Planning leaders see chance for a better city
By Gordon Russell
and Frank Donze
Like many cities, New Orleans has evolved at varying speeds, growing steadily into one of the most powerful and wealthy cities in America by the turn of the 20th century, eventually swelling to a metropolis of 630,000, and then beginning a slow decline in population and influence.
The way Tulane University School of Architecture Dean Reed Kroloff sees it, Hurricane Katrina sent the clock into overdrive, knocking New Orleans over the precipice toward which the city had long been headed.
But with the tragedy came opportunity, according to Kroloff and architect Ray Manning, who have been drafted by Mayor Ray Nagin’s rebuilding commission to oversee a planning process that could reshape the city.
“All of a sudden, time sped up in New Orleans,” Kroloff said. “Rarely does any citizen get to experience that. It’s not always a good thing. And in our case, it’s both bad and good. Because time sped up, we were forced to see the city for what it actually is — damaged. It was damaged before in other ways. Now that damage has taken on a physical reality we can all understand.”
Added Manning: “That’s the real opportunity. That is the silver lining in this whole disaster — that we have this incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-engage and recalibrate this city in a way that, politically, you might never have been able to get to.”
A new look at blight
As concrete examples, both men noted that parts of the city’s physical landscape were long dysfunctional eyesores — for instance, the open drainage canal along Washington Avenue — that became accepted, in much the same way that a pair of dirty socks meld into the room if they’re not picked up. Now, such blights could become assets rather than millstones. For instance, Kroloff and Manning said Tulane Avenue, the blighted speedway where left turns are all but prohibited, could be reconfigured as a boulevard with a wide, shady neutral ground lined with commercial and residential development leading to a bustling medical district serviced by a light rail or streetcar line.
“These are the kinds of opportunities that we never, ever would have had,” Kroloff said. “And we have them all at once. We’ll never get them all at once again, no matter what happens. We’ll only get them piecemeal. Now we’ve got the whole place we can look at simultaneously — which doesn’t mean it has to be remade, by any means.”
The vision of an attractive Tulane Avenue is merely hypothetical. The ideas that become reality should come from the neighborhoods themselves, not imposed upon residents by planners, the two said. And Kroloff and Manning are hard at work coming up with a strategy for seeking input from residents of the city’s 13 planning districts, each of which will be asked to come up with a redevelopment plan with help from professionals. While the mayor’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission recommended that residents take the next four months to make known their intentions about where they want to live — with the fate of many city blocks at stake — it’s up to Kroloff and Manning to figure out the best way to help residents through the process.
People looking for clear declarations on precisely how it’s going to work — and specifics on the toughest decisions, in particular which areas might be discouraged from rebuilding — will have to be patient, however. Manning and Kroloff are still working out the details.
Teams to lead effort
So far, this much is clear: Over the next month, Kroloff and Manning hope to assemble teams of professionals that will be contracted to supervise the process in each of the 13 districts.
There could be one team for each of the districts — which follow the boundaries of the 13 planning districts that already existed in the city — but it’s also possible that some teams will work in more than one district, the two men said. The teams will be paid; they estimate the cost will run to several million dollars, money they’ve been assured will be available from private, philanthropic and government sources.
In addition to urban designers and architects, teams are slated to include local leaders, a representative of the City Planning Commission — which ultimately will be asked to sign off on each plan — as well as experts in finance and public health. Eventually, the plans will be rolled into a citywide plan, and that will become part of the Louisiana Recovery Authority’s statewide plan. That board, whose members are appointed by Gov. Kathleen Blanco, will disburse billions of dollars in federal aid to the communities affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The city plan calls for every district, flooded or not, to come up with a plan that will cover everything from transit to parks and recreation to schools and neighborhood centers. Kroloff and Manning said the process probably will result in minor changes to the least damaged areas, among them District 1, which covers the city’s commercial core, and the two Algiers districts.
Of the 10 remaining districts, six were almost completely flooded — including the districts covering eastern New Orleans, Lakeview, Gentilly and the Lower 9th Ward — while the other four had minor to substantial flooding.
Counting the residents
Residents may be able to begin attending planning sessions as soon as a month from now, although organizers acknowledge that’s an ambitious timetable. Among the groups’ first tasks — and perhaps their most important — will be trying to figure out who’s coming back, who isn’t and who still hasn’t decided. The answers will profoundly influence everything else the panels do, particularly in the most heavily flooded areas.
In neighborhoods that fail to show signs of rebounding, homeowners could be bought out, largely through voluntary agreements with the government, using eminent domain only as a last resort, according to the blueprint laid out by the Bring New Orleans Back Commission’s land-use panel.
But it’s still unclear how the determinations of neighborhood viability will be made. First, the planning teams must overcome as best they can the logistical hurdle of seeking input from tens of thousands of New Orleanians scattered across the country.
Kroloff and Manning have some ideas about how to do that, but again, nothing has been set in stone. They’re planning to use electronic communications, ranging from the Internet to teleconferencing, as a means of encouraging participation by far-flung residents. And they said it’s certain that some of the planning shows will be taken on the road to major centers of the Katrina diaspora — Houston and Baton Rouge, for instance — but they readily conceded they won’t be able to visit every hub of displaced residents.
