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Minneapolis native leading use of new greenway in New Orleans

A Minneapolitan who grew up using her city’s lakes and trails is now playing a pivotal role in helping to get New Orleanians out on that city’s just-opened version of the Midtown Greenway.

She’s Sophie Harris, 25, who grew up near Lake Harriet and later Cedar Lake. She’s executive director of Friends of Lafitte Greenway, a grassroots advocacy group much like the Midtown Greenway Coalition. The group advocated for the new Lafitte Greenway, and her job for the past year has been to devise programs to get people out on it from its nine adjoining neighborhoods.

Harris first got involved in the project as a volunteer, moving to New Orleans after studying urban studies and political science at Penn. Her day job involved working with the New Orleans version of what happened at Heritage Park in Minneapolis, converting a public housing site to mixed-income housing.

But the greenway proposal drew her fancy.  “It was tremendously exciting to me,” she said.

The project drew her in part because she remembered how the opening of the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis expanded her horizons, allowing her to bike to the field at 5th Avenue S. where she played soccer. “It brought diverse neighborhoods together in a way that a street surely doesn’t,” she said.

The Lafitte Greenway opened at 2.6 miles, with plans to expand to 3.1 miles in the future. It runs from the edge of the French Quarter to near expansive City Park, the city’s largest. It largely follows the route of the 1794 Carondelet Canal, filled in the 1930s, and an adjoining rail line, since abandoned. The route varies from sections that snake between warehouses to areas wide enough for a playing field.

When area residents saw tracks being torn up in 2005, the year that Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, they began lobbying for a greenway. Federal community development dollars paid much for much of the construction. 

Now the job for Harris is to make Lafitte a busy place. She’s working on tree-planting efforts, raising money for amenities along the trail such as signs, and coordinating volunteers. There’s been a mural project, trash pickups, and walking and biking tours. Community gardens are coming, and there’s an after-school program to get students riding it.

“It’s largely a space for community events and recreation,” she said. She grew up active, biking or skateboarding the lake paths to her first job as a sailing instructor at Lake Calhoun. She also played basketball, softball and skied.

“We’re been looking at the Midtown Greenway a lot,” Harris said. As she was taking the new job last year, she met with Soren Jensen, that coalition’s executive director. She’s also been in touch with other staff at the expanding number of urban greenways. Among those developed in recent years are New York City’s High Line in Manhattan, Detroit’s Dequindre Cut and Chicago’s 606.

“Every time I go back to Minneapolis, I’m amazed at the greenway-oriented development,” she said. New Orleans just adopted zoning aimed at encouraging such growth. Her group is also studying the volunteer-staffed Tail Watch that patrols Midtown to boost safety at night.

Unlike Minneapolis, much of the New Orleans riverfront is blocked from public access by port facilities or floodwalls. Recently, there’s been a tremendous growth in bike paths, from five miles before Katrina to about 100 now, about half the Minneapolis mileage.   

Railway standards may help homeless people find greenway shelter

A little-known standard set by railway engineers may be contributing to the number of homeless people who live along the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis.

The American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association establishes standards for railroad infrastructure.

Those practices require a crash barrier to deflect any derailed cars away from bridge piers, according to Jack Yuzna, who works in the design area of the city’s Public Works Department.

Although the bridged portion of the greenway hasn’t been an active railroad for years, bridges that were rehabbed in the latter portion of those years fell under those standards. That meant that a vertical wall was installed that forms a base for the piers.

Homeless residents seem to prefer that design because it gives them more privacy and better weather shelter.

“When it’s raining or snowing, it’s better here,” said Oscar Rojas, one of several men camped under the Lyndale Avenue bridge in August.

In contrast, bridges that haven’t been rebuilt or that were rebuilt after the rail use ended feature double sets of four open pillars that give more exposure to wind, rain and the eyes of passersby.

The Star Tribune reported in August about the homeless population that has emerged in the often-unseen corners of the popular bike and walking trail. Homeless advocates have tried to find emergency housing for the residents, but they are often stymied by the lack of beds at local shelters.

The homeless population could eventually lead to unforeseen safety concerns. Yuzna said that in colder weather, homeless bridge residents sometimes start fires against the walls, which can cause concrete to delaminate.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

Twitter: @brandtstrib

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