick to your gut.  If it quacks like a duck, waddles like a duck, and looks like a duck…