In The News › Planning Pains: Firm, critics at odds over N.O. master plan

Oct 16, 2009

Source: New Orleans CityBusiness

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Planning Issues

Planning Pains: Firm, critics at odds over N.O. master plan

Friday, October 16, 2009
By Ben Myers, Staff Writer
New Orleans CityBusiness

The legal power afforded to the city’s master plan is driving a gap between expectations and what planners say is reality in New Orleans.

“I was afraid this was going to happen,” said Dan Mandelker, a Washington University law professor and chief author of a city charter amendment that empowers the plan with legal force. “New Orleans didn’t have the capacity for this kind of project.”

Mandelker, as he drafted the amendment, had a hunch that a planning contractor would avoid difficult issues. And critics of the current draft, prepared by Boston-based firm Goody Clancy, say Mandelker’s fear has materialized.

The draft “punts policy formulation” to dozens of entities and plans that don’t yet exist, according to a critical report by the New Orleans-based Bureau of Governmental Research.

A future “New Orleans Housing Working Group” will “guide and coordinate” housing policy, for example. And a racially-diverse “preservation plan committee,” drawing leaders from across the city, would shape the outline of a citywide preservation plan.

“You are essentially abdicating your responsibility to others,” said Paul Sedway, a planning consultant hired by BGR to critique the plan, speaking at a BGR event Tuesday at the Chateau Bourbon. “I’m not even sure it’s legal. But we’ll soon find out.”

The charter amendment states that all future land use “shall be consistent” with Goody Clancy’s final product. But Mandelker said “force of law” should not be confused with the law itself.

“The role of the plan is to provide policies so there is something to be consistent with,” Mandelker said. “The plan is just what it says. It’s a plan. It’s not the law.”

Still, Mandelker conceded that judges may, at some point, be forced to interpret the plan as a legal document. But “it’s impossible to tell” which parts of the draft are intended to have force of law, said BGR President Janet Howard.

“And that’s a very dangerous thing,” Howard added.

Howard agrees the plan should have legal force, but she faults Goody Clancy for failing to provide clear policies.

“You can’t just put out something loosey-goosey when you are dealing with that kind of mandate,” Howard said.

And therein lies the challenge for David Dixon, the Goody Clancy principal overseeing the plan. New Orleans lacks civic infrastructure – such as a housing working group and preservation plan – which in other cities establishes the foundation of policy.

“In other cities, there are very clearly established agencies,” Dixon said, in areas like transportation, economic development and environmental protection. “Much of what the master plan (in other cities) is doing is refining the policies of what these agencies have in place.”

It would be “inappropriate,” for example, for Dixon to create a housing policy, because “there is nothing to build on,” he said. That’s why Goody Clancy’s plan calls for city representatives, real estate agents, local economists and housing advocates, among others, to convene a working group.

“We need to have fingerprints all over this,” Dixon said.

But lack of housing policy is a critical shortcoming of the draft, according to BGR’s report. And Dixon’s point received a blunt reply when relayed to Mandelker.

“If there are no housing policies in the city, it’s (Goody Clancy’s) role to create a housing policy,” Mandelker said.

But Mandelker also reinforced Dixon’s point about the city’s void of human resources. It was always anticipated that an outside firm would devise the plan, Mandelker said. But he also assumed the contractor would work alongside city staff in a beefed-up planning department.

“The planning commission wasn’t staffed properly,” Mandelker said. “It just didn’t have the depth.”

And the charter amendment demands in-house depth, he said. Mandelker emphasized that he was not part of the impetus behind passing a charter amendment – he was tasked merely with drafting legislation. But he recalled that advocates did not discuss the city’s ability to conduct a comprehensive master plan.

“This was done to make planning meaningful in New Orleans,” Mandelker said. “The rest was expected to follow.”

Oct 16, 2009

Source: New Orleans CityBusiness

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Planning Issues

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