Bill Borah, attorney who led Riverfront Expressway fight, dies at 79

William “Bill” Borah, the attorney and preservationist who waged a campaign in the 1960s to defeat plans for an elevated Vieux Carre Riverfront Expressway that most agree would have done irreparable harm to the French Quarter, died Monday of melanoma. He was 79.

Though Borah was an attorney well-versed in land use and urban planning issues affectionately referred to by one publication as a “preservation pit bull” for his involvement in recent controversies, it is his five-year battle against the Riverfront Expressway in the mid-1960s for which he is best known and most frequently applauded.

“It would have changed the whole atmosphere or tout ensemble of the Quarter, that essence, that mystique, that unique culture that the French Quarter is,” Borah said in a 1995 WYES-TV interview.

Borah, a New Orleans native, was fresh out of Tulane University law school when he and fellow young lawyer Richard Baumbach joined the fight against the federal plans which called for an elevated, six-lane interstate highway along the Vieux Carré riverfront in front of Jackson Square. The highway would descend into a tunnel at Canal Street near the Rivergate (which was built despite the expressway’s eventual defeat), then tie into the Greater New Orleans Bridge, now the Crescent City Connection. The plan, which was first developed by noted transportation planner Robert Moses in the 1940s, had widespread support from the mayor, city council, most in the business community and local media.

“Every government agency wanted this. Every major institution wanted this.  The governor wanted it, the congressmen wanted it,” Borah said in a presentation last year sponsored by the Louisiana Landmarks Society at the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. “This was progress. They were doing these things all over America, had been doing them for some time. The thing about New Orleans is, as it does most things, it got into the business late.”

Borah admitted that he entered the fray almost by accident.  He was ready to move to London to continue his schooling, when his father, Judge Wayne Borah, became ill. The younger Borah returned home and found a new calling and a willing partner in Baumbach. “I remember we sat in Café Du Monde one particular morning and we both looked at each other and said have we got anything more important to do with our lives than to fight this highway? And we said no and we just devoted our lives to try to stop that highway,” Borah said in an oral history interview with the Historic New Orleans Collection.

The two young attorneys joined a fight that Borah was always quick to point out had really been brewing for decades, led by preservationists Martha Robinson, Mary and Jacob Morrison and others. “It was a war because the preservation community…in the French Quarter had fought to protect this area since the 1920s and here comes this highway that’s just going to devastate it and they’re fiercely fighting it and gradually people in other parts of the city joined them,” Borah said last year.

The fight gained ammunition when influential philanthropist Edgar Stern recruited Borah and Baumbach to lead the opposition and funded their efforts through his Stern Family Fund to learn about urban planning and travel to other cities where successful fights had been waged against highway proposals. The television station Stern founded and owned at the time, WDSU, also lent its voice to the opposition through broadcast editorials. The TV station was joined in its opposition by the alternative newspaper The Vieux Carre Courier, and The Clarion Herald, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. On the other side, The Times-Picayune and WWL-TV were strongly in favor of the proposal, along with the Chamber of Commerce and the majority of business and civic leaders.

“This was an emotional issue. This was a fiery issue. This is an issue that split families, that split businesses, that split law firms.  People didn’t talk to each other, not 10, 15 years,” Borah told WYES-TV in 1995.

Initially, Borah said the fight against the highway started small. “We started doing flyers. Every weekend we would do flyers of different kinds and we’d saturate individual neighborhoods with them,” Borah explained. A more substantive campaign was launched during Mardi Gras 1967, with anti-Expressway banners hung from French Quarter balconies to attract the attention of national reporters in town to cover the celebration. “The decision was made to make this a national issue because it was becoming increasingly apparent that in New Orleans or Louisiana, we didn’t have a chance at stopping this thing. The City Council had come out in support. Mayor (Victor) Schiro supported it, the governor, different members of the Legislature,” Borah explained in the Louisiana Landmarks Society presentation last year. “The thesis being that the Vieux Carre and Jackson Square, these were national historic landmarks, they belonged to the people of America as well as to the citizens of New Orleans.” The effort landed the opposition scores of national news stories about their fight.

During a different holiday, preservationist leader Martha Robinson, who Borah lovingly called “The Senator” for her tenacity and political connections, notably mailed Christmas cards to her well-heeled list of contacts, with a view of Jackson Square blocked by a drawing of the expressway and the message “Merry Christmas from New Orleans. Stop the highway,” Borah said.

