Officials break ground on Airline & Main Complete Streets

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 19, 2022

LAPLACE — More than just a beautification effort, the Airline and Main Complete Streets Project is the first step in St. John the Baptist Parish’s long-term plan to reduce flood risk.

Officials gathered Thursday to break ground on the project, which features cyclist paths, a green median and shade trees, green infrastructure components to hold and filter rain run-off, permeable parking, sidewalks, native plantings and historic light poles and banners. Improvements will be seen along a 1.3-mile stretch of Airline Highway between Tiffany Drive and Main Street, continuing down the 0.3-mile Main Street corridor.

The now vacant building on the corner of Main Street and Airline Highway that previously housed the St. John Parish Planning and Zoning Department will be demolished to make way for a new park that will add recreation space and additional stormwater capacity for the local drainage system.

St. John Planning and Zoning Director Rene Pastorek said construction on the $6 million project is expected to start within 45 days. Completion is estimated for mid to late 2023.

“This project breaks ground at a unique time for our state and parish,” Pastorek said. “We continue to see increasingly strong hurricanes, stronger rainstorms, and loss of coastal land at a faster and faster pace. As risk continues to grow, local governments face the challenges of revamping our infrastructure. We are further challenged with the need to plan for a more uncertain future.”

One of the intents of the Airline and Main Complete Streets Project is to direct future economic development into an area of St. John Parish less prone to flooding.

The process began in the aftermath of hurricanes Isaac and Sandy, when the Department of Housing and Urban Development set aside $1 billion for a competition for projects creating resilient communities around the country.

Following meetings with input from hundreds of St. John Parish residents, Airline & Main Complete Streets was selected as a pilot project for the Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments, also known as LA SAFE.

Airline & Main Complete Streets was among seven climate adaptation strategies to receive a combined $41 million in Community Block Development Grant funding in 2019.

St. John Parish entered an agreement with G.E.C. Inc. of Baton Rouge for engineering and design of the project.

Following delays from the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Ida, the St. John Parish Council awarded the project to Command Construction Industries of Mandeville during the last week of 2021.

St. John Parish President Jaclyn Hotard said Thursday’s groundbreaking was an important step forward as St. John Parish recovers and rebuilds from Hurricane Ida.

“Not even 10 years after Hurricane Isaac, Ida brought destruction that continued to expose major risks in our local infrastructure, including those related to drainage, potable water, coastal flooding and even the availability of housing,” Hotard said. “However, Hurricane Ida has not slowed us down. I can tell you that this storm brought about a renewed sense of urgency to myself and my office about just how vulnerable we are in these types of catastrophic events and projects that we need to bring forward to make us a more resilient community.”

The project’s beautiful landscaping and drainage improvements align with Hotard’s priorities to reduce blight, improve economic development, and mitigate flooding and improve drainage.

“In coordination with other projects like the Westshore Levee and our water and sewer system upgrades taking place right now, this project will bring needed improvements to drainage for existing businesses on the corridor. All together, these projects serve as an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to resiliency for our parish,” Hotard said.

The parish administration is also working to find funding for a future projects, such as I-10 gateway enhancements, that will attract businesses and residents while improving drainage and beautification.

Pat Forbes, executive director for the Louisiana Office of Community Development, was proud to see St. John Parish among the first communities nationwide to approach natural disaster recovery through resiliency planning.

Forbes emphasized that, without planning, “we are dooming ourselves to go through this cycle of destruction and recovery over and over again.”

Even with flood risk reduction at the forefront, Pastor Steve O. Allen is equally optimistic about the aesthetic improvements coming to the corridor. His church sits on the 0.3-mile stretch of Main Street that will soon receive a facelift.

“When I moved here in 1999, the area was dilapidated. Over time, we have really worked to bring it up,” Allen said. “This is like a dream come true for me. I believe it will bleed over to the rest of the community.”