It’s also unclear how residents will be required to express their desire to return. Kroloff and Manning want to know both whether residents intend to return and whether their intentions are contingent on occupying the same property. For now, they think that any resident who expresses a desire to return — even through a proxy — will be counted in the “yes” column.
Districts too large?
Of course, deciding which areas will be fully repopulated and which might be considered for other uses — parkland or broad redevelopment for industrial use, for example — won’t be nearly as simple as counting ballots.
The land-use panel of Nagin’s commission recommended as a guiding principle that neighborhoods will need at least 50 percent of their former population to return to be considered viable. But that raises a host of other questions: How big is a neighborhood? A block? Twenty square blocks? What happens if every resident on one block wants to come back, but the next two blocks look vacant?
Kroloff and Manning haven’t cracked those questions yet.
But they acknowledged that the 13 planning districts are too big to be considered neighborhoods. One possible solution would be to break the districts down further into the 73 more manageable neighborhoods identified in a planning study done for the city several decades ago. On average, though some are much bigger and some much smaller, each of those areas was home to about 6,500 people before Katrina.
The commission’s demographers estimate that New Orleans will be home to 247,000 residents by September 2008, a little more than half the pre-Katrina population.
But even if the city were to lose just 100,000 people, that would still mean an average loss of almost 1,500 residents in each of those neighborhoods. Those losses won’t be spread evenly across the board, Kroloff said, and the hope is that the planning process clarifies where the major hemorrhaging will occur.
More data needed
There are roadblocks making it difficult for people to make up their minds, however — roadblocks that Kroloff and Manning hope will be cleared quickly so that they can begin to assemble data.
Among the “400-pound gorillas in the room,” as Kroloff called them: new flood maps being generated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency; ongoing testing of soil and sediment left by Katrina’s floodwaters; the shaping and passage of buyout legislation by Congress; and the reaction by private insurers and lenders to the post-Katrina marketplace.
FEMA has said it will provide a preview of the new flood maps by mid-March, while Congress is set to take up buyout legislation next month. It’s unclear when New Orleanians will have a better grasp on the lending and insurance markets, although last week brought a taste of what’s to come, when the state Insurance Rating Commission approved large premium increases for one carrier.
Meanwhile, the environmental risks of settling in certain flood-ravaged areas remain fuzzy at best.
Both Kroloff and Manning emphasized that there has been no predetermination that the city’s footprint must be made smaller, nor any decisions about where, if anywhere, shrinkage should occur. They both said they hope every single displaced New Orleanian expresses a desire to return.
But they think that’s extremely unlikely, and as a result, they feel it’s nearly inevitable that some tightening will be required.
“Let’s not be Pollyannish here,” Kroloff said. “There are some very hard decisions we’re going to have to make, and we’re not afraid to face those decisions. But those are decisions we’re going to make together as a city. .¤.¤. They are not being imposed on us.”
Residents get started
Perhaps because of fears that planners will end up calling the shots, some neighborhood leaders and elected officials in areas ranging from Lakeview to eastern New Orleans and points in between have begun embarking on their own planning efforts, even as Manning and Kroloff prepare to crank up their meetings.
The Broadmoor Improvement Association, for instance, has held several well-attended gatherings in recent weeks — spurred in part by residents’ dismay at the land-use panel’s maps, which suggested part of the area could be converted to parkland.
The association has assembled committees charged with figuring out which residents are returning and what the neighborhood should look like in the future, President LaToya Cantrell said.
“That seems to be the challenge (the mayor’s commission) is putting before neighborhoods, to prove their viability and develop a plan, so we’re focused on that,” Cantrell said. “When this neighborhood planning team is assigned to our district, we want to already have a vision in hand. We want to craft our own vision, and this is our way of getting ahead of the game.”
Before the mayor’s commission had even laid out its vision, meanwhile, City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge Morrell already was assembling planning panels for the Gentilly and Pontchartrain Park neighborhoods.
Quarterbacked by the St. Gabriel Catholic Church chapter of All Congregations Together, residents in those areas are getting help from the architecture school at Southern University in Baton Rouge and the Hewitt-Washington architecture firm. One idea that’s been broached is to create a “senior village” for the older residents of Pontchartrain Park, a 50-year-old neighborhood that was the city’s first subdivision built for African-Americans.
“Whenever you ensure that all the key players have a role in what you’re doing, the end product is always a good product,” said Morrell, who gathered signatures from scores of residents looking to rebuild at a meeting a week ago. “Leave people out of the process, and you can be sure someone will be unhappy.”
Morrell said she foresees no conflict between what her constituents are doing and what the mayor’s panel is recommending. In fact, she said, it’s possible that her planning team could be finished before the mayor’s.
Kroloff and Manning, meanwhile, say such grass-roots efforts will dovetail nicely with their process. The work of resident-driven teams can easily be incorporated into the work of their planning teams, they say.