Separate battles were waged in court, but to most it still seemed like the highway was a done deal. Finally, in 1969, the news came that President Richard Nixon’s new Secretary of Transportation, John Volpe, had decided to kill the proposed expressway. “I turned to Dick Baumbach, and said, ‘Would you believe it? I just got a telephone call and they say the expressway has been canceled by John Volpe.’ Both of us said it at the same time. ‘We’ll believe it when we see it in the Times-Picayune.’ And the next day was the headline: Highway Defeated,” Borah told WYES. “I can’t tell you the joy.  Preservationists had been battling this thing for years, some of them, like Martha Robinson, going all the way back to the early 1950s.  It was unbelievable. It was the first segment of the interstate highway system ever canceled in this country for environmental reasons. The first one, and after that there were others.”

Borah and Baumach chronicled their fight in the 1981 book, “The Second Battle of New Orleans: A History of the Vieux Carre Riverfront Expressway Controversy.”

“We all know that eternal vigilance is the price we must all pay for democracy. We have also learned that it is also the price we must pay if we desire to protect and preserve ‘the quaint and distinctive character’ of this city that we all love,” Borah said on Sept. 13 at a ceremony to unveil a plaque erected by the group VCPORA and others along the Misssisippi River to honor the Riverfront Expressway fight. “Make no mistake about it, the defeat of the Riverfront Expressway was an extraordinary accomplishment. And we all made it happen.”

Though the Vieux Carre Riverfront Expressway had been defeated, a portion of the plan which called for an elevated expressway along North Claiborne Avenue had already been set in motion, tearing apart historically African-American neighborhoods by building a highway there. It wasn’t that Claiborne was pursued as an alternative to the Vieux Carre, Borah always pointed out. Instead, while the Riverfront Expressway leg of the plan was defeated, the Claiborne Avenue expressway was allowed to move forward, destroying oak trees that lined the avenue and, many would say, harming the urban fabric of the nearby neighborhood.

After the expressway fight, Borah’s passion for preservation and smart urban planning issues continued into the 1970s and 1980s. He led successful opposition to the construction of a bridge at Napoleon Avenue, whose six-lane approach was slated to slice Uptown New Orleans in half. Instead he helped to persuade the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct a parallel bridge in downtown New Orleans instead of uptown.

Believing transportation was key to good planning, in the 1980s, he worked with a coalition of citizens to establish a streetcar line along the downtown riverfront.  Borah also led fiery opposition to initial plans for a Walmart near the former St. Thomas public housing development, which was eventually constructed. After Hurricane Katrina, he authored and advocated for amendments to the city’s Master Plan and Home Rule Charter. The changes required the city to have a Master Plan with the force of law to direct future development. 

Borah also opposed the demolition of hundreds of houses in the downtown and Mid-City neighborhoods to construct the massive University Medical Center and VA Medical Center projects. Instead, Borah and others advocated for a redevelopment of Charity Hospital.

“Bill’s indomitable spirit was truly something to behold,” said Sandra Stokes, president of the Louisiana Landmarks Society, who first met Borah during the hospital fight. “His main goal was to make an impact on the city he loved. It was always about doing what was right, letting the people have their voice and making an impact on this world for the good. In many of these fights, he didn’t fight them alone but he was the essential person. He was by far one of the most essential people and leaders in these meaningful efforts.”

Borah was honored with countless awards over the years including the American Planning Association’s National Planning Leadership Award for a Distinguished Contribution; Environmental Lawyer of the Year and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Environmental Law Society of Tulane Law School; the Harnett T. Kane Preservation Award from the Louisiana Landmarks Society; the State of Louisiana’s Preservationist of the Year; and the Schwartz-Gage Award from Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates.

He taught courses in historic preservation, preservation law and urban planning at the College of Urban and Public Affairs at the University of New Orleans.

Borah is survived by his sister, Virginia Borah Meislahn, of Charlottesville, Va., and nephew David Alexander Slaughter of Arlington, Va.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Louisiana Landmarks Society, 1440 Moss Street, New Orleans, LA  70119 and/or to Tulane Cancer Center, c/o Dr. Oliver Sartor, 1511 Dufossat St., New Orleans, LA 70115.

© 2017 WWL-TV


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