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There Go the Neighborhoods
by Elizabeth Cook Sunday, Aug. 13, 2006 at 8:55 AM 504-319-3564 713 Fairlawn Dr., Gretna, La

In the bloated, utopian visions emerging from the neighborhood planning process, it's not about whose participating. It's about who isn't.

Two opposing planning groups, two opposing visions?

Not on your life. It seems "opposing" City Council endorsed/Lambert Advisory, LLC and the Concordia/Rockefeller funded, Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) sanctioned visions actually offer the same gourmet fare: unrealistic, utopian project proposals and proposed zoning restrictions designed to keep the working poor from returning to the city.

Proposed bike paths galore, along with community centers, new parks, levees near Lincoln Beach, revitalized Lincoln Beach, improved libraries, lush landscaping, family entertainment districts, a "Disney-like water park for New Orleans East" and a "pedestrian-friendly town center for upscale shopping"(Times Picayune,8/12/06), suggested "multi-use community NEXUS centers constructed in every neighborhood to replace old stand alone school buildings" (from the Concordia website) are among the few, optimistic/utopian proposals.

Funding sources for these grandiose plans are vague, perhaps purposefully so, and to take place sometime in the future. Lambert Advisory, LLC, said they will "come up with a funding matrix, identifying potential funding sources, prioritizing projects and estimating costs"(TP,8/12/06).

At a recent New Orleans East planning meeting, when some residents were skeptical about the financing for their plan, businessman and New Orleans East resident leader Sherman Copelin stepped in with the optimistic, and perhaps unrealistic response that questions of funding are to be answered some time in the future, in "subsequent phases of the process, when Lambert Advisory identifies potential funding sources" (TP, 8/13/06).

Instead of "When", shouldn't it be "If"? If Lambert Advisory identifies potential funding sources? Certainly planners cannot guarantee the availability of funding for the multitude of proposed improvement projects. That doesn't seem to stop them from encouraging the grandiose plans. Perhaps if they couldn't push the bike paths and upscale shopping and levees on the south shore of Ponchartrain Beach, then they couldn't justify their participation, and their high pay. Then citizens, if not fed bloated plans for rebuilding, might focus on the "real" issues.

This has the scent, the smell of a grand diversionary project from the real issues. And what could be more real than confronting the state, federal and local officials for their failure to restore adequate health care in the region, which is currently in crisis mode, for their failures to address the crumbling and damaged sewerage and water infrastructure, for their failure to address a bankrupt utility whose parent company (Entergy) could care less if rate payers are made to shoulder the burden of rebuilding that infrastructure. And that is just the tip of the iceberg of very real, physical problems facing New Orleans citizens. Oh, did I mention poor levee construction?

If City Council meetings addressing those very issues could attract as many well-meaning citizens, as the planning meetings themselves, filled to the brim with citizens getting a cocaine like rush from the prospect of perfect, utopian, post-Katrina neighborhoods, perhaps our real problems would be on their way to being addressed.

Perhaps therein lies the answer: citizens would rather be fed fantastic dreams rather than confront those elected to represent them, with the realities of their failures to fund what should have already been well on its way to being rebuilt: our much needed infrastructure of necessary services and affordable housing.

Much more pleasant to the ear of these homeowners are tales of bike paths and upscale shopping areas, lush landscaping and improved libraries.

Proposed improved facades of buildings on Chef Menteur Highway in New Orleans East seems particularly symbolic of the nature of this process: window dressing for the real deal.

What is the real deal? Proposed restrictive zoning in New Orleans East to deny the rebuilding of dense apartment complexes, occupied pre-Katrina by the working poor; restrict the density in the east also of homes from the pre-Katrina average of 50 per acre to 16, get rid of public housing in the mid-city planning district and build so-called mixed income developments.

These few measures alone, emerging from both the Concordia and Lambert Advisory planning processes, would accomplish what was hugely unpopular when the Bring New Orleans Back Commission (BNOB) first proposed to shrink and even eliminate certain neighborhoods, and will serve to keep certain people from returning to the city.

Who are the people that are most likely to be affected by these grandiose and dangerous plans? The working poor that lived in public housing, the working poor that lived in the so-called dense, affordable apartment complexes in New Orleans East and low income home owners that previously could afford to build in New Orleans East.

Add to this mix the threat of property seizures as a result of the City Council ordinance to require gutting by the end of August, which will most assuredly be challenged in court, and you have a full scale war in New Orleans against low income home owners, renters, and public housing residents.

Need I remind you that the (LRA) has yet to give out a single dime to home owners waiting on help from the federal government in order to rebuild, and framed within that context, the gutting ordinance is strikingly unfair.

Pre-Katrina, the majority of people in New Orleans were renters. Thousands rented in New Orleans East, and commuted into the city for work. New Orleans East, under the current tutelage of businessman and East resident Sherman Copelin, is shaping up to be the next battleground for the Right of Return.

Coming out of the Copelin sanctioned/Lambert planning process for New Orleans East are two foreboding, previously mentioned proposals that if enacted, would stack the odds against the Right of Return for thousands: the proposal to restrict the construction of so-called hight density apartment complexes, and the proposal to restrict the numbers of homes per acre from its current average now of 50 down to 16. Then, restrictions on multi-family housing in the east would further require developers to get approval from neighboring residents.

That last item might be dubbed the emerging "tyranny of