Mayor presents BNOB plan
By Bruce Eggler Staff writer
After eliminating all recommendations that would have prohibited any of the city's neighborhoods from participating in its rebuilding process, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on Monday night presented a blueprint for restoring and improving the hurricane-devastated city.
"It will take each and every one of us to pull this off, but if we work together, we can achieve great things," Nagin said at the end of a nearly hour-long speech accepting most of the recommendations presented to him in January by the Bring New Orleans Back Commission.
Nagin appointed the 17-member commission of developers, business people and civic leaders last fall, a few weeks after Katrina flooded most of the city.
Hundreds of people, including at least four City Council members, crowded into a Canal Street hotel ballroom to listen to the speech, which was partly a State of the Union-style laundry list of ideas and initiatives, partly a campaign document for a mayor in the midst of a re-election race.
Applause was infrequent, but Nagin drew laughter when he announced at the start, "I am going to do something I normally hate to do: I am going to read from a script."
Remembering the trouble Nagin sometimes has gotten into with impromptu remarks, notably his "chocolate city" speech on Martin Luther King Day this year, many in the audience chuckled, and one commission member uttered an audible, "Thank you."
Nagin began with the most controversial area of his commission's recommendations: land use.
As he has often done before, he rejected the call by the commission's Urban Planning Committee for a moratorium on building permits in the city's hardest-hit and most flood-prone neighborhoods.
Nagin said he appreciated the committee's desire to protect residents from spending money on houses or stores that could be vulnerable to flooding again and might not be eligible for flood insurance. But, he said, "I have confidence that our citizens can decide for themselves where they want to rebuild, once presented with the facts."
He also rejected the committee's suggestion that hard-hit neighborhoods should have to prove themselves viable, probably by showing that at least 50 percent of residents intend to return, before the city would agree to provide services to them.
"I believe government investment should follow our citizens' investment," Nagin said, without setting up what critics considered arbitrary criteria.
But even as refused to deny any neighborhood the right to rebuild, Nagin warned residents of the Lower 9th Ward and "the lowest-lying areas of New Orleans East" that the Army Corps of Engineers has told him those areas are likely to flood once again if a Katrina-style hurricane hits New Orleans this year or in 2007.
"That's why it's important that you as citizens have the option of rebuilding on your own, or taking advantage of the buyout option in the Failed Levee Homeowners Recovery Program I pioneered," Nagin said. That option, if it wins state and federal approval and financing, would offer homeowners up to $150,000.
Nagin said he supported the proposal that each neighborhood in the city participate in a planning process to spell out how residents would like to see their section redeveloped. Such a process "puts the decisions in the hands of the residents," he said to applause. He said he was extending the deadline for completion of the process by one month, to June 30.
In response to suggestions that some particularly flood-prone neighborhoods should be turned into green space, Nagin said that "creating new parks and open spaces ... is vital to future flood protection." But he said he does not support expropriating property for that purpose, only for removing blighted buildings.
For most of the speech, Nagin kept fairly close to an advance text furnished by his office, but when he got to the final section, on economic development, he added several new pages, proposing or endorsing dozens of ideas ranging from farmers' markets and "risk capital fairs" to a "coastal restoration and preservation technology industry cluster" and an "advanced building design and construction technology industry sector."
He called for instituting a "living wage" policy for all public contracts, expanding the free bus service between New Orleans and Baton Rouge offered since Katrina, maximizing reconstruction opportunities for local companies, training more construction workers, offering housing subsidies for workers and job seekers, supporting the hospitality industry, matching private investment in the shipbuilding industry, completing the New Orleans BioInnovation Center in the medical district, rebuilding the city's health-care infrastructure and reimbursing hospitals for post-Katrina care.
The ultimate goal, Nagin said, "must be more than recovery. It must be transformation." He said New Orleans should create a program of individual development accounts, with employers matching workers' contributions, that would help reduce economic disparities. "We cannot go back to a city of haves and have-nots," he said.
He also said he plans to use community development block grant money to set up a fund that will make low-interest loans to owners of small businesses, and to create a "retail SWAT team" to help small businesses, help workers return and provide job training.
On other issues, Nagin: --said he "struggled" with the commission's call for ending tax exemptions for property owned by nonprofits. He said he finally decided the city needs "to assess a fee for providing basic public services to nonprofits," except for churches, schools and nonprofits "that serve indigent populations." --endorsed the commission's recommendation for a light-rail transit system connecting Armstrong International Airport to the Central Business District and eastern New Orleans. --said he favors creating "an independent, autonomous" Crescent City Recovery Corp. to implement the redevelopment process. --supported the closing, in the "medium term," of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet and using federal money to relocate affected businesses. --said a short-term program of "levee fortification" and installation of temporary locks, pumps and floodgates at the MRGO, the Industrial Canal and other canals that flooded during Katrina should be complete by June 1, but said "the real solution to storm surge protection" is restoring the state's coastal wetlands. He urged Congress to share offshore oil and gas lease revenue with Louisiana so it can be used for that purpose. --described as "a three-headed monster" the city's current public school system, with most schools under state control, some run as separate charter schools and a few under the control of the Orleans Parish School Board. He proposed that the Legislature create a new "city-run school system" to be led by a seven-member appointed board. The system should remain in place for only five years, he said. "Let's put this issue on the fall ballot and let the people vote," he said. --said he favors consolidating the city's seven assessors' offices into one, if the voters agree. Such a move could save $1 million a year, he said. --also supported merging the civil and criminal sheriffs' offices into one and consolidating some "police districts with law enforcement authority" with the New Orleans Police Department, as a way "to maintain our current status as one of the safest urban areas in America." The last comment drew gasps and murmurs of disagreement from some in the crowd. --said he does not support merging the civil and criminal court systems, as recommended by the commission, because the cost savings from such a move are not clear. But he said he would favor further study of the issue to determine the cost-benefit ratio.
Bruce Eggler can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3320.