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.”
Sandra “18 Wheeler Hester”
Distinguishing Features: army fatigues, strong pimp wrist
Last Seen: Sticking it to The Man
Seriously. Has anybody seen or heard about Sandra Hester since Katrina? I’m assuming that she’s harassing some poor public officals in Houston or Atlanta, but I’d like to at least know where a little bit of New Orleans culture has washed up. Once we get our “characters” back we’ll know we’ve recovered.
I took this picture while directing my tax dollars to Jefferson Parish at Barnes and Noble.
This picture was taken at the Army Corps’ flood gate construction site. It’s right across the street from my house.
Words escape me…….
It seems like I can’t even get to the coffee shop in the morning anymore without nearly tripping over some type of reference to transparency in the planning process. It’s like every time somebody gets up to wash his hands he has to say “Attention patrons of PJ’s. I’m heading to the rest room now. On account of the fact that I am so darned transparent I just wanted everyone to know that I’ve given everyone fair warning of this trip to the restroom and invite you all to join me. Please also help me spread the word that this emergency hand-washing event will be simulcast in Houston, Baton Rouge, Atlanta, Little Rock, and Memphis for maximum outreach to the Diaspora. In the interest of full disclosure, I should let you know that PJ’s buys its hand soap from the Shaw Group, but I’m making every effort to maintain a wall of separation between these economic issues and any substantive hygiene decisions. Thank you for your continued support during this difficult and busy time.”
What’s up with all this transparency? We could all just write it off as part of the rhetoric of citizen engagement, but I’m not sure that would be get at the real issues. It’s clear that the obsession with openness is designed to avoid answering tough questions about the recovery. Anyone who attended GNOF’s infamous Sunday Meeting knows that 500 voices can literally drown out the the rationality of any one argument. An open meeting does not always produce a greater volume of input. Sometimes it just creates greater volume.
Within the context of individual neighborhood planning meetings, the issue of transparency and openness is equally muddy. In the past months I have probably attended 100 such meetings, at which I have encountered the following outspoken regulars: Sustainable Energy Man, Submergable House Guy, Army Corps is Made Up of Alien Hybrids Dude, Unhumanly-Slowtalking Lead Poisoning Lady, and Enraged Jazz Fest Shirt Guy, just to name a few.
For a lot of people, especially those who are still emotionally battered by tremendous loss, community meetings have become much like group therapy sessions. They are opportunities to voice frustration, anger, hopelessness, and the fear caused by sudden loss of security. From within the paradigm of maximum citizen participation it is difficult, if not impossible, to curb these redundant, time consuming rants in favor of more “productive” discussion.
Am I saying that planning meeting attendance should be limited to a select few? Absolutely not. But what I am saying is that we may need to strategically limit such discussions. Therapy is best left to trained professionals. Neighborhoods have already waited 11 months for solid, implementable recovery plans. As Oliver Thomas argued at a recent City Council meeting, “We waited for water. We waited for food. We don’t want to wait anymore.”
I can honestly say that every morning I wake up with pretty much no idea of what my day holds. In addition to the everyday uncertainties of constant contact with New Orleans and New Orleanians, the shifting planning landscape ensures that by day’s end I often have an entirely different set of expectations than I had over my first sip of coffee. I’m starting to become neurotic about attending as many planning meetings as possible for fear that I may miss something huge.
Tonight my roommate made shrimp for dinner. I had gotten a few pounds of Louisiana shrimp at the White Boot Brigade Festival a couple of weekends ago, and we were starting to have a hankerin’ for some seafood. I mention this not because it is particularly significant to eat shrimp in New Orleans but because it illustrates why I was anxious to get home. It’s hard for a Louisiana girl to think of anything else when there’s shrimp on the stove.
Unfortunately, the shrimp had to wait because I am, as I mentioned, neurotic about missing planning meetings. I headed off to the Gentilly Civic Improvement Association‘s land use and zoning committee meeting, a weekly event that generally doesn’t include very much drama. The discussion generally centers around things like “design overlays,” with voices only starting to rise when people get to talking about the Army Corps of Engineers.
This week was different. As I sat there with my laptop and diet Coke, passively dreaming about the shrimp I was going eat, a vision appeared in the periphery. A tweed-clad silhouette with an cartoonish smile and a large document under his arm. It was Andres Duany.
Now for those of you who aren’t urban planners, I’ll start by saying that Duany is the closest thing the planning world has to a rock star. More accurately, he’s the closest thing we have to Ann Coulter. He presents a holistic worldview about ideal urban planning, but in the end his ideas only really work for rich communities. And most academics think he’s a pompous ass. So imagine our surprise when the man himself, the messiah of the new urbanity, walked in the room. Support my my neurotic meeting attendance. You never know what’ll happen.
This discussion – the shrimp and all – is my circuitous way of saying that the new GNOF/Rockefeller planning process is getting underway. I am assuming that Duany is here to interview with the GNOF people in response to their recent RFQ. In the coming weeks neighborhoods are going to be making a lot of decisions, and I’m assuming that many of them will be divisive. Will they stick with the planners they have or interview new planning teams? Will they buy in to the new unified planning process or oppose the non-transparent methods used to create its structure?
I’m still not sure where I stand on all of these issues. Maybe I’ll know by tomorrow night.