In The News › N.O. recovery plan called a muddle

Mar 6, 2007

Source: Times-Picayune

N.O. recovery plan called a muddle

N.O. recovery plan called a muddle
Watchdog group urges fresh analysis
Tuesday, March 06, 2007
By Bruce Eggler
Staff writer

A New Orleans governmental watchdog group released a scathing critique Monday of the citywide recovery and rebuilding plan unveiled several weeks ago under the Unified New Orleans Plan process.

The Bureau of Governmental Research analysis says the multimillion-dollar UNOP process “held great promise” and the document it produced displays “a world of good intentions.”

But the bureau’s report, titled “Not Ready for Prime Time,” says the nearly 600-page UNOP “fails to deliver a cohesive, workable road map for recovery. Instead, it proposes a sweeping list of 91 projects without placing them in a realistic financial context. As for recovery strategy, it offers a continuation of the indecisive and confusing approach that has characterized New Orleans’ recovery for a year and a half.”

As an example, it says, the report seems to come down on both sides of the crucial issue of whether rebuilding should be encouraged in the city’s most flood-prone areas.

Referring to the plan’s prioritized ranking of recovery projects, the BGR report says it is hard to understand many of the results: “According to the priority list, the key projects for recovery are a new Louisiana State University/Veterans Affairs hospital complex and housing for dislocated public housing residents. Yet fundamentals that affect everyone in the city, like improvements to the crumbling streets; antiquated sewer, water and drainage systems; and deteriorated schools, fall somewhere in the middle of the wish list. Repairing and restoring the city’s historic forts ranks on the same level as these essential infrastructure items.”

Comments welcomed

Despite the bureau’s outspoken criticisms, members of the UNOP team responded to the report in mild terms, saying they never considered their document to be a finished product and welcome comments and criticism.

Planner Troy Henry said members of the UNOP team are working with the City Planning Commission now to incorporate criticisms from other sources and clarify the plan’s language in places. He said they will consider all of the BGR’s suggestions.

“If they say it is vague, we can make it clearer,” said Steve Villavaso, another UNOP planner. “It’s OK with me if you give me tough comments. I want those comments.”

The Unified New Orleans Plan, released in late January after several rounds of district and citywide meetings, was supposed to pull together the results of earlier post-Katrina planning efforts and to create a clear, comprehensive plan for rebuilding the city that could be used to seek money from state, federal and private sources.

The citywide plan was intended in particular to guide how the Louisiana Recovery Authority disburses money to repair the city’s infrastructure.

“The one thing everyone said was, ‘Show us the plan and we will show you the money,’ “ Villavaso said.

However, in language that echoes criticisms expressed in recent days by some staff members and commissioners of the City Planning Commission, the BGR report says the citywide plan “is internally inconsistent and not well-crafted. It fails to establish practical criteria or mechanisms for targeting and phasing investment. It fails to set clear priorities in key areas or put forth realistic timelines.”

Rather, the bureau says, the recovery plan “pledges its allegiance to abstract, unexplained principles,” “employs a vague and bewildering system for scoring projects” and “envisions and ranks projects without taking into account realistic levels of funding.”

Lack of follow-through

On the highly charged issue of whether to support rebuilding all parts of the flood-ravaged city, the BGR report says, the citywide plan “explains at length the higher vulnerability of eastern New Orleans. It also espouses safety as a guiding principle. But, having set off alarm bells, it does not follow its findings through with comprehensive remedies for that area or its residents.”

“In fact,” the BGR says, the UNOP “recommends significant funding for resettlement of people living in areas at a high risk of future flooding without requiring that the resettlement areas be located at lower-risk sites,” even though another section of the document says the city “cannot afford to rebuild infrastructure in areas of high flood risk” and “investment in physical infrastructure in high-risk areas should be avoided or at least minimized.”

Noting that the team of planners who produced the citywide plan “has acknowledged that there are problems and invited constructive criticism,” the BGR says it thinks the problems with the plan “are so fundamental that they cannot be addressed through minor adjustments” and “require a return to the basic data, fresh analysis and an overhaul of the planning document.”

Rather than leaving that task to the UNOP planners, the bureau says it would be better to let the City Planning Commission take control of the process and “create a clear, data-driven and practical recovery plan based on realistic financial considerations.”

The Planning Commission will hold the second of two public hearings on the citywide plan Wednesday at 5 p.m. in the City Council chamber at City Hall.

Discussion expected

The UNOP planners originally had hoped the commission would vote to endorse the plan immediately after that hearing and send it to the City Council, but Chairman Tim Jackson has said he does not expect the commission will be ready to vote until April.

The council then is expected to hold its own public hearing on the plan before voting on it and passing it on to Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration.

Nagin’s recovery director, Ed Blakely, has indicated he does not expect to adopt the plan, whatever its final form, in its entirety, but at a Planning Commission meeting several weeks ago he called it “a very important and fundamental document for us” and said it “will form the basis of the recovery plan we will present to the LRA.”

Lynes “Poco” Sloss, chairman of the BGR board, also is a member of the City Planning Commission, but BGR President Janet Howard said Sloss did not participate in the bureau’s review of the UNOP plan. Members of the BGR board who are associated with the LRA or the UNOP process also recused themselves from the bureau’s review, she said.

Besides the citywide plan, the UNOP process produced 13 district plans laying out recommendations for each of the city’s planning districts. The BGR analysis did not consider those plans, only the citywide plan, Howard said.

Carey Shea of the Rockefeller Foundation, which provided most of the money for the UNOP process, said the BGR’s suggestions about the Planning Commission’s role “are exactly on target. Rockefeller felt from the very beginning that the commission should be in a lead role, but at that time their staff was greatly diminished.”

Shea said the UNOP team “did an extraordinary job. They got it further down the field than anyone else. Now it’s time for the City Planning Commission and department to step up.”

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Bruce Eggler can be reached at beggler@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3320.

Mar 6, 2007

Source: Times-Picayune

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