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New Orleans Sues Amtrak Over Fence Plans

NEW ORLEANS (CN) - The city filed a restraining order in state court in an attempt to stop Amtrak's installation of a "prison-style" fence it says would slice through and stifle the heart of a new and burgeoning retail corridor. The lawsuit came after the rail company ignored the city's two previous demands it stop.

Amtrak's lawyers reportedly replied to the city's previous requests it stop constructing the fence with a letter saying federal law trumps city ordinance; the city's injunction was removed Monday to federal court.

Using federal money, Amtrak began construction of the proposed seven-foot, razor-wire-topped fence two weeks ago alongside a portion of track that runs parallel to Earhart Boulevard in an area between Jefferson Davis Parkway and Claiborne Avenue.

While the area crossed by the tracks was at onetime considered blighted and overrun with neglect, it is currently undergoing an "infusion of millions of dollars in public and private investment," and the city contends that a seven-foot fence topped with another foot of razor-wire on either side of the tracks will send the wrong message about the neighborhood.

"The installation of a 'prison-style' fence adjacent to an emerging retail corridor reinforces the inaccurate preconception of the Earhart Corridor as an unsafe and blighted area of the city. It discourages development precisely at the moment the neighborhood is at a critical tipping point toward a sustainable and prosperous future," the court document says.

In an effort to stop Amtrak, the New Orleans City Council held a September 18 meeting where the city's need for "healthy rebuilding" was discussed. The council termed healthy rebuilding as being dependent upon economic vitality of neighborhoods and commercial corridors and relying fundamentally on a neighborhood's beauty and walk-ability.

At that meeting, the council created an interim zoning district for the Earhart Corridor which would require the City Planning Commission to review and approve the design of any barrier erected within 15 feet of the area and prevents the city government from accepting any applications for permits that conflict with the proposed provisions of the Earhart Corridor zoning provisions.

The next day, the Department of Safety and Permits issued Amtrak a stop work order asking Amtrak to stop constructing the fence until the design could be evaluated by the city. Amtrak ignored the request. Another request to stop work was issued September 25. Again, Amtrak declined.

"Amtrak's refusal to comply with the City's repeated requests to cease construction leads the City to believe that it will not comply with the law absent an order from this Court," 'the lawsuit says.

The city says Amtrak is part of a sublease agreement since the land Amtrak's track and terminal are on are owned by the city, and the lease requires Amtrak to comply with local ordinance.

Amtrak did not reply to a request for comment.

Speaking on background, a person familiar with the issue said the federal money Amtrak is using runs out this month and Amtrak is in a rush to spend it.

The person also said a big budget retailer that had expressed interest in opening a space in the newly expanding corridor that now houses Restaurant Depot, Blue Plate Artist Lofts, Woodward Design + Build and Home Depot, declined developing a space when it saw Amtrak's fence.

The lawsuit was brought by the City of New Orleans and New Orleans Building Corporation, a public benefit corporation in charge of managing and developing under-used, deteriorated or vacant city properties. It was filed by Christy Harowski, chief deputy city attorney.

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