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Common neighborhood troubles still hold up recovery after storms

Blighted buildings, empty lots dot city’s footprint

Tuesday, August 24, 2010
By Michelle Krupa
The Times-Picayune

Under a sweltering midday sun on a recent afternoon, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu stood at a corner in Central City that, with its crumbling pavement, overgrown lots and blighted houses, offered a street-level view of some of the most intractable problems his new administration faces.

Flanked by some of the most powerful executives in city government — five deputy mayors, the city attorney and the chiefs of the Sewerage & Water Board and the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority — the mayor glanced down South Derbigny Street toward a rebuilt church that stood in stark contrast with the rotting buildings around it.

“C’mon, y’all,” Landrieu beckoned his team. “Let’s take a walk.”

As the crew strode toward Jackson Avenue, Landrieu pointed out several boarded-up houses and asked what programs could help repair or remove them. As they reached St. Thomas Baptist Church, the mayor preached the urban-planning principle that well-tended corner lots can spark improvements on adjacent blocks.

At South Roman Street, he pointed to an empty field.

“Now, what is that?” Landrieu asked his aides. “Is that a parking lot? Or is that a potential baseball field, or is it a potential soccer field or a kickball field? Or is it a lot for potential commercial development?”

Approaching a complex of four apartments standing end-to-end across two lots, the mayor groused that the homely structure probably had taken the place of two Creole cottages. At the next lot, he stepped into a patch of weeds that towered over his head.

“Here’s your blight problem,” Landrieu deadpanned before glancing next door at a renovated two-story house painted a cheery powder blue.

“There you go,” he said. “Now, how did that get there?”

The location of Landrieu’s executive field trip offered a daunting look at the ills that plagued many New Orleans neighborhoods long before Hurricane Katrina and that since the flood have choked recovery efforts all over town.

The grim scene seemed to embody the warnings of urban planners and others who after the storm advised local leaders to reduce the city’s geographic size by limiting or cutting off services to the hardest-hit sections of town, a concept dubbed “shrinking the footprint.” Otherwise, they warned, whole neighborhoods would suffer from the “jack-o’-lantern effect,” where shiny renovations shared space with rotting eyesores.

Experts cautioned that, even with billions of dollars in aid expected to flow to the city, New Orleans wouldn’t get enough to properly rebuild every section of town — or to keep rebuilt facilities in good shape.

“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 nonprofit Bureau of Governmental Research wrote in December 2005.

“We’ve had a foretaste of this scenario,” the report added. “New Orleans’ population decline between 1960 and 2004 was accompanied by a rise in the number of blighted and abandoned structures.”

Other public resources — from police protection to recreation programs to S&WB repair crews — probably would be stretched thin as well, said experts, many of whom advocated a buyout program that would fully compensate homeowners forced to move.

But Nagin, facing intense political pressure, declined to take such a bold step, though he repeatedly warned against rebuilding in parts of the Lower 9th Ward and two unspecified sections of eastern New Orleans.

During his failed 2006 bid to unseat Nagin, Landrieu also eschewed the notion that New Orleans should bar development in any part of the city’s 116,000-acre footprint.

“Some people want to shrink our city,” he said in a TV ad. “I won’t let them. That only shrinks our future.”

Four years later, Landrieu presides over a city that’s home to an estimated 355,000 residents, about 100,000 fewer than before Katrina, according to a July 2009 census estimate. That’s 43 percent fewer than the city’s peak population, reached in 1960.

While blight has dropped steadily since the storm, more than 50,000 houses remained vacant or abandoned as of May, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. Researchers found 5,200 more blighted commercial structures, plus 7,400 more houses that were deemed vacant but habitable. By the group’s reckoning, New Orleans has easily the highest proportion of blighted or vacant properties of any major American city.

The patchwork recovery extends beyond housing. Streets, water pipes, sewer lines and the drainage system have also been restored in a piecemeal fashion, because federal rules generally require local officials to prove that every instance of damage — from a burst water main to a major sinkhole — resulted from the disaster before Washington will pay for its repair.

Also sitting empty and unrenovated are scores of city-owned community centers, playgrounds, libraries and other sites.