“If Central City has been involved in a planning process on its own, they can walk through the door and say, ‘We have a plan and here it is; professionals helped us, and we’re ready to go with this plan,’ that’s a good thing because we don’t have to work that hard in that particular neighborhood,” Manning said. “But in some neighborhoods, they may never, ever have had a community-based design process.
“If people have a process we can integrate into, and we can help to mold it and help it become an acceptable format so it can fit into our plan so that we can fit our plan into the LRA plan, more power to them.”
For its part, LRA members say they are happy to help the city’s neighborhood meetings in any way possible, such as providing professional expertise or “planning tool kits” for residents.
Designed at home
Though they share a sense of purpose, Kroloff and Manning are an odd couple.
Manning is a working architect whose projects include the Aquarium of the Americas; Kroloff is an academic, a trainer of architects and former editor of Architecture magazine. Manning is a local who grew up in Franklinton and has lived New Orleans for 26 years; Kroloff is a newbie, born and raised in Phoenix, Ariz. He arrived in New Orleans a little more than a year ago. Manning is smooth and urbane; Kroloff is a fast-talking intellectual.
But the two are united by a belief that if locals don’t plot their own future, it will be done by outsiders who may not share their love of the city, or their understanding of it.
“If we don’t do the planning here, designed by our own local architects, planners and designers, someone else will do it for us,” Kroloff said. “And I, personally, as an Orleanian, would rather be in charge of the process than be on the receiving end of someone else’s ideas for what’s right here.”
Manning and Kroloff said they recognize there is a deep suspicion about the planning process, a suspicion they say is not unique to New Orleans. Part of the reason, they said, is that people don’t necessarily understand what planners do.
“They see it as a process where they’re going to be told what to do and how to live, as opposed to a process that comes in and says, all right, what is it that you like about things in this neighborhood, how can we work to see that those are sustained, and then are there ways we can improve them?” Kroloff said.
Already, there’s a belief among some residents — given voice by prominent leaders, including the National Urban League president, former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial — that the planning process is nothing more than a sneaky way of camouflaging a “land grab” driven by developers.
That skepticism appears to result in part from the central role played by banker and developer Joe Canizaro in crafting the land-use plan. Other cynics have zeroed in on the inclusion of “in-fill areas” — labeled as potential zones for major redevelopment projects — on maps presented by Canizaro’s committee.
Kroloff and Manning, who were tapped by Canizaro to run the process, bristled at the suggestion that they’d be involved in a charade.
“Joe Canizaro is not going to be sitting at the table as this process unfolds,” Manning said. “He’s not going to be sitting in my office or Reed’s office directing us as to what to do. I asked Joe before I accepted doing this, ‘Were we going to be able to move forward in a professional manner with integrity and transparency?’ And if I had not gotten an answer of yes, I would not be sitting here.
“We’re not here to rubber-stamp an approach by a developer. If that’s what people think, then they’re flat wrong. And they don’t know me, and they don’t know Reed Kroloff.”
Clouds of nostalgia
Not only did Manning and Kroloff say they’d never play patsy to developers on principle, they said they both love the city and are eager to preserve its charms — without papering over its warts.
For although the city often seems awash in nostalgia for the pre-Katrina days, the truth is that things had been headed south for a long time, they say.
Despite its charms, the city “wasn’t wonderful for a vast majority of people and the quality of their lives,” Manning said. “And so people who talk about wanting to return it to the way it was, I don’t know what New Orleans they were living in.”
Not that pre-Katrina New Orleans lacked magnetism.
“The amazing thing about New Orleans is despite the fact that it had reached that stage of dangerous decline, we all still wanted to live here, all of us,” Kroloff said. “All of us were willing to accept that state of affairs and be here because this place is so fundamentally wonderful under the surface that we were willing to close our eyes to what was a pretty unpleasant reality every day.”
Thankfully, both noted, a fair chunk of New Orleans’ drawing power owes to its physical strengths: its wealth of historic buildings, its oak-lined neutral grounds, its walkability. Those qualities are mostly still present, and they provide a good foundation on which to rebuild.
“We’ve got a strong urban pattern and an architectural character that we know to begin with,” Kroloff said, noting that other communities are trying hard to create such qualities from the ground up. “We have real urbanism here. We don’t need ‘New Urbanism.’ We don’t need a pasteboard reproduction of historic architecture and planning. We have the real thing here.
“The worst insult you can pay to a historic building is to copy it badly. We’ve got to respect tradition by avoiding blind nostalgia — and protect like hawks what we’ve got that makes this city so special.”
In other words, they said, the city should build on its history, but not try to force that history on areas that must be rebuilt. Kroloff noted that Gentilly, for instance, has its own distinctive charms, ones that are far different from the shotgun houses, Creole cottages and wrought-iron lacework on the tourist circuit.
“We’re not talking about remaking those neighborhoods or changing their character,” he said. “We’re talking about putting into place systems that will enshrine that character, protect that character and where the citizens see fit to bring it forward, enhance it with things that may not have been there before or things they didn’t think worked right before.”
Gordon Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504)¤826-3347. Frank Donze can be reached at email@example.com or (504)¤826-3328