Saturday, November 26, 2005

Renovation or Redevelopment?

A real estate think-tank with ties to prominent local developers released its proposal for the future of last week, including suggestions that local power be turned over to a reconstruction authority appointed by people outside New Orleans.

While the Urban Land Institute proposal included a laundry list of positive goals for the recovery of New Orleans, including a focus on "sustainable development", pre- price buyouts of condemned housing, and "equitable redevelopment" (defined as providing returning residents sufficient resource to rebuild in place or relocate in develop-able areas), the suggestion that the city is not capable of managing it's own affairs stuck out prominently.

ULI called for is the creation of a Louisiana Recovery Authority, a state-chartered corporation with broad authority over the city's finances, including authority over all recovery funds, the city budget, and taxation. The proposed seven-member panel would have only two locally appointed members, with three to be named by the President and two by the governor. The mayor and city council would each be allowed one seat to fill.

GOP Congressman Richard Baker of Baton Rouge has proposed a similar corporation, controlled instead entirely by the federal government.

The ULI panel also called for reforms in local government, including the consolidation of the metropolitan area's levee boards, and the appointment of an Inspector General and a Board of Ethics with oversight of the city's government.

For all of the failings of New Orleans' government, it is ironic that--at a time when Americans are dying to try to bring democracy to a devastated Iraq--the ULI would propose the imposition of a non-democratic super government, largely appointed by outsiders, in New Orleans.

The report Moving Beyond Recovery to Restoration and Rebirth: Urban Land Institute Makes Recommendations on Rebuilding New Orleans, was released on Nov. 17 in a presentation to members of Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission.

The recommendations were the result of a month of site visits and work, including a week-long visit to the Hurricane -ravaged city by 50 ULI specialists in urban and post-disaster recovery just prior to the report's release.

The plan outlined a strategy for reconstruction, starting with the least damaged areas on the highest ground, and calling out the most severely flooded areas for possible conversion from residential neighborhoods into green space. The Times-Picayune headline on the report was Rebuilding should begin on high ground. That story says:

Tackling what is certain to be the most controversial aspect of any rebuilding plan, the contingent from the Urban Land Institute said Friday that the city should use its original footprint, as well as lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, as a guide in determining what areas are most logical for redevelopment.

The group went so far as to draft a color-coded map of the city showing three "investment zones" the city may want to follow. The first zone included the high parts of the city, like Uptown and the French Quarter, which panelists say is ready for rehabilitation immediately. The second zone highlighted the mid-ground, which the panel suggested is also ready for individual rehabilitation, with some opportunities to put together parcels of land for green space or redevelopment.

The last zone, which included some of the city's hardest hit neighborhoods, needs additional study, but could have the potential for mass buyouts and future green space, the panel said. Those areas include most of eastern New Orleans east and Gentilly; the northern part of Lakeview; and parts of the Lower 9th Ward, Broadmoor, Mid-City and Hollygrove.

The proposal divided the city into three different recovery zones: the historic city of high land, an intermediate zone ready for recovery in some areas and redevelopment in others, and a third zone

Presumably, these "develop-able areas" would fall into the plan's zone two, between the historic high ground and the ground sub-zero neighborhoods of catastrophic flooding.

There is nothing terribly surprising in the plan, even the creation of a recovery corporation with the powers and funding necessary to facilitate rebuilding. The ULI is not the first to propose the abandonment of some flood-prone neighborhoods. Notably, Louisiana State University author and geographer Craig
Colten has suggested the same before the ULI began its work. His views widely published by CNN, National Public Radio, the Washington Post and newspapers around the country.

The laudable statements on reform, sustainable development and equitable redevelopment--with repeated references to brining back the people of New Orleans to participate in the city's reconstruction--sound like a prescription for a successful recovery.

The lingering question, in my view, is this: how will redevelopment of the areas most severely damaged proceed, and what will such redevelopment mean to the character and future of the city?

Most people in know what renovation is, whether you're the person picking the new shutters or the person hired to hang them. Renovation is a process of taking a place worth saving for its grace and beauty, for its historic and cultural importance, and making it new again. Renovation is not simply repair. Renovation is something that adds value.

Renovation is precisely what New Orleans needs: preserving the critically important parts of what makes it a cultural and architectural treasure, while tearing out those parts that are damaged and threaten the long-term integrity of the structure.

Renovation is a word the ULI uses liberally in its presentation. Another well-used word is redevelopment.

Most New Orleanians also know what redevelopment is. Redevelopment implies tearing down and starting over, replacing what was or what is with something new. Redevelopment was the fate of the St. Thomas Housing Project in the Irish Channel in Uptown New Orleans.

St. Thomas was a neighborhood desperately in need of help. The classic "bricks" housing project apartments were dilapidated to the point of condemnation. The neighborhood itself was described this way in a quote from Broderick Bagert, Jr., published on

"Of the 2,785 people who lived in the St. Thomas Housing Development in New Orleans before it was demolished for redevelopment in 2000, all were poor. […] The population density of the development was over 400% higher than that of the surrounding neighborhood. Most nearby through-streets came to a dead-end at St. Thomas. The rate of violent crime in the complex was 722% higher than that for the city as a whole, in a city that topped national statistics for violent crime per capita. […] St. Thomas, in short, was a typical American ghetto."

