January 8, 2006
All Parts of New Orleans Included in Rebuilding Plan
By GARY RIVLIN
NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 7 - The city's official blueprint for redevelopment after Hurricane Katrina, to be released on Wednesday, will recommend that residents be allowed to return and rebuild anywhere they like, no matter how damaged or vulnerable the neighborhood, according to several members of the mayor's rebuilding commission.
The proposal appears to put the city's rebuilding panel on a collision course with its state counterpart, which will control at least some of the flow of federal rebuilding money to the city.
The primary author of the plan, Joseph C. Canizaro, said teams of outside experts would try to help residents of each neighborhood decide whether to rebuild or relocate. Those teams would help increase the odds of success for those residents who decided to return, Mr. Canizaro said.
The commission will propose that the city should discourage homeowners from rebuilding in the hardest hit areas until a plan can be hammered out, but will not forbid them from doing so.
But ultimately, the areas that fail to attract a critical mass of residents in 12 months will probably not survive as residential neighborhoods, Mr. Canizaro said, and are likely to end up as marshland as the city's population declines and its footprint shrinks.
People who rebuild in those areas will be forced to leave, according to the proposal. Though such a requirement would be emotionally wrenching, the commission will propose a buyout program to compensate those people at the market price before Hurricane Katrina, but it is not clear whether there will be federal financing for such a program.
Assuming the commission's recommendations are formally adopted by Mayor C. Ray Nagin, the plan will defer for a year one of the most contentious issues in the city's struggle to recover from the flooding that followed the hurricane: the fate of the most heavily damaged and flood-prone neighborhoods.
Many residents of low-lying neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East have said they are determined to rebuild their ravaged blocks, while some experts have argued that such areas are better returned to marshland for safety and economic reasons. Some civic leaders who had hoped the mayor's panel, the 17-member Bring Back New Orleans Commission, would take a firm stand on the issue expressed disappointment.
"There are some very tough decisions that have to be made here, and no one relishes making them," said Janet R. Howard, chief executive of the Bureau of Governmental Research, a nonprofit policy organization based in New Orleans. "But to say that people should invest their money and invest their energies and put all their hope into rebuilding and then in a year we'll re-evaluate, that's no plan at all."
At least one member of the state panel, the Louisiana Recovery Authority, has echoed that sentiment.
"Someone has to be tough, to stand up and to tell the truth," Sean Reilly, a member of the state commission, said in a speech this week. "Every neighborhood in New Orleans will not be able to come back safe."
Andy Kopplin, executive director of the state commission, declined to comment on the specifics of the city's report, which "hasn't been formally presented to us."
But he said his agency, when doling out federal dollars, would favor plans that emphasized safety and the wise use of precious resources.
"We want to make sure they invest in a smart way that provides a good return on investment," Mr. Kopplin said, adding that at the same time plans should be "true to the aspirations of local communities."
Mr. Canizaro, a prominent real estate developer here, acknowledged the possibility that Hurricane Katrina could spell the death of more than one New Orleans neighborhood. He cited a study by the Rand Corporation that estimated that in three years the city would have a population of no more than 275,000, down more than 40 percent from its pre-hurricane population of 465,000.
"It doesn't take a genius to figure if you're only going to have 40 or 50 percent of your original population, then there's going to be shrinking in the amount of land that's going to be needed," Mr. Canizaro said.
Yet deciding which neighborhoods should not be rebuilt involves far more than the cold rationale of geographic and demographic data, Mr. Canizaro said, especially considering the historic racial tensions in New Orleans. The hurricane devastated the lives of white and black alike, but the waters that roared though much of the city disproportionately flooded its predominantly black eastern half.
"Unfortunately, a lot of poor African-Americans had everything they own destroyed here," Mr. Canizaro said. "So we have to be careful about dictating what's going to happen, especially me as a white man. What's important is we give people an opportunity to determine their future, as best we can."
It is not clear, though, that people who choose to return to devastated neighborhoods will find much to surround them. The city has not promised full services to every neighborhood, and there may be no grocery stores or schools for miles.
It is not even certain that lenders will agree to grant mortgages in those neighborhoods without some guarantees that residents will be there for longer than a year.
The final report, as described by several commissioners, will include several ideas designed to stimulate the city's economy and culture, including a proposal to construct a light rail system and a plan to establish New Orleans as a world center of neuroscience research.
The commission will also recommend that the city create a redevelopment authority to serve as a land bank for blighted or abandoned properties and a vehicle through which federal funds will flow.
By creating an independent authority appointed by elected officials in all levels of government, several commissioners said, the hope is to insulate the redevelopment process from politics.
The most contentious issue, however, will be the redevelopment of neighborhoods. That battle began in earnest in November, when the Urban Land Institute, a prominent planning group based in Washington, proposed that the city temporarily ban redevelopment of properties in those areas hardest hit by flooding, including large tracts of New Orleans East, the Lower Ninth Ward and Lakeview.
The suggestion was rejected by residents of those neighborhoods and their political representatives. Last month, the City Council passed a nonbinding resolution stating that residents should be free to rebuild immediately wherever they choose.
The notion that residents have a right to rebuild anywhere proved too starry-eyed for Alden J. McDonald Jr., a member of the mayor's commission and the chief executive of Liberty Bank and Trust, the city's largest black-owned bank. Though most of the bank's customers lived in the most damaged parts of town, and though Mr. McDonald himself owns a home in New Orleans East, he said it would be cruel to encourage people to move back "without first giving them all the facts."
"We really need to ask what kind of community it will be if there aren't adequate services," he said.
Mr. Canizaro, who as chairman of the commission's planning committee has found himself at the center of this debate, floated a compromise proposal at a commission meeting in mid-December: let people rebuild anywhere they want, then re-evaluate progress in three years. That way the market, and not planners, would determine which neighborhoods would come back.
The general sentiment, however, was that three years was too long, so Mr. Canizaro countered by shrinking the evaluation period to a year.
Critics of his plan say that if the city floods again in the near future, damaging rebuilt neighborhoods in the same places, there will be little sympathy and few federal dollars. But Mr. Canizaro said the prospect of a fortified flood control system, promised by the Bush administration, made him confident that the city would not suffer the same devastation from a storm similar to Hurricane Katrina.
That confidence, however, is not universal. Michael M. Liffmann, the associate executive director of the Louisiana Sea Grant College at Louisiana State University, which studies land-use issues along the Gulf Coast, said most experts agreed that the roughly one-quarter to one-third of the city located dangerously below sea level should not be rebuilt.
"There are parts of New Orleans that are not fit for human habitation," Mr. Liffmann said. "They never were and never will be. But these are as much social calls as they are scientific ones."