Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the attendant flooding and other related destruction, many parties have deemed a unified, city-wide planning process essential to the recovery of New Orleans. The release of billions of dollars in federal recovery funds, as well as some private grants, depend on the formation of a master plan covering everything from city-wide infrastructure issues to neighborhood-specific projects. Eleven months from Katrina’s landfall, a “Unified New Orleans Plan” is just now beginning to coalesce. In a July 5, 2006 press release, Mayor C. Ray Nagin, the New Orleans City Council and the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) announced their agreement to adopt a common plan, to be overseen by the Greater New Orleans Foundation‘s (GNOF) New Orleans Community Support Foundation (NOCSF).
Previous to endorsing the NOCSF’s plan, both the Mayor’s Office and City Council had embarked on comprehensive planning efforts of their own. While the achievements of those efforts to date will not be discarded, to what extent they continue to be funded under the LRA and NOCSF remains to be seen.
In October of 2005, Mayor Nagin established the Bring Back New Orleans Commission (BNOB). BNOB engaged the Philadelphia-based firm Wallace, Roberts & Todd, LLC to develop its action plan. The BNOB plan failed to get the FEMA funding it expected, however. The LRA initially assured its support of BNOB, but subsequently endorsed the NOCSF’s plan. Wallace, Roberts & Todd is not on the NOCSF’s list of their officially endorsed Neighborhood and City-Wide Infrastructure planning teams. According to Architectural Record News, sources close to the LRA say that it’s likely that some elements of the Wallace plan will be retained in whatever the Unified New Orleans Plan proposes.
When FEMA support of BNOB fell through, City Council launched its own enterprise, the New Orleans Neighborhood Rebuilding Plan (NOLANRP). The Council appointed Paul Lambert (Lambert Advisory, of Miami) and Sheila Danzey (SHEDO, of New Orleans) to manage the recovery strategies of 49 neighborhoods that sustained two or more feet of flooding.
The GNOF was established in 1983 as “a community foundation [...] that derives its funds from gifts provided by its citizens” (About the Foundation). On September 8, 2005, the Rockefeller Foundation announced a grant which would eventually total $3.5 million to the GNOF. The GNOF also contributed $1 million of its own and formed the NOCSF to serve in a fiduciary capacity, overseeing the $4.5 million and the Community Support Organization (CSO) which will administer it. The CSO board will be composed of nine members, whose identities have not been announced at the time of this writing. Of the nine members, one each will be selected by the Mayor’s Office, City Council, the GNOF and the City Planning Commission, and the remaining five are to be selected from each of the City Council districts (the open call for nominees for the district seats has been closed, and candidates are being reviewed).
The GNOF retained the New Orleans-based firm Concordia LLC to create a master plan and to oversee the selection of planning teams that will assist the individual neighborhoods, the wider districts and the city-wide infrastructure efforts. Among other things, the Concordia plan calls for each of New Orleans’ 73 neighborhoods to select from a pre-approved list of professional architects, urban planners and other professionals to assist in their efforts and/or endorse projects already in progress, spearheaded by the BNOB, the Lambert-Danzey group, and by the neighborhood groups themselves over the many months that no other resources were available.
