More than three years after the Royal Street pedestrian mall was closed following the collapse of the Hard Rock hotel, there finally appears to be a plan to ensure its permanent reopening.
Louisiana Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser said his office will assume responsibility for blocking the street to traffic on a daily basis once the New Orleans Police Department’s temporary agreement to do so ends in 60 days. State officers who are in place to patrol the Cabildo and Presbytere museums will be tasked with erecting and taking down the metal barricades along the five-block stretch in the French Quarter that makes up the mall, he said.
Keeping traffic blocked at intersections during mall hours protects the street performers and the many visitors who come to shop and take in the performances, maintaining what has become a popular tourist attraction.
Following an extended closure after the Hard Rock building collapse, the New Orleans Police Department in March began placing barricades along the street to enforce a long-standing prohibition on vehicle traffic during the mall’s operating hours. But the department warned that because of workforce shortages, the arrangement was not sustainable in the long term.
The lieutenant governor’s office oversees the state Department of Culture, Recreation & Tourism, and has a vested interest in the survival and success of Royal Street and the French Quarter, Nungesser said. He recently opened an office in the Cabildo so his staff can better help the city “deal with issues in the Quarter.”
“We’re really working hard to clean it up, make it safe and make it attractive,” Nungesser said. “And keeping that pedestrian mall where people can walk safely down the street and shop is so important to the survival of those businesses.”
Nungesser added that his office has been “all in” trying to work more closely with the city on tourism-related issues.
“I’m going to be meeting with cultural members in the very near future to see what else we can do,” he said.
Nungesser’s announcement came as a surprise to New Orleans Police Department Capt. Lejon Roberts — commander of the 8th District, which includes the French Quarter — and City Councilman Freddie King, whose council district includes the French Quarter.
King said he has engaged in discussions with Nungesser about potentially playing a role in the daily barricading of Royal Street but those talks hadn’t moved past the informal stage.
Roberts said he hadn’t “heard anything about” Nungesser’s plan, and was under the assumption that the city was hiring additional people for the Grounds Patrol, a division of the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security, to handle the barricades. That plan isn’t supposed to launch until July, so until then Eighth District officers working overtime will be tasked with the opening and closing of the pedestrian mall, Roberts said.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office declined to comment, referring requests to the NOPD.
Law doesn’t say which agency is in charge
The 52-year-old ordinance that created the mall requires Royal Street be closed to traffic from Bienville to Orleans streets on weekdays between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. and weekends between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. It has become one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations with millions coming each year to stroll the wide-open thoroughfare while listening to dozens of buskers play traditional jazz, blues and ragtime.
The city temporarily shuttered the mall following the collapse of the nearby Hard Rock in October 2019 and kept it closed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The NOPD announced in April of last year it would be reopening the mall, but little changed in the ensuing year, according to street performers who spoke to Verite.
The city failed to barricade the five intersections along Royal Street as required by law, which allowed cars and delivery trucks to barrel down the street at all hours. (In spite of the lack of enforcement, the city continued to issue parking tickets to cars parked along the corridor.)
After Verite reported in March on the city’s continued failure to permanently reopen the pedestrian mall, the NOPD announced it would begin placing temporary barricades along the street while the city worked on a longer-term bollard system.
Since then, the results have been mixed, according to street performers and advocates. The NOPD has been better about ensuring the mall is preserved for pedestrians, but there are still too many days when the intersections are open, and cars flow freely down Royal.
Part of the problem, according to officials, is that the 1971 ordinance that created the mall does not specify which agency is in charge of blockading the streets. In the past, the barricades have been erected and taken down by everyone from NOPD officers to musicians and even sanitation workers, but there has never been an official policy.
Roberts said after the March announcement, the NOPD staffed Royal Street using officers from the Supplemental Police Patrol Program, which is funded by a special French Quarter sales tax. But due to staffing constraints, it sometimes “slips through the cracks every now and then,” he said.
Robin Rapuzzi, who has made a living playing music on the Royal Street pedestrian mall for 16 years, said he is hopeful a solution will be found, but remains scarred by past false promises.
“I’ve had my heart broken a lot of times by the city regarding the Royal Street pedestrian mall, I’m kind of numb to it,” Rapuzzi said.
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