As of the 2000 Census there were still some 2,957 residents in the census tracts associated with the St. Thomas Housing Development. But as of August 30, 2001 1393 units (of the 1,429 that were counted in the 2000 census) were demolished, according to data published by Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.

Today, a redevelopment project called River Gardens has replaced the St. Thomas Project. The project began when developer Joe Canizaro acquired 70 acres of property at the west end of the revitalized historic Warehouse District. To Canizaro's rescue rode historic renewal leader Pres Kabakoff, whose development company Historical Restoration Inc. had redeveloped numerous prominent local properties such as the D.H. Holmes and American Can Company building projects.

The primary obstacle to extending the Warehouse District redevelopment out to meet the historic Garden District was the St. Thomas Projects. Kabakoff's HRI stepped in with a plan called River Gardens, to use a mix of public and private dollars to tear down the St. Thomas housing project, and build a new mixed-income neighborhood in its place

Where 1,500 mostly poor families lived, only 200 affordable housing units were built, according to New Orleans activist Russell Henderson, in an on-line posting attacking the ULI.

Kabakoff told the online publication Where Y'at that inclusion of more than about 30% affordable housing would drive away "market-rate" residents. Without a substantial portion of new residents willing to pay market rents, the project would fail (or simply convert itself back into the ghetto it sought to replace).

“If you have it dominantly affordable, then the market-rate is afraid to come in. My research says about 70 [market-rate]-30 [affordable]. And with 30% affordable (mothers with children), you are pushing the envelope. But I think with good management and design, you can make that kind of mixture work.”

Henderson points out in his posting that most of the residents of St. Thomas were relocated from the high ground of the Irish Channel out to the lower Ninth Ward, the St. Bernard housing project, and New Orleans East: all areas that were substantially flooded.

By Mr. Kabakoff's reckoning, no more than 30% of reconstructed housing can be affordable, with the rest going at "market rates". What is unclear in the post-Katrina period, is what market rates will be in a city where the habitable housing stock has shrunk by 40%.

Canizaro and Kabakoff are among the leading lights of Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission. Canizaro helped bring the ULI into the process, and Kabakoff won an award from the group for the River Gardens initiative. Both men stand to profit handsomely by any redevelopment efforts in the city, as they did by the redevelopment of the St. Thomas area. (See this detailed analysis for some details on the cost accounting of the St. Thomas redevelopment.)

What is troubling about the approach of the two developers and the ULI is the idea that profit must drive the process, that what can be done to rebuild the city will be an outcome of market forces. The experience of St. Thomas tells us that--even with the leverage of federal dollars to make it possible--the outcome of market-driven redevelopment is the displacement of the working people of New Orleans.

What do we do, then, with the ULI's recommendations? First, everyone concerned about the city must agree that transparency and honesty must govern all levels of government in the reconstruction process. That means not just the city or the state, but also FEMA and the Department of Defense, which continues to hide most of the details of the no bid contracts awarded in the immediate aftermath of the storm. We should not, however, replace local democratic government with hacks and profiteers the likes of those appointed to run FEMA or rebuild Iraq

Second, the government (and only the federal government can afford this) must ensure that those who lost their homes are compensated at pre-Katrina rates. Resources must be made available to make it possible for those who choose to return to rebuild. And the city should put in place rent controls to prevent profiteering and to make sure that the housing provided is affordable to returning local workers.

Third, redevelopment should be done on a not-for-profit basis rather than be treated as an opportunity for a handful of individuals to cash in. When President Bush addressed the people of Katrina in September, he stressed the primacy of market forces. We have seen how well his vision has worked in the reconstruction of Iraq, where select corporations grow rich on no-bid contracts, and water and electricity are still just a promise. Instead, all rebuild efforts should be refocused on the survivors of Katrina.

Tulane Law Professor and activist Oliver Houck has proposed an alternate vision, one that dovetails nicely with the best of the ULI’s proposals. In a Nov. 3 Times-Picayune editorial republished on-line by the Rebuilding Louisiana Coalition, he argues for a citizen-centric effort modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps from the Great Depression.

One scenario has developers move in, bulldoze and rebuild. It's easier,
en masse, to start from scratch. The labor comes from elsewhere. The anchor stores come from elsewhere. The result could look a lot like elsewhere too: condominiums, gated communities, new-towns-in-town. We already have a few. The phrase is that we are going to rebuild better than ever. Whether it's still New Orleans is question.

Unless we do something different, this scenario is inevitable.

There is another scenario. Say we were to look at 50,000 unemployed New Orleanians, and probably double that number of shotgun houses, raised cottages and not-so-raised cottages that are badly damaged but capable of being raised and rehabilitated. Then we put the two together. We create a New Orleans Conservation Corps. They restore the city.

We need training centers and apprenticeships. We need to make employment of New Orleanians by private companies a condition of those companies receiving federal loans and contracts.

Most importantly, task forces of this Conservation Corps must be made available to low-income residents to raise and repair their homes at reduced rates, perhaps for free.

It would be like the local housing rehab program called Christmas in October, only these workers would not be volunteers. They would be a new work force.

This is what the city truly needs. The recovery should not become primarily an opportunity for well-connected developers. It should be an opportunity for the survivors of Katrina to restore a national treasure and, in the best American spirit, make it over where they must so it is not just a museum treasure but a living city, rescued from neglect and put on proud display to all the world.

thank you so much for your words and insight and support!! all the best
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