The debate that erupted recently over the docking of a new steamboat on the Mississippi River at the French Quarter held a familiar irony for longtime observers of riverfront issues. Local preservationists were speaking out against New Orleans Steamboat Company’s plan to dock a second passenger riverboat next to its flagship vessel, the Steamboat Natchez, which has operated there for many years.
Preservation-minded New Orleanians have a long history of opposing private encroachment into public spaces, and often their efforts seem to place them at odds with the interests of the tourism industry. But, in fact, their work can sometimes be seen as being as much about defending visitors’ rights as opposing tourists’ intrusion, and the new steamboat dock is a case in point.
People who have lived in New Orleans for several decades may hear echoes from the past in this debate. It was in the late 1950s that New York urban planner Robert Moses proposed that an elevated expressway be built along New Orleans’ riverfront, creating a downtown traffic loop from the Pontchartrain Expressway, west of the CBD, to Interstate 10 on the east. The proposal had the backing of the city administration, the Louisiana Transportation Department and countless people in between. But two preservation-minded individuals, lawyers William E. Borah and Richard Baumbach, mounted an extraordinary grassroots campaign to fight the project. Their success in shutting down the proposal is hailed not only for preserving views of the Mississippi River, but also enabling the eventual opening to pubic use large stretches of the riverfront that were previously dedicated to private commerce.
Today, public access to the riverfront is largely taken for granted as people by the thousands stroll the French Quarter promenade known as Woldenberg Park. So popular has this pedestrian haven become that the city in recent years extended the walkway downriver via construction of the extensively landscaped and bike-pathed Crescent Park.
Both visitors and locals have embraced the deepened relationship with the river that the opening of these spaces has enabled. Views of the cargo ships, barges and tugboats that ply the river have become a major attraction, and countless weddings and family photos have been set against this backdrop. All of which has contributed to the city reaching record highs in tourists and seeing visitor spending top $9 billion in 2018.
Yet, even as the city appears to have learned the value of preserving public access to the riverfront, private pressure to take back some of that access continues. So it was that preservationists in December took issue with the plan to permanently dock another passenger vessel at a prime spot. In an op-ed published by The Lens.com on Dec. 10, Louisiana Landmarks Society past president Sandra Stokes wrote that adding another large boat there threatens to “destroy a wide vista” that visitors now enjoy from much of Woldenberg Park.
“Citizens should rightly view these actions as a blatant grab of public parkland for a private, commercial enterprise,” Stokes wrote. “Such actions go directly against our city’s Master Plan which, in fact, specifically calls for … expanding access and expanding parks and public spaces along the Mississippi River.”
The controversy highlights another case where the protection of public access to the river, which has helped drive local tourism, faces a threat from a segment of the industry that has greatly benefited from this access. The riverboats are a thriving part of the visitor industry in New Orleans, and as their popularity continues to grow, it is possible, perhaps likely, that tourism vs. tourism along the riverfront will remain a recurring theme.