Landrieu last week unveiled a roster of 100 projects his administration has committed to launching. But even when added to the 411 projects finished or under construction, the list falls well short of the 655 projects Nagin laid out in his $1.5 billion recovery plan.

The impetus for reducing the project list was simple: the city only has $1.2 billion to spend. Meanwhile, City Hall continues to struggle to cover its regular operations.

To close a $68 million deficit in this year’s budget, Landrieu last month implemented furloughs, contract reductions and other austerity measures. Officials then learned that they have to shave $11.6 million more because revenues did not meet expectations.

Jane Brooks, a University of New Orleans professor who sat on the Nagin commission panel that drew up the green-dot map, said the city probably would be in stronger fiscal condition if it weren’t supporting services in neighborhoods far outside the urban core.

The scenario is nothing new. Existing New Orleans taxpayers had to subsidize the expansion of city services in the 1960s and 1970s as they extended past the city’s old frontiers.

Other cities that experienced the same phenomenon are now struggling with declining tax bases and aging infrastructure. Experts usually offer the same advice as the post-Katrina planners: emphasize services and development in the urban core.

However rational the concept might be, Brooks said she knew in the months after the flood that such a plan would not work here.

“There’s a bit of logic to that, but it is not going to fly politically at all,” she recalled telling fellow panelists. “You’re not going to abandon Gentilly, eastern New Orleans, Lakeview. You’re not going to be able to pull the city back to that mid-1800s view of where we were.”

Still, Brooks said that in light of the financial challenges facing the city now, “I do think in New Orleans there is an impetus for this idea of densifying the core.”

“It’s a logical sort of thing of not letting areas in the center of the city languish,” she said.

Landrieu has not given any indication that he is rethinking his promise to rebuild every part of the city. So far, his focus appears to be trying to figure out how to do more with the limited resources at his disposal.

Erasing the interlocking problems that squelch progress in neighborhoods like Central City, in Landrieu’s view, begins with what he calls “place-based development.”

The mayor said he wants to coordinate the efforts of every city agency — plus schools, nonprofit agencies, community groups and the federal government — to get the most bang for every dollar they invest.

For instance, perhaps a planned community health clinic might find its home at a school slated for renovation.

“It would be great if schools could turn out to be the centers of neighborhoods,” he said. “Because what happens after you do that, after you set the table, the private sector, when they see that movement and they see that security, they’ll start to build.”

Repairs to underground utilities should coincide with repaving projects, Landrieu said. Adjacent empty lots should be considered for bundling and development in line with the city’s new zoning code.

Various federal grants should be coordinated to “make a meaningful difference, rather than one-offs,” the mayor said, referring to stand-alone investments that often make barely a dent in a struggling neighborhood’s problems.

The ideas mirror concepts that residents advocated during post-Katrina planning sessions. But making them reality poses challenges, starting with getting the various public entities in New Orleans on the same page. That sort of cooperation wasn’t much in evidence last month when the Orleans Parish School Board shunned Landrieu’s request that it delay an auction of surplus property to give the parties time to coordinate redevelopment plans. City officials are now trying to buy back one of those properties for a playground in Algiers.

Landrieu said his administration is trying to foster cooperation by building a searchable database that will show plans for lots across the city in the context of a block or several blocks.

As he concluded his Central City tour, the mayor paused at Taylor Playground, a modestly rebuilt facility nestled near five tottering houses.

“If you can fix this neighborhood,” the mayor said, “you can fix any neighborhood in the city.”

But in the end, resolving the city’s many ills is likely to cost far more than the resources currently available. The BGR recently published a new report warning of an “enormous gap” between the city’s infrastructure needs and its financial resources. For instance, the estimated $1 billion in unmet needs in the water board’s five-year plan would require a property tax increase of about 20 percent, or an increase of a penny in the sales tax.

“The public is entitled to an honest assessment of the cost of providing services throughout the city as it exists now, and the cost of building and maintaining infrastructure, and our capacity to pay for it,” said Janet Howard, BGR’s president. “We had that problem of maintenance before the storm. After the storm, it was like, ‘Let’s just do everything.’

“We have a basic structural problem that needs to be attacked.”

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