In The News › Officials tiptoe around footprint issue

Jan 8, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

Officials tiptoe around footprint issue

Officials tiptoe around footprint issue
But buyouts, flood maps may decide matter
Sunday, January 08, 2006
By Gordon Russell
and Frank Donze, Staff writers

“To say you’re not going to fix this community or that community, you’re not honoring the dead.”

OLIVER THOMAS

New Orleans City Council president

From the day the notion of shrinking New Orleans’ residential area to accommodate a smaller population was injected into the post-Katrina public dialogue, the idea has been radioactive.

Urban planners told Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission in November that failing to reduce the city’s “footprint” was a recipe for disaster likely to produce sparse knots of struggling homesteaders living in a blighted moonscape.

But others, particularly residents of flood-ravaged areas east of the Industrial Canal, view such discussions as thinly veiled talk by mostly white power brokers aimed at keeping New Orleans’ poorest residents, most of whom are African-American, from returning.

“A lot of people have this conspiracy theory — that they (planners) don’t want anybody that’s not here now to come back,” said City Council President Oliver Thomas, one of the 17 members of the mayor’s commission.

So delicate is the topic that the mayor’s commission has largely shied away from it in recent weeks, proposing far less definitive and drastic measures than the footprint-shrinking recommendation initially proposed by the nonprofit Urban Land Institute, an adviser to the commission.

Beginning Wednesday, the commission will unveil its blueprint on the hot-button land-use issue, before resuming the process the following week with presentations on subjects ranging from infrastructure to education. And while those reports will generate interest, and perhaps controversy, the question of where people will be allowed to rebuild, and under what conditions, remains Topic No. 1.

Panelists are girding for a raucous debate on the subject. As Barbara Major, one of the commission’s two co-chairs, put it: “It’s probably going to be a rough ride.”

Given the high temperature of the footprint question, some proponents of a more compact city fear the commission may opt to sidestep it, in part or in full. If that happens, external forces may well decide the matter.

Flood maps due soon

Commission members expect federal legislation soon will be adopted that will allow homeowners to sell their properties to a public authority. If so, planners will quickly get a much better handle on which neighborhoods are likely to be repopulated, and which will struggle against abandonment.

Also, a series of new federal flood maps due in the next few months may play a significant role in where rebuilding occurs. The maps, issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, could make redevelopment prohibitively expensive in certain flood-prone areas. Effectively, the market would be making homeowners’ decisions for them.

In part because of that expectation, Sean Reilly, a member of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which will control the flow of much federal aid to the city, said this week that some city leaders — in particular, members of the City Council — aren’t being straight with their constituents when they promise to rebuild the entire city.

The new flood maps will probably make certain areas extremely unattractive to build in, effectively shrinking the city’s footprint, Reilly said. Insurance rates may soar in some areas, as could the cost of bringing housing into compliance with new elevation standards. He noted that the authority already has voted not to disburse any of the $3 billion in hazard mitigation money it controls to areas considered unsafe, and he said he hopes the group will attach the same strings to an estimated $6 billion in block grants.

“Our position begins and ends with safety,” said Reilly, a Baton Rouge advertising executive, who along with other recovery authority members emphasized that the city and state panels are working closely together. “It’s my belief there needs to be a healthy dose of reality down there. People need to be objective and make the best decisions they can with the best data they can.”

Racial divisions

It will likely surprise few New Orleanians that the footprint debate has begun to cleave along racial lines, as so many local political decisions do.

The first sign of schism came in the wake of the ULI report, which urged a phased-in rebuilding of the city. Resources should first be devoted to relatively unflooded parts of the city, the report said; a wait-and-see attitude should be taken toward others. That approach was promptly denounced by black elected officials and other leaders. Former state Rep. Sherman Copelin memorably warned officials that he and his eastern New Orleans neighbors would rebuild regardless of what any plan might recommend.

“We don’t need permission to come back,” Copelin said. “We are back.”

The City Council then unanimously passed a resolution saying that “all neighborhoods (should) be included in the timely and simultaneous rebuilding of all New Orleans neighborhoods” and that “resources should be disbursed to all areas in a consistent and uniform fashion based on the needs of the community,” a direct rebuke of the reduced-footprint plan.