On June 5, 2006, the NOCSF issued a Request for Qualifications for parties interested in participating in their recovery process. A panel composed of one representative of the City Planning Commission and four “nationally recognized planning experts sifted through the 65 applicants to establish the official list endorsed for the Unified New Orleans Plan. Concordia coordinated the selection process, but was not involved as a voting member. The final list was recommended to the board on July 21, 2006:
District or Neighborhood Planning:
- H3 Studio, of St. Louis, MO
- Goody Clancy, of Boston, MA
- ACORN Housing‘s New Orleans, LA branch
- Frederick Schwartz Architects of New York, NY
- EDSA of Columbia, MD
Neighborhood Only Planning:
- EDAW‘s Atlanta, GA branch
- E. Eean McNaughton Architects of New Orleans, LA
- Burk-Kleinpeter of New Orleans, LA
- Williams Architects of New Orleans, LA
- HDR of Omaha, NE and HOK of Tampa, FL
- Duany Plater-Zyberk of Miami, FL
- KL&M of New Orleans, LA and CH Planning of Philadelphia, PA
- NOW, a joint venture between Eskew+Dumez+Ripple of New Orleans, LA, Chan Krieger Sieniewicz of Cambridge, MA and William Morrish of Charlottesville, VA
- Davis Brody Bond of New York, NY
- Torres Design Consortium of New Orleans, LA
- Villavaso and Associates and Henry Consulting of New Orleans, LA
On July 24, 2006, a meeting open to the public was announced by the NOCSF on BayouBuzz.com and on the Unified New Orleans Plan website (but not in the Times-Picayune or other local print, internet or broadcast media), scheduled for July 30,2006. The time and location of 12:00 PM to 4:00 PM at The Pavilion of Two Sisters at City Park were posted at a later date. The agenda for the July 30 meeting is to “begin the process for community members to be involved in the selection of the technical assistance teams of professionals to support them in neighborhood, district and city-wide planning.” Although all 73 neighborhoods are to be involved, the city will be divided into 13 planning districts whose boundaries are to be determined at this meeting. In addition, the criteria for working with the planning teams to be selected are to be established. On August 1, 2006 community members will have the opportunity to view presentations by the NOCSF’s teams in preparation for each districts’ vote on their top three preferred teams. Votes will be accepted until 5:00 PM on Monday, August 7. After the votes are tabulated, the CSO will begin defining scopes and fees for neighborhood projects and assign planning teams to the 13 districts based on the districts’ preferences as well as “capacity and cost,” although what relative weight each of these concerns will be given is not stated.
Controversy has been a constant virtually from the moment Katrina made landfall. Even before in some cases, since issues of land development in economically depressed neighborhoods have invoked impassioned debate for years). What to do about this city’s rampant poverty, and whether the proposed solutions help alleviate its ravages or simply remove the poor have become all the more pressing matters in a post-Katrina landscape.
John McIlwain of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) which was formerly included in the BNOB Commission but whose recommendations were largely rejected, has recently savaged the state of the city’s planning efforts in the Times-Picayune. McIlwain and others from ULI leveled numerous criticisms of the city’s progress in general and the mayor in particular for lack of leadership. ULI’s recommendations to the BNOB Commission had called for drastically reducing the city’s footprint in flooded areas, thus-
intentionally or not-eliminating dozens of traditionally low-income neighborhoods. Tom Murphy, also of ULI, expressed frustration that the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority has not used eminent domain aggressively enough to seize privately owned blighted properties to resell. In response to the ULI accusations, City Council President Oliver Thomas observed that ULI made “incorrect assumptions about New Orleans from the outset,” including proposing the elimination of neighborhoods that were not even below sea level. As far back as November 2005, Council member Cynthia Willard complained that the ULI report did not take into account the people who live in New Orleans East.
The City Council has come under some criticism for appointing the Lambert-Danzey without a competitive selection process, as required by the City Charter and the Council’s own bylaws. (Lambert won a contract with the Council in 2004 to review public housing redevelopment plans, having previously advised the Council on Tax Increment Financing options for the HOPE VI Wal-Mart/St. Thomas redevelopment. The Council and the Lambert Group consider Lambert’s role in the post-Katrina effort an extension of the 2004 contract.) The Bureau of Government Research (BGR), which has been the most public critic of the Council’s move, has been singled out itself for lack of impartiality: having been founded originally in opposition to Huey Long, the extent to which it exists to expose corruption as opposed to progressive populism has been questioned.
In a city whose social circles were described as a “small town” long before “small town” became much truer demographically, business relationships, including political and recovery business, have a heavily personal element. The people behind the titles and acronyms are often vested with far more meaning than their organizations’ mission statements, and the nature of many of those players’ interests and alliances is still being teased out.