In The News › City’s rebuild plan draws criticism

Dec 23, 2005

Source: Times-Picayune

City’s rebuild plan draws criticism

City’s rebuild plan draws criticism
Smaller footprint needed, BGR says
Friday, December 23, 2005
By Gordon Russell
Staff writer

City leaders need to come up with a realistic and smaller footprint on which to rebuild a New Orleans expected to house slightly more than half the residents it had before Hurricane Katrina, the watchdog Bureau of Governmental Research said in a strongly worded critique issued Thursday.

In particular, the bureau took aim at a still-evolving proposal from a key panel of Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back commission that would allow homeowners across the entire city to start rebuilding. That notion, which has not been adopted in any final form, would come with a big caveat: A year hence, the city may move to buy out those who rebuild in neighborhoods that show little signs of progress.

The bureau’s report, posted at www.bgr.org, called such an approach “no plan at all.”

“You can’t tell people to go pour their money and energy and emotion into rebuilding under the threat that their homes could be bulldozed a year from now,” BGR President Janet Howard said. “That’s not a fair position to put people in.”

The question of whether some New Orleans neighborhoods, or parts of them, should not be allowed to redevelop, is likely the most explosive subject facing the mayor’s commission as the group attempts to craft a rebuilding blueprint.

The BGR report acknowledges the topic is a controversial one. But it says the city’s physical size must be made smaller, citing projections from the BNOB commission’s own consultants that the city’s population in three years will be at most 275,000 — just 60 percent of what it was pre-Katrina. The alternative is neighborhoods chockablock with blight, the report warns, echoing the findings of an earlier study by the nonprofit Urban Land Institute.

“Unless the city’s plan addresses the mismatch between the city’s footprint and its population by initially directing development into more compact areas, the outcome will be random, scattered development in a sea of blight,” the report says. “We’ve had a foretaste of this scenario. New Orleans’ population decline between 1960 and 2004 was accompanied by a rise in the number of blighted and abandoned structures.”

But Nathan Watson, a real-estate developer who is serving as volunteer coordinator for the commission’s planning committee, said the BGR report mischaracterized the panel’s thinking. The panel does not intend to use the “laissez faire” approach the report portrays, he said.

“We’re not saying ‘whatever’ for a year,” Watson said.

Rather, he said the committee is developing a process through which multiple planning sessions would be convened for residents of all the affected neighborhoods, starting early next year. At those meetings, residents would be able to get more information about how many neighbors plan to return, what sorts of assistance they might be eligible for, and other factors that could affect their decisions.

“We considered the ‘top-down’ approach that BGR seems to be leaning toward,” Watson said. “But we think it’s vanity at this point to think you can know all you need to know to make those decisions.”

Many factors

Howard countered that the BGR is not recommending a top-down approach, though it is prevailing upon city leaders to make hard decisions. Rather, she said, officials should attempt to measure various factors — including damage to homes in the area, susceptibility to future flooding and residents’ intentions — to determine which areas should be resettled.

“People need to know what the yardstick is and that it applies across the board fairly,” Howard said.

The BGR and the planning panel agree on that much, Watson said. A major purpose of the planning meetings he described would be to glean such information, he said, helping residents make up their minds about what to do. In addition, the commission has begun soliciting such data from displaced New Orleanians via a one-page form that asks respondents where they lived, whether they plan to return and factors that will affect their decisions.

The form soon will be available online at www.nola.com, a commission spokeswoman said. The Web site is affiliated with The Times-Picayune.

As panel members worked on a draft of their report at a public meeting last week, they said all neighborhoods would be given at least year to rebuild before any threat of condemnation. The final report is to be released Jan. 9.

Watson left open the possibility that the proposed planning sessions would lead officials to conclude that development should be strongly discouraged, if not banned, in some areas. It’s important to make such decisions in a “democratic way,” Watson said, based on information that comes directly from citizens rather than using models and assumptions.

“One of the major things that’s been lacking to this point is accurate projections about who’s coming back,” Watson said. “We think it will become very clear — three, six, nine months out — what people are willing and able to do, and that will make a very good plan for rebuilding. I think that’s why you have to have this process, led by a rebuilding corporation that provides the expertise, so in fairly short order we can identify which neighborhoods are waning — hopefully none — and which ones will have significantly decreased populations and need to reconfigure themselves.”

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Gordon Russell can be reached at grussell@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3347.

Dec 23, 2005

Source: Times-Picayune

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