The rhetoric has heated up since then. On Friday, in a remarkable council meeting devoted to declaring regional unity on behalf of better levee protection, Thomas repeatedly went off-topic to signal a coming fight against the notion of abandoning any neighborhoods.

“To say you’re not going to fix this community or that community, you’re not honoring the dead,” he said.

And on Saturday, former Mayor Marc Morial, now president of the National Urban League and still a potent force in local politics, jumped into the fray, giving a speech in hard-hit eastern New Orleans in which he called for “equity planning in the redevelopment of all neighborhoods” — essentially, an argument against a reduced footprint.

From hurricane season to the May 1995 flood caused by torrential rain, New Orleans has always been vulnerable to flooding, Morial said.

“There is not one neighborhood not prone to flooding,” Morial said Saturday, after delivering an hourlong address at St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church. “I don’t understand the premise of a reduced footprint. If it’s that some can’t be protected from flooding, that’s a false premise. With Category 5 protection, every neighborhood can be rebuilt.”

Last week, meanwhile, in what appeared to be a pre-emptive defense against such critiques, a coalition of religious and civic leaders announced a tentative commitment to back the commission’s plan, though many of its members conceded they knew few of its details.

Mike Cowan, the organizer of the group and head of the city’s Human Relations Commission, argued that supporting a “good-enough plan” was far preferable to the alternative: “free-market chaos, also known . . . as every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.” Cowan added: “Without a vision, the city that we love perishes. New Orleans becomes Detroit South.”

Carefully chosen words

While Cowan’s group is trying to prevent the debate from becoming divisive, the coalition had noticeably few black faces. And those African-Americans who were there, including Edith Jones of the local Urban League chapter and Carol Bebelle of the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, were extremely cautious in their endorsement of the commission’s plans.

Nagin himself has been sending out what some view as mixed messages on the footprint question. He has generally indicated that he thinks all neighborhoods should be rebuilt, to a degree, and said he’s not convinced that any sections of town should be “bulldozed.”

But at the same time, Nagin has said that residents who wish to repopulate certain areas — he has not specified which ones — need to be aware that city services, public investment and other amenities are likely to be concentrated elsewhere.

Cognizant of the minefield they’re navigating, members of the mayor’s commission have also been choosing words, and positions, very carefully.

After the ULI’s proposal was shouted down, the land-use committee first pitched a three-year window in which neighborhoods would be allowed to redevelop on their own, with areas that failed to thrive targeted for buyouts after that period.

The three-year time frame was quickly whittled down to a year. And more recently, leaders of the subcommittee have been talking about a much shorter period — perhaps two months — during which they would gather input from struggling neighborhoods about whether evacuees plan to return. That data would then be used to make decisions about where to focus redevelopment, or whether to even allow it.

The commission is said to be debating whether to name six areas that would have to reach certain densities or face possible buyouts. But whether that notion will see the light of day when the commission unveils its plan Wednesday is unknown at this point.

Anger and suspicion

Thomas said some African-Americans take as gospel that there is a “conspiracy theory” afoot to keep them from returning. If so, the suspicions are fueled by the city’s lackluster record in taking care of its poorest citizens, the council president suggested.

Commission co-chair Major agrees. “A lot of the anger is not about what happened during Katrina, but what happened in this city in the past and what can happen in the future,” she said.

That Katrina’s floodwaters affected black residents more severely than white residents is a matter of statistical fact. Using flood maps and block-by-block data from the 2000 census, city consultant Greg Rigamer estimates that about half of the city’s white citizenry experienced minimal or no flooding. By comparison, fewer than a quarter of black New Orleanians were so lucky.

Given that discussions of shrinking the city tend to focus on abandoning flood-prone areas, a reduction in the city’s size would likely have a disproportionate effect on areas largely populated by black residents.

Those proposing a smaller city emphasize that the last thing they want to do is discourage the return of people whose damaged homes are outside the new footprint. But even if such people are technically welcome, some African-American leaders — including some commission members — worry that many black residents who found shelter in the East and other reasonably priced areas could be priced out of a more narrowly configured city.

