Can West End make a comeback?
Maybe the first steps happened this week
BY FAIMON A. ROBERTS III
MAY 2, 2021
West End, the once-vibrant dining and entertainment hub where iconic seafood restaurants and bars rested on pilings over Lake Pontchartrain until Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the area, could be a step closer to coming back to life.
A new agreement between New Orleans, Jefferson Parish and the state is expected to be approved in the coming days and will enable the city and the parish to work together to solicit proposals from groups interested in redeveloping the spot where restaurants such as Bruning's and Fitzgerald's sat until 2005.
The Jefferson Parish Council approved the agreement Wednesday. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell is expected to sign it in the coming days and state approval could come soon after that. Once enacted, Jefferson and New Orleans will work together to develop a request for development proposals. West End runs along the border between the two parishes.
The move marks one of the brightest spots of optimism about the restoration of the site's old allure in more than a decade.
"This is something that is important for all of us," New Orleans City Council member Joe Giarrusso, whose district includes the New Orleans-owned part of West End, told the Jefferson Parish Council on Wednesday.
Though signing the agreement is up to Cantrell, Giarrusso has a resolution on Thursday's City Council agenda in support of it. He expects the resolution to get unanimous support.
"We've all been working cooperatively," Giarrusso said.
Likewise, Jefferson Parish Council member Jennifer Van Vrancken called getting the site back into commerce "huge."
"We are excited to get this process rolling and bring that spot back to life," she said.
Details of what the proposals may bring to the table are not clear as yet, but one thing is: It won't look exactly like it did in recent memory, when spots like Fitzgerald's and Bruning's drew New Orleanians and Jeffersonians alike to chow on their seafood offerings. Those restaurants were built on pilings out over the water.
The pilings are still visible, but unusable: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has forbidden any buildings to be built on them so as not to interfere with the operation of the nearby pump station that was built after the disastrous flooding during Katrina.
That leaves what is essentially the old parking lot available for development, Van Vrancken said.
The nearly 5-acre site could end up with some retail, some restaurants, perhaps even some residential development, she said.
"I think that's what we've all envisioned," she said, referring to a mix of uses for the property. Part of the land, especially along the western side, is owned by the state. But it lies in Jefferson Parish, which is why all three parties need to work together.
Van Vrancken also hopes to build a walking bridge to connect the West End site to nearby Bucktown Harbor. A special taxing district could be created to help maintain the area around the development as well.
"Theoretically, the whole lakefront is working in synergy," Van Vranken said. Public meetings are planned for both the Orleans side and the Jefferson side to gather residents' input on what should go on the site, she said.
"I want to make sure that this is a place ... that people want to use," Giarrusso said.
If it comes to fruition, it would be the latest iteration of what had been a commercial and recreational hub for south shore residents for nearly two centuries.
Prior to Katrina, a depression-era federal project redesigned the area, transforming it from a working port and recreational area — it was once known as the "Coney Island of New Orleans" — into one that was primarily recreation, and included West End Park, Breakwater Park, Municipal Yacht Harbor, the Southern Yacht Club and Orleans Marina, as well as restaurants and other attractions.
The two parishes could potentially issue a request for proposals for the site within a year. But it won't be soon enough for Giarrusso and Van Vrancken.
"I think we are all a little antsy to get it going," Giarrusso said.