big easy planner derby
The following is an article I wrote for UNO’s student newspaper, the Driftwood. You may have seen the paper in the news recently, as it scooped the Times-Picayune and all local television outlets by identifying and interviewing the family of a murdered UNO student days before his name was officially released.
Mayor Ray Nagin and City Council President Oliver Thomas canceled a planned presentation to the Louisiana Recovery Authority’s Board of Directors in Westwego Monday. The two were scheduled to bring Neighborhood Recovery Plans, recently endorsed by City Council, to the LRA for infrastructure funding. The LRA controls the allocation of more than $10 billion in federal recovery grants.
Nagin cited a lack of preparation for the postponement. However many view the move as the latest episode in a months-long clash between two local planning processes: the New Orleans Neighborhoods Rebuilding Plans, drafted earlier this year by Lambert Advisory of Miami under a contract with the City Council; and the ongoing citywide Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP) administered by the Greater New Orleans Foundation.
Nagin’ and Thomas’ presentation would have come months before the projected completion of a citywide plan, which the LRA insists is a prerequisite to receiving federal recovery dollars.
Many civic activists see their scheduled appearance as an attempt to illustrate the need for timely action. “I do think there was an element of posturing vis a vis the UNOP” said Becky Houtman, who publishes her own recovery planning research on the web, “- both because it’s been seen as an affront to the Mayor’s and the City Council’s respective authorities, but also, less personally, because the UNOP won’t be ready until well after the LRA firms up its decision of how to allocate its infrastructure funds.”
The LRA is expected to vote December 14th on the proportion of state infrastructure recovery funds that should be dedicated to hard-hit Orleans Parish.
Neither Nagin nor Councilman-at-Large Thomas has formally advocated bypassing UNOP, but the City Council President makes no bones about seeing continued planning as a roadblock to recovery. At a recent Council meeting Thomas noted, “We waited for water. We waited for food. We don’t want to wait anymore. We’ve got pain. We’ve got grief. We know how to suffer. The last thing we need is another group of do-gooders telling us what to do.”
Even those associated with UNOP acknowledge the conflict. “There is obviously a political battle brewing between the Lambert group and the UNOP group,” wrote Gentilly resident Vera Triplett, who is a member of the advisory committee that oversees the UNOP process.
Both the Lambert plans and the UNOP purport to combine professional planning expertise and widespread citizen input to create a fundable blueprint for New Orleans’ rebirth. The key is a list of prioritized recovery projects that can be sent to the LRA, charitable foundations, and private investors for funding.
With two recovery plans in the works, limited federal funding available to reconstruct the city’s infrastructure and residents increasingly fatigued by a deluge of meetings, some find it difficult to make sense of the process.
Karen Gadbois of the Northwest Carrollton neighborhood characterizes the climate as a “collision of confusion.” “The two plans seek to resolve similar issues, and seem to have created similar confusion,” she says.
That confusion surrounds how the two plans will work together. The Lambert plan, which was commissioned in early April by the City Council, addresses only the 49 New Orleans neighborhoods that received at least 2 feet of Katrina’s floodwaters.
The Lambert plan has been strongly criticized as piecemeal and technically deficient, and the LRA has thus far refused to acknowledge it as a citywide recovery plan because it fails to address the New Orleanss 24 unflooded neighborhoods.
It its early days, the architects of UNOP touted their citywide process as an organized answer to the Lambert initiative and the sole conduit for New Orleans receiving federal recovery funding through the LRA. Referring to the then-incomplete Lambert plans, David Voelker, who is a member of the LRA Board of Directors and vice Chairman of the UNO Foundation Board, told the LRA in June that “We need to clean that up and put that all under one tent.”
The UNOP planning tent developed as a two-part undertaking. Planning teams from around the country are currently working with residents in all neighborhoods, no just those flooded by Katrina, to develop lists of proposed recovery projects for each of the city’s 13 planning districts. A “citywide” planning team, led by UNO urban planning alum and adjunct professor Stephen Villavaso, will create an overarching infrastructure plan that weaves together geographically disparate interests.
The UNOP plan is expected to then filter through the Greater New Orleans Foundation for review by the City Planning Commission, the City Council, and finally the Louisiana Recovery Authority.
According to architect Steven Bingler, whose firm, Concordia Architecture and Planning, orchestrates UNOP, “UNOP acknowledges the tremendous creativity that has already taken place. Nobody wants to bring in another planning process that overwhelms the existing neighborhood process because the neighborhood planning process is so beautiful.”
Neighborhood activists aren’t convinced.
Many argue that the process, which is run by a nonprofit foundation rather than an accountable governmental body, usurps the citizens’ power in a representative democracy. Substantive procedural concerns also abound. “My feeling about the UNOP is that no matter how many times a neighborhood organization tells them what kinds of outreach to do they do little to none,” said Karen Gadbois. “We are led into long repetitive conversations which are fruitless and a waste of time. The hard copy information that we ask for is unavailable and that they have created a Community Support Organization which in no way supports the Community.”
Both the Lambert plans and UNOP are endorsed by City Council, leaving some to wonder which is the city’s “official” map to recovery. At a recent forum with UNOP organizers, Editha Amacker, who is UNO urban planning student and resident of the Freret neighborhood, expressed concern about duplicated efforts. “People are busy and don’t have time to waste,” she said,
In recent months New Orleans has seen a tumultuous progression of envisioning and re-envisioning its post-Katrina future. Until an approved plan reaches the LRA, New Orleans’ recovery funding is effectively stymied. According to Central city activist Saundra Reed, most Americans are unaware that New Orleans has yet to tap into the billions in federal grants. “We need to make it clear that the money’s in the bank,” she said. “It’s not on the street.”