Whereas the ULI panel recommended focusing resources in and around functioning areas, some leaders advocate the opposite approach.

“People say we’ve got to grow out from where it is least damaged,” Major said. “Maybe we should grow it out from where it’s most damaged.”

The fault lines surrounding the topic may lead Nagin’s committee to eschew specifics when it comes to the footprint question. But some observers, among them Janet Howard of the nonprofit Bureau of Governmental Research, think that would be a serious mistake.

Question of blight

After all, the footprint question is in many ways the cornerstone upon which many other decisions rest. How the city rebuilds its infrastructure, where it builds new schools, where it locates cultural institutions and parks and libraries all depend in large part on the city’s physical shape.

Howard recently unleashed a biting critique of the group’s still-evolving land-use plan, calling it “no plan at all.” Her argument is simple: The city’s infrastructure — roads, sewer, water, schools, firehouses, police and the like — was built to serve a population of 630,000, the zenith reached in the 1960 census. As the city’s population fell, sinking to 462,000 last year, blight and the ills that accompany it infected many parts of the city.

Analysts guess the city’s population will rebound to anywhere from 250,000 to 300,000 over the next few years — still less than half its high-water mark. If the footprint isn’t pared back, Howard said, further blight is inevitable because the city’s tax base is unlikely to be able to support an infrastructure so extensive.

“If you’re taking the position you can rebuild everything, well, you can’t have an area designed for 630,000 people holding 250,000 without a spotty pattern of development,” she said. “You just can’t.”

By the time Katrina hit, New Orleans’ streets were already a national disgrace, and the city had for years been operating under a federal mandate to fix its disintegrating sewer system, which was polluting Lake Pontchartrain.

The cost of providing police and fire protection and garbage pickup over a sparsely populated metropolis also should be considered, Howard said.

Howard acknowledges that she doesn’t know how much money might be saved in those areas by making the city more compact. That’s one of her frustrations. “They’ve got to do the analysis,” she said.

Though unpopular in many quarters, the ULI panel’s recommendations — which included buying out most of eastern New Orleans and Gentilly and parts of Lakeview, the Lower 9th Ward, Broadmoor, Mid-City and Hollygrove — were at least based on a matrix of measurable factors. Among them: land elevation, the depth of floodwaters, the number of days neighborhoods were underwater, flooding history, historic value and vulnerability to future floods.

The mayor’s land-use panel thus far has not specified whether it will abandon the ULI report in whole or in part or, if it does, what alternative criteria will be used to determine which areas should be rebuilt first. Panelists, however, have made clear they hope to use citizens’ stated intentions as one gauge. Whatever decision is ultimately made, Howard believes the process will be far less unpleasant if the panel announces clear and understandable benchmarks for its determinations.

“I think the lack of clarity and defined criteria feeds suspicions and animosity,” Howard said. “You hear assumptions that certain areas are not going to be rebuilt. I don’t know how anyone can make those assumptions until they’ve clearly articulated the criteria for rebuilding.”

Howard’s ideas were echoed by Steve Goldsmith, a former mayor of Indianapolis who now runs the Innovations in Government program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Goldsmith, who has been providing advice to the mayor’s subcommittee on government efficiency, said that as a politician he would sell the strategy based on which neighborhoods will be helped first rather than which ones might not be helped soon, or ever. But a decision to just distribute the money across the entire city would be folly, he said.

“There’s just no way for urban investment to work in city like New Orleans, even pre-Katrina, if you sprinkle investment everywhere,” he said. “It’s unfair to the community to pretend you can do everything, because you can’t.”

Years ago, Goldsmith said, he was given a tour of a tough, inner-city neighborhood in Baltimore by then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke. The city was pouring money into the area, and Goldsmith asked Schmoke why residents of “the crack-infested area across town” weren’t complaining of being ignored.

