New Orleans — The French Quarter in New Orleans is best known for its lacy wrought-iron verandas, lots of good food, and jazz. By the end of the decade, however, residents and visitors will be adding fish to their list of ``must sees'' in the riverfront district - and they won't be the fish blackened by local whiz-chef Paul Prudhomme. With a 71 percent approval from taxpayers, the city is planning a $40 million aquarium and riverfront park in an area of the French Quarter now occupied by parking lots and deserted wharves.
Called the Aquarium of the Americas, the project will focus on fish from the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Amazon River Basin. When its fish tanks open in late 1990, New Orleans will be join a growing number of American cities entering ``the age of aquariums.'' Other cities building or planning major aquariums include Camden, N.J.; Tampa, Fla.; and Corpus Christi, Texas.
The New Orleans project will also offer riverfront access to the public through a 15-acre park planned for the site.
Supporters say the project is renewing national interest in the riverfront, a section of the city hard hit by the failed 1984 world's fair. They add it will bring sorely needed jobs and add a family activity to a city noted for adult-oriented attractions.
Not everyone sees the project in a positive light, however, particularly because of the French Quarter site. Critics - who admit they are in the minority - are concerned that the aquarium will further congest and commercialize the area, especially if it turns out to be the catalyst to development many city leaders expect.
``The French Quarter is without any question the strongest physical resource this city has,'' says Bill Turner, a professor of architecture at Tulane University and a former member of the city's Planning Commission. ``The aquarium will draw a lot of people, and it's going to make parking and circulation much more complicated.'' He says he fears the kind of development that will put increasing pressure on the ``unique'' quarter.
But Jack Blich, director of the aquarium project, says it has been designed with the goal of minimizing the effect on the quarter. ``We've tried to be very sensitive to the concerns of the Vieux Carr'e,'' he says, noting that the aquarium was situated in the new park so as to reduce the effect of an anticipated average daily influx of 1,300 more cars.
While few people oppose the idea of an aquarium to complement the city's respected Audubon Zoo, some residents see it as a symbol of the city's over reliance on tourism.
``New Orleans has a history of putting all its eggs in one basket,'' says University of New Orleans professor Arnold Hirsch, an urban historian. In the 1800s ``it was cotton, more recently petrochemicals, and now it's tourism and services.''
Tourism, the city's No. 1 industry, pumps more than $2 billion into the local economy. But Professor Hirsch says any cuts in discretionary spending around the country could send the local economy, already shaken by the downturn in oil, into deeper slumber.
Other critics note that most of the jobs created by the kind of hotel, restaurant, and retail development expected in the wake of the aquarium will be low-paying.
Joseph Logsdon, a former commissioner on the Audubon Park Commission, which will develop and run the aquarium, says that as a commissioner he did not oppose the aquarium idea, but took the position that if the project diverted attention from more pressing economic development needs, it was counterproductive.
``And I think it has [diverted that attention],'' says Mr. Logsdon, who notes that the property tax boost to pay for the aquarium was approved last November shortly after residents turned down tax raises for schools and increased police protection. He further notes that the city's Chamber of Commerce opposed the school tax but endorsed the aquarium tax - a move that caused some residents to wonder if the aquarium, located between two riverfront commercial centers, isn't in part a disguised bailout for developers.
But the fact remains that an overwhelming number of residents voted to tax themselves to build the aquarium. In addition to a growing nationwide interest in fish and the seas, the successful and highly respected operation of the city's Audubon Zoo was a crucial factor in the voters' nod, most observers here say.
``It wouldn't be fair to put [the tax vote] as if it was a choice between education and the aquarium, because it wasn't,'' says Ron Forman, director of the Audubon Zoo and the aquarium, and newly elected president of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums. He says it was the zoo's good name, and the prospect of adding a family-oriented attraction and some tangible economic development, that led to the approval.
Noting that the recent addition of an aquarium on Cannery Row in Monterey, Calif., has added more than $100 million to that city's economy, Mr. Forman says the New Orleans aquarium's potential impact would have been lost if it had been placed outside the city's tourist hub.
Forman says the jobs that result from the aquarium and related development may be ``short-term solutions'' to the city's economic problems. But he adds that the educational value of the aquarium should be viewed as a long-term partner in improving the city.
``If we can get kids visiting the aquarium to realize there's more to life than living in a project, and we can stimulate their minds,'' he says, ``then we'll have accomplished something.''