Tuesday, May 14, 2013

You’re invited to an input session, but don’t you dare have any input

On Saturday I was invited to an "informational input session" sponsored by St. Claude Main Street (SCMS) and its design partner, Tulane City Center (TCC). The event was to address the "pocket park" and "parklet" they're planning to install in my neighborhood.
"If you're interested in contributing..."

At the time, I was on the sidewalk talking to my neighbor and her friend when an SCMS representative came up to us and asked if we had received flyers about the info session. I had not, so she gave me the flyer and two other documents about the projects (pictured).

Discussion quickly turned to other neighborhood concerns, and my neighbor’s friend started telling us about a major pothole in the middle of her street.

“I think I’m about to fall in it one of these days,” she said.

But rather than listening and taking the opportunity to consider this resident’s “informational input,” or offer referral services to one of SCMS' many "neighborhood partners," the SCMS representative excused herself quietly and walked away from the conversation.

For all your neighborhood mini-transit hub needs

[Not to be nitpicky but if it is true, as it states on their website, that “it is a goal of St. Claude Main Street to improve the ground-level conditions on the St. Claude corridor,” I would imagine that pothole awareness falls under the purview of this mission!]

Afterwards, my neighbor wondered aloud why they weren’t building a park in the other empty lot on our block, the one which abuts N. Rampart, a quieter, less-trafficked street than St. Claude. “Yeah,” I agreed with her. “If people want to bring their kids and dogs to a park, they probably want a safer location than right off St. Claude.”

But of course, the lot in question on Independence and St. Claude is owned by Maurice Slaughter, an SCMS Board member. I do not know if SCMS considered other lots for the “pocket park” plan, but the use of this lot in particular begs a number of as-yet unanswered questions about the implications of creating a “public” park on privately owned land.

For example, who will be responsible for its maintenance? Will there be rules for its use, including limited hours of access? What happens to the park if the owner wants to sell the land?

According to a 2012 Tulane City Center brochure entitled “Vacant Land – Site Strategies for New Orleans”:

The implementation of a pocket park has the potential for strong community use, greater civic pride, improvements in real estate value, and increased quality of life. However, the potential downside of pocket parks are nearly the opposite of the upside if they are not cared for or are used for illicit activities. For this reason, establishing pocket parks should be approached with much consideration to the desire and capacity of a neighborhood to support such a site as well as the committment [sic] of a community organization to maintain a permanent neighborhood amenity. 

As I’ve written before, I don’t think the “desire” of my neighborhood to host a pocket park has been adequately established. The “Community Survey” distributed by SCMS and TCC even says explicitly that the questionnaire is a “great tool for beginning to understand what residents in neighborhoods along St. Claude Avenue are concerned with and excited about in their community.” Why, after so much time, partnering, and planning, and with the promise of “final designs complete by July 2013,” are these institutions only beginning to understand what we want?

Why also does the survey ask such leading and obvious questions as “How important [is lighting]…to a safe and useful public space?” The answer options from which a survey participant may choose are “Very Important,” “Somewhat Important,” “No Impact,” and “Not Important.” What is the difference here between “No Impact” and “Not Important?” Who would say that lighting is not important to a safe and useful public space?
Why do we need an area info map if we already live here?

Additionally, the survey asks what the respondent would choose as the “best use of public space” for the Independence Street pocket park. The options given are “Garden space,” “Play space,” “Open park space,” “Sitting areas,” and a tiny area to answer the question, “What else?”

The lot is empty – its only use in the past three years has been for an SCMS night market - which seems to indicate that it already exists, albeit unofficially, as “open park space” in the neighborhood. Actually I’m mistaken - the lot is empty except for a large wooden sign advertising a Slaughter family real estate company, potentially (intentionally?) leading passersby to conclude that the lot itself is for sale.

