Some New Orleanians not waiting for new park's opening

On a sunny Saturday this month, with crowds flocking to Bywater for the nearby Mirliton Festival, a steady trickle of people streamed over a pedestrian bridge at Piety Street, curious for a glimpse of New Orleans’ new riverfront park.

Some just gazed at it from the top of the bridge, while others wandered up and down the riverfront. Many spoke in admiring tones about the view.

They basked in the long-awaited return of river access to an area that, for decades, has been blocked from the water by dilapidated wharves, railroad tracks and the floodwall.

The only problem: The park was not, technically, open to the public — though the gate was open and it looked ready to enjoy.

The city still needs to settle an “outstanding landscaping issue” and sign a management agreement with the French Market Corp. before the park can officially open, Tyler Gamble, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office, said in an email.

“The city expects to finalize this agreement in the coming weeks, and the park will (be) ready to open at that time,” Gamble said.

He declined to provide further details about the management arrangement with the French Market Corp. or to explain the landscaping issue behind the latest delay of a park that was once scheduled to open last year.

At a Sept. 30 meeting of the New Orleans Building Corp. board, Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant, who is overseeing the project as the agency’s interim director, told the board that the city planned to accept the park — expected to be known as Crescent Park — from contractors in October after final landscaping work was completed.

The city, however, has yet to take control of the 1.4-mile-long park that spans the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods along the riverfront from Elysian Fields Avenue to Bartholomew Street. The space includes play areas, a dog run and two multi-use spaces — the Mandeville Street Shed and Piety Street Wharf.

The $30 million expanse was originally due to open in 2012, but progress was slowed by high river levels in 2011 and the redesign of a crossing bridge at Mandeville Street.

More recently, the city has been trying to negotiate a deal with the French Market Corp. to manage and operate the public park. The French Market Corp. oversees the city-owned French Market and the Upper Pontalba Building.

The French Market board is expected on Tuesday to approve an agreement naming it as manager and operator of the park, said City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who sits on the board.

Palmer said she expects the park to open within a month after that agreement is signed. Under the arrangement, the French Market Corp. will be responsible for providing maintenance, security and other management functions. The agreement has taken a long time to hash out, in part, because the corporation had to determine how much those duties would cost, Palmer said.

“We needed to make sure that there was money,” she said. “There’s a reason it’s taken this long. I don’t like that it’s taken this long, but I want to make sure that after it’s open it’s clean and safe.”

Palmer said the park is expected to cost about $1.7 million a year to maintain and operate.

Some residents have decided not to wait any longer.

On the Fourth of July, dozens of impatient people walked through a gate that someone had propped open and poured onto the property to watch the evening fireworks over the river.

Last weekend, the gate was again open, and it was clear that people had been visiting the park for some time. A garbage can near the entrance was already full and starting to spill beer bottles and other refuse onto the sidewalk.

One man sat on a park bench facing the river and the Central Business District, saying he planned to stay there until the sun set. It was about 3 p.m.

By Monday, the city had locked the gate again.