Locals not waiting to be told what to do
By Coleman Warner and Keith DarcÚ Staff writers
Big green spots covering portions of flooded neighborhoods on a map of a rebuilt New Orleans might have discouraged some people.
But in the densely built Broadmoor neighborhood, the symbol marking the area for possible new green space lit a fire under its neighborhood group.
"It didn't devastate us; it pissed us off," said Virginia Saussy Bairnsfather, a board member for the Broadmoor Improvement Association.
Within weeks of the map's unveiling in January by Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission, membership in the neighborhood group jumped 400 percent.
The January rollout of the commission's land-use plan set a clock ticking that gave sections of the city four months to establish their viability. But weeks have passed and the city's formal process for helping about 80 neighborhoods chart a new future has yet to begin. Professional disagreements over differing visions of the city's future are one snag. Another has been a lack of money to finance the planning process, a problem that may have been alleviated Friday with members of the Louisiana Recovery Authority pledging to help find $7.5 million needed to get the process moving.
But Broadmoor residents, like grass-roots community groups all across the city, are moving ahead on their own without waiting for the expert-laced planning exercise promised by Nagin's commission. They are polling residents, creating planning committees and enlisting the help of an unnamed Ivy League university in writing a redevelopment plan.
Fearing they may lose control of what happens to their communities - especially with some areas at risk of being declared no longer viable, and subject to clearing - activists in Lakeview, Gentilly and eastern New Orleans are calling meetings, mulling issues, debating what kinds of changes they will favor or oppose.
Much of the work is brainstorming and data-gathering. In some cases it has taken a sophisticated turn, involving architects or planners who donate their time.
"There has been no direction given (from City Hall), so neighborhoods have to fend for themselves," said Latoya Cantrell, president of the Broadmoor group. "We're on our own."
Led by architect Ray Manning and Tulane University School of Architecture Dean Reed Kroloff, the Bring New Orleans Back planning effort ran into money problems after FEMA denied a request for millions of dollars to pay for technical assistance.
Manning is furious about what he calls a broken commitment. He was assured by FEMA disaster recovery official Brad Gair as early as January that the agency would cover costs of the technical help, and Gair didn't flinch at the multimillion-dollar scale of the city's request, Manning said.
"We were sold a bill of goods by the federal government," Manning said.
But Gair, who has since moved from Louisiana to a New York post, said only that the financial support would be considered, FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Rodi said.
The breakthrough Friday came as Manning and Louisiana Recovery Authority member Donna Fraiche emerged from a meeting with other key figures representing the state board and Nagin's commission and announced a plan for the LRA to quickly help find money for the New Orleans consulting work. The LRA would continue to refrain from dictating how planning should be conducted in New Orleans, but would make consultants available for the city effort.
"We have ideas, we have (funding) sources, we have more than possibilities, and it's going to get done," said Fraiche, who chairs an LRA planning committee.
Manning and Kroloff insist it would be foolhardy to attempt a citywide planning exercise, one that necessarily seeks input from displaced New Orleanians in many other states, with little money, relying on a city planning department hit hard by layoffs or the donated labors of planning professionals.
New Orleans urban planner Bob Tannen agrees that tackling the citywide project with little money for technical help would be risky. It may result in "a document or a plan that is not feasible to implement, in terms of cost, in terms of building and zoning issues, hazardous waste and so forth - that all involves technical competence," he said.
The Louisiana Recovery Authority previously has offered post-storm planning help to New Orleans, as it has elsewhere in the state, tapping private fund-raising and using a team that includes internationally recognized town planner Andres Duany. But Nagin in the past insisted that New Orleans carry out its own neighborhood-based planning. Manning reiterated that position earlier last week, although he said he respects the work of Duany Plater-Zyberk Architects and Town Planners, part of the state-sanctioned team working in other parishes.
Kroloff, an enthusiast of modernist architecture, abhors the "new urbanism" embraced by Duany's team, an architectural style that embraces small-town touches evocative of an earlier era when cars were fewer and urban living less anonymous. Kroloff has made clear that he doesn't want the state consultants to gain a New Orleans beachhead.
Meanwhile, the City Council has toyed with launching a neighborhood planning project of its own. Details of the endeavor are not yet spelled out, but a motion approved Feb. 16 by the council would authorize using nearly $3 million from federal community development block grants to hire Lambert Advisory, a firm already providing consulting advice to the city on housing issues. An ordinance authorizing the allocation is pending.
Manning said the City Council initiative would complement, not pose a challenge to, the process set up by Nagin's commission.
New Orleans activists are perplexed about the city planning effort.
"I don't understand the process or what the results would be, and now it just increasingly seems to be put off," said Wade Rathke, a neighborhood organizer with the ACORN group. "You look at the box, and I don't think there's anything in there."
With their own efforts temporarily stymied, Manning and Kroloff salute the grass-roots planning work as an exciting development that will expedite and strengthen any citywide planning exercise. Kroloff said groups may accomplish the most, at this stage, by simply gathering information about which residents plan to return and which businesses are expected to reopen, and by talking about what they want. He discouraged formal planning meetings until residents have the right technical help on hand.
Kroloff said the city process must be finished quickly, that it shouldn't be ongoing when Katrina's anniversary rolls around.
"We want to be able to catch this energy," he said. "The generally positive response could become frustration and confusion if we don't catch this wave now."
Staff writers Gwen Filosa, Leslie Williams, Rob Nelson, Jeff Duncan and Lynne Jensen contributed to this story. Coleman Warner can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3311. Keith DarcÚ may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3491.