I’m also concerned about the “improvements in real estate value” piece, given that the lot in question is privately owned (and apparently for sale) by an SCMS Board member. He also owns a number of properties in the area, including a planned gallery across the street from the lot, two houses on the same block of Independence Street, and another on St. Claude between Independence and Pauline. This is a man who has a lot of financial interest in the neighborhood, despite the fact that he lives in Virginia.

If the park is installed on his lot, the real estate values of that lot and his other properties on the block will increase. This may provide more incentive for him to sell the pocket park land, leaving its future status uncertain.

SCMS’s director, Michael T. Martin, has repeatedly stated that his group works with many different neighborhood associations to ascertain and respond to neighborhood concerns. But so far all SCMS has undertaken are severely deficient and token efforts at neighborhood outreach and input solicitation. This suggests that a concerned resident must become a dues-paying member of a neighborhood association in order to be validated as a stakeholder in these projects.

Neighborhood associations are not synechdochically representative of the larger neighborhood: its residents, workers, renters, library patrons, parents of students, and so on. Voices of certain stakeholders like developers and landowners are heard much louder than others. This is why someone like Maurice Slaughter, who doesn’t even live in Louisiana, is afforded so much sway in groups like SCMS and the Bywater Neighborhood Association, in which he used to be a Board member.

I fail to see what is the purpose of participating in “visioning” the parklet process when public input has been reduced to ranking the importance of “Seating” and “Fences” on a limited survey that leaves a tiny space for “Additional Comments.”

Moreover, both of these park plans are marketed as "mini-transit hubs" for the neighborhood, but there is not actually a bus stop on Independence Street. It seems silly to have bike parking and benches a full block away from a bus stop, when the actual stop (on Congress Street) is a high-curbed, nearly impassable sidewalk chewed up by tree roots. I wonder if SCMS plans to have the bus stop moved from nearby Congress or Pauline Streets, or it doesn't intend for bus riders to use the park space at all.

Furthermore, some information on the handouts was conflicting, especially the commitment level to the proposed “parklet” at St. Claude and Desire. On one flyer, the parklet is referred to as “potentially” under construction in the near future, and on another, it says the parklet “will be located at a busy bus stop and adjacent to the bike lane that runs along St. Claude,” and it “will provide seating,” etc. When I reached out to him about this, Michael T. Martin said that the landowner’s approval was still pending for that space. I said that it seemed SCMS was going to do what it pleased regardless of any outside constructively critical input it received. In response, he told me I could “feel free to include [my] input on what should be in the park on that sheet of paper.” 

It's insulting to someone who actually lives here.


  1. What's the address of the lot where the proposed park is to be? Did a map search and I'm coming up with this one: http://goo.gl/oVsZE. Is that the lot?

    1. I couldn't quite see from that map, but it's on the 1000 block of Independence at St. Claude, or the 3600 block of St. Claude. I think the address if it were a house would be something like 1036 Independence Street (an even number for sure).

    2. Sorry...someone sent me the right address, and I couldn't delete my comment by that point. 3628 Independence St., the link I posted points to the Desire and St. Claude location you mentioned.

  2. Did you attend the meeting? We live across from the would-be park and wanted to suggest the following: remove the collapsing tree & install fencing/street lighting. Unfortunately business travel & having a 2 yr old prohibited our attendance at the 7pm meeting earlier this week.

    You bring up some good points... Regarding the empty lot at Indy & N Rampart - it took a looong time just to get permission to demolish the house that once stood there, so i wonder if ownership is the issue, because that is another great spot for a pocket park. Also, there are a number of kids that wait for school buses on the corner of St Claude & Independence early in the morning, so it does make sense to have this 'mini transit hub'. Thanks for posting on this, we appreciate it. molly (your former streetmate)

    1. Hey Molly! I was at the meeting, where Michael T. Martin said that SCMS is abandoning all parkette plans except the one on our block because they were unable to secure maintenance agreements with the landowners. I am for real not against parks in our neighborhood, I just think it's way flawed the way SCMS and other developers are going about constructing them.