“He said, ‘We’ve got to start somewhere and demonstrate that we can do it,’ Goldsmith recalled. “ ‘I told those folks we only have so many resources, and we’re going to prioritize them and get to you next.’ At some level you just have to say, ‘We’re going to start here.’ “

Goldsmith said he began Indianapolis’ program of neighborhood revitalization by targeting seven areas. It didn’t work well, he said, because resources were spread too thin.

“Everyone who has been involved in urban economic development and rejuvenation of neighborhoods would agree that concentrating your efforts geographically is the way to help the greatest number of people,” he said.

“The trick is doing it in a way that strikes people as fair. The priorities have to be made according to a transparent set of guidelines,” Goldsmith said. “If it’s, ‘Some of you are going to win, and some of you are going to lose, and we’re going to decide who wins and who loses,’ that’s a recipe for impasse. It’s going to have to be more nuanced.”

Buyouts

Even if the mayor’s commission doesn’t take a firm stand on the footprint question, those who ultimately control the billions of dollars expected to flow into the region — the federal government and the state-chartered Louisiana Recovery Authority — may wind up deciding the matter, if indirectly.

Observers are optimistic that buyout legislation similar to that sponsored by U.S. Rep. Richard Baker, R-Baton Rouge, will pass, perhaps by next month. Under the Baker bill, a public authority would buy flooded properties from willing sellers, giving them 60 percent of their equity and closing out their loans.

Once such a law is passed, homeowners’ choices will come into much clearer focus. Owners of a flooded home will be able to compare the cost of renovating or rebuilding against the money they would receive by selling out — allowing people to escape the limbo they’ve been in since Aug. 29.

The FEMA flood maps are expected to further clarify owners’ options.

Many homes in New Orleans were built before the current maps, which date to 1984, were adopted, and they would not have been allowed to be built as low as they are under current rules. Such noncompliant homes are “grandfathered” into the national flood insurance program, run by FEMA — unless they were “substantially damaged” by the flood. Substantial damage is defined as damage that would cost more than 50 percent of a home’s value to repair.

The new maps could make redeveloping homes in low-lying, hard-hit parts of town prohibitively expensive, making a buyout much more attractive to homeowners in those areas. For instance, if the owner of a flooded home on a slab will be forced to raise his house 3 feet off the ground to get a building permit, the cost might make the project a non-starter.

“The new FEMA maps are the data that’s going to drive our decision-making,” said Reilly of the state recovery authority. “And my prediction is that data will shrink the footprint of the city.”

Walter Isaacson, vice chairman of the state recovery authority, said the maps will make homeowners’ decisions easier.

“At a certain point, common sense will prevail in areas that are repeatedly listed by FEMA as dangerous,” he said “Insurance premiums, building codes and FEMA regulations ultimately will make it difficult to rebuild there.”

If the mandates from FEMA are science-based — and a reasonable buyout option exists — Isaacson said the debate could become less volatile.

Of course even science is subject to interpretation. The city’s chief technology officer, Greg Meffert, who oversees the city’s permitting process, said that the administration is demonstrating considerable flexibility in how it applies the 50 percent rule when owners come seeking permission to rebuild flooded houses. Many homeowners want the number altered. When they appeal, city officials are trying to give them what they want, Meffert said, provided it’s a close call.

“If it’s a ‘gray zone’ call, virtually 100 percent of the time, we’re going to go in the direction of where the resident wants us to go,” he said.

FEMA officials, who adopted the “50 percent rule” in an effort to avoid repeated catastrophic flood claims on the same property, have thus far remained silent on the city’s flexible approach.

But the practice could have the effect of encouraging homeowners to rebuild their flooded homes as they were pre-Katrina, because doing so might well be more financially attractive than taking flood-mitigation steps or selling out under the Baker legislation.

Reilly said he doesn’t much care for the idea.

“In my view, the rule is there to help keep people safe,” he said. “I can’t say I’d be in favor of bending those rules to do something that might put people’s lives in danger. I would hate to see people making short-term, expedient decisions and doing something that could cause loss of property or loss of life because they’re trying to beat the clock on permitting.”

. . . . . . .

Staff writer Gwen Filosa contributed to this report. Gordon Russell can be reached at grussell@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3347. Frank Donze can be reached at fdonze@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3328.

Jan 8, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

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