Unified New Orleans Plan kicks off
by Darwin BondGraham
Wednesday, Aug. 02, 2006 at 1:26 PM
It’s unclear just how much the various planning firms that are selected in this process will truly incorporate the needs and desires of the residents represented. But the biggest problem of all with the process thus far is its lack of true democratic participation. With almost half of the city’s population still missing, with renters, public housing residents, and residents of the worst hit neighborhoods distracted by more mundane concerns like returning home, securing employment, a roof over their heads, or cleaning up property that Mayor Nagin will otherwise deem blighted within a month, it would appear that most resident of the Big Easy simply don’t have the resources to participate.
After several false starts and conflicting announcements by the Mayor, City Council, and several independent neighborhood associations, New Orleans’ official post-Katrina planning effort got off to a Start on Sunday, July 30th. Called the Unified New Orleans Neighborhood Plan (UNOP) it is a privately funded initiative endorsed by city officials. Funding for the meetings has come through the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation meaning that the city’s planning for post-disaster redevelopment is effectively a privatized process.
Sunday’s kickoff was intended as a space for public brainstorming. Crammed into the Pavilion of Two Sisters in City Park, residents were encouraged to group themselves under one of the 14 planning districts (Lakeview, Gentilly, Mid-City, Uptown, Garden, Wharehouse CBD, French Quarter, Bywater, Lower 9th, New Orleans East, Village de L’Est Area, Venetian Isles, Algiers, and New Aurora/English Turn) and to list their needs, concerns, and visions for the future of their neighborhoods.
On Tuesday, August 1st residents were invited to return and hear pitches from the 15 some-odd teams of planning and architecture firms from which they have been told to choose. Most presentations were suffused with buzzwords and catchphrases like “advocacy planning,” “green-building,” “new urbanism,” “inclusive,” “equitable,” and “sensitive.” Each planning group also touted its local connections and long-term commitment to the City believing that the provincial character of New Orleanians will play a major role in who gets to work and who goes home, out of city or out of state.
If the process plays out as its organizers hope these meetings will result in districts picking a team of planners, architects, and engineers who will carry out the work of reshaping that portion of the city, on paper at least. At this point it’s unknown as to how drastic this reshaping of the city could be, but some neighborhoods are clearly being approached as blank canvasses. After each district’s plan is completed it will be incorporated into a city-wide plan. According to UNOP organizers the district plans and overall city plan are “required to capitalize on the federal and state recovery funds that are available for residents and the city to rebuild.” Thus the privatized process is the key to the public coffers.
Sunday and Tuesday’s meetings were attended mostly by middle and upper class homeowners representing their neighborhood’s residential interests (schools, parks, services, and other quality of life issues). A small number of real estate developers who have set their sites on neighborhoods and entire districts also attended hoping to promote their schemes in the overall plans. These developers see opportunities in the process to pursue large scale construction and renovation projects such as condo towers, renovations of public housing into upscale apartments, building theaters, hotels, cultural centers, museums and other tourist attractions, and more.
The planning teams are also defining the Katrina catastrophe as an “opportunity” to fundamentally recast neighborhoods. Eean McNaughton of E. Eean McNaughton Architects said that members of his consortium, “see Katrina as a catastrophe, but also as an opportunity.” Using his work on Coliseum Square in the early 1970s as an example (it’s located in the Lower Garden district), McNaughton described his approach to things as advocacy planning, something that takes in the concerns of different groups and tries to synthesize a suitable outcome. According to McNaughton the Coliseum Square project was challenging because “some groups were interested in gentrifying the place while others just wanted a place for their kids to play. We brought all that together in a very successful way,” meaning that McNaughton’s firm successfully gentrified the neighborhood and made it a suitable playground. Few in the audience seemed to be concerned with McNaughton’s promotion of gentrification – a process that inevitably displaces poor and working class residents and non-white communities.
In his presentation before the crowd Andres Duany of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ) drummed up many of his past projects as examples of what his planning firm will create if chosen (incidentally, DPZ has already drafted a master plan for the Gentilly district but has chosen not to submit it because the start of the UNOP process means that Gentilly can choose between them and many other firms. It is likely that, however, that Gentilly will go with DPZ in the end). Among Duany’s examples was the town of Seaside, Florida, a new urbanist style project for which DPZ is well-known. Duany played up his local connections in two ways. First he noted that he has bought a house in the Marigny. Second, he has included Steve Oubre, the Lafayette based architect who created the River Ranch in that city, in his design team.
River Ranch is a particularly interesting example. Created from the ground up, the 300 acre mini-city is a facsimile of New Orleans, complete with a Garden district, French Quarter, and all of the architectural styles one would see in the Big Easy. Unlike New Orleans River Ranch is planned as a home only for the upper classes. Home prices start at $265,000. Many sell in the millions of dollars. Oubre’s first draft of a new New Orleans is clearly only like its inspiration in shallow aesthetic ways. Nevertheless, Duany’s team, and nearly all of the planning teams in the UNOP process seem to think that this is the opportunity to rebuild New Orleans as one big River Ranch.
Several months after hurricane Katrina, David Dixon of the Goody Clancy planning firm wrote in a Boston Globe op/ed that, “New Orleans provides us with an opportunity and a tragedy.” Asking if we will “rise to the occasion,” Dixon lists his priorities for the New Orleans metro region, including turning whole neighborhoods and districts into “a system of neighborhood parks,” building a regional transit system (probably along the lines of a light rail or rapid transit line), building new high-tech schools, preserving the city’s architecture, and demolishing public housing through HOPE VI to “replace economic segregation with economic diversity.”
It’s unclear just how much the various planning firms that are selected in this process will truly incorporate the needs and desires of the residents represented. But the biggest problem of all with the process thus far is its lack of true democratic participation. With almost half of the city’s population still missing, with renters, public housing residents, and residents of the worst hit neighborhoods distracted by more mundane concerns like returning home, securing employment, a roof over their heads, or cleaning up property that Mayor Nagin will otherwise deem blighted within a month, it would appear that most resident of the Big Easy simply don’t have the resources to participate. Several attendees described Sunday and Tuesday’s events as rubber stamps. One even called it a “sham,” believing that no real substantive input was being sought or incorporated. But even if the planners selected by this tiny section of the city’s population pay attention to them, it’s not clear that New Orleans privatized planning process will yield anything more than lucrative contracts for several firms to re-imagine New Orleans. Perhaps Gentilly’s plan will create a new landscape in that section of the city. It’s possible that some powerful developers could influence the process and insert their plans into the grand scheme of things. It’s possible that the process could fizzle yet again. And it’s highly probable that it could cause a whole lot of harm to many of those excluded from the process, for whatever reason.
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