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New security plan could make Bourbon Street pedestrian only

6 years 10 months 2 weeks ago Tuesday, January 10 2017 Jan 10, 2017 January 10, 2017 10:57 AM January 10, 2017 in News
Source: Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS - Mayor Mitch Landrieu is working on plans for new permanent security measures along Bourbon Street.

It's an effort to prevent a repeat of two shooting incidents that each claimed one life and wounded nine on the city's most famous entertainment strip in the past few years. The idea also is to head off a potential terrorist attack.

Ideas floated by the mayor in discussions with other officials include more centralized surveillance and more restrictions on vehicular traffic.

A preliminary version of the proposal carries a $30 million price tag and calls for closing portions of Bourbon Street to vehicles during most hours; setting up a $12.6 million command center to monitor a network of cameras; installing new lighting; and taking measures that would allow officers to respond in force to emergencies more quickly, according to excerpts of a draft proposal and interviews with people involved in the discussions.

The city may also step up enforcement of laws preventing performers and artists from blocking sidewalks or business entrances and prohibiting vendors from operating without permits.

The plan is still in draft form and has been through revisions already; more are likely in the coming weeks before it is formally announced. But the preliminary draft has been circulated to some City Council members and tourism leaders, French Quarter business owners and others.

Some involved in the discussions have said the hospitality industry could be asked to pony up some of the cash for the plan, though it's unclear whether hotels or tourism groups would be willing to put additional money toward public safety after having been tapped for previous efforts.

"Some of the public dollars that have gone to the hospitality industry should go toward this and some of the larger community safety and quality-of-life issues," City Councilwoman Stacy Head said.

While much of the discussion has centered on the Vieux Carre, particularly after a deadly shootout on Bourbon Street in late November, the final version of the plan is expected to include elements aimed at improving security citywide.

Officials with the Mayor's Office said Monday they would not comment on the specifics of the plan until it is ready for release.

"The city will roll out in the next couple weeks a very detailed and comprehensive citywide safety plan that will include a number of new safety measures in the French Quarter," Communications Director Tyronne Walker said. "Some of those things the public saw during the New Year's Eve holiday."

NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said the department was "not prepared to get into any details at this time."

Blocking off vehicular traffic on and across Bourbon has been bandied about as a response to terrorist attacks in Europe that were carried out by ramming large vehicles into crowded areas. City officials have long considered Bourbon a potentially vulnerable target for similar attacks.

Bollards could be erected to prevent vehicles from getting onto the street. It is possible those could be removed at times to allow deliveries on the street.

Adding new lighting to the street would be aimed at preventing other violence. For New Year's, the NOPD set up temporary light posts, but the plan would make those permanent.

"In all the conversations we've been engaged in with businesses, the tourism industry and residents, that theme has been common: increasing the lighting," Ramsey said.

Others involved in the discussions have focused on the idea of increasing surveillance of the French Quarter using cameras that would feed into a centralized location monitored by the NOPD.

The plan also could include redeploying police officers and having units that could be sent to specific parts of the French Quarter should trouble arise.

"All efforts are being made to make sure that the entire city is safe and we're not draining resources from the other neighborhoods," Ramsey said.

At least one business owner who has been privy to the recent discussions is keen on some of the ideas. Plans for a centralized command center that would monitor activity via cameras, more lighting and other infrastructure improvements were welcomed by Robert Watters, owner of Rick's Cabaret and a past president of the French Quarter Business Association.

Giving Watters pause, however, is the plan to block all vehicular traffic along several blocks of Bourbon. "I think it's something that needs to be investigated very carefully," he said.

Notably, he said, making the street a pedestrian mall could give rise to street performers, religious protesters and others wishing to exercise their First Amendment rights. "And if you don't really have a firm plan for how you are going to handle that, you could create some chaos," he said.

Some of that may already be under discussion. Head said discussions have involved more aggressively enforcing laws against unauthorized vendors and aggressive panhandlers and preventing street performers and artists from blocking streets and sidewalks.

"I'm not suggesting for one moment that we don't have tarot card readers, that we don't have performers, but I think it's disrespectful to people that want to walk down the street (if other) people have co-opted public space for a commercial enterprise," Head said.

The plans, particularly the closure of Bourbon, have raised calls for more information among some in the Quarter.

"We would be very interested in seeing how exactly this would work," said Meg Lousteau, executive director of Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates. "Where the closures would be, what hours they would be, how business owners and residents would have access to their properties and what the overall traffic impact could be, because it could be very profound, especially if we are talking about blocking the intersections of Bourbon Street."

Sidney Torres, the former trash-removal magnate who started his own French Quarter anti-crime task force last year after clashing with the Landrieu administration, said he agreed with many elements of the proposal. However, Torres, who is widely believed to be contemplating a run for mayor, said the city should "crawl before they sprint."

That could involve pursuing smaller proposals, such as setting up checkpoints for events "that have been known to be an issue," he said.

The most visible parts of the plan mirror security measures put in place over the recent holiday weekend to tamp down fears of violence as tourists crammed into the French Quarter to ring in 2017 and celebrate the Sugar Bowl. Those would include shutting portions of Bourbon Street to vehicular traffic around the clock and installing more lights to increase visibility.

"When bad things happen on Bourbon Street, it garners worldwide attention," said Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, who represents the French Quarter. "Everyone was in agreement that we needed to make some huge changes. I think this is certainly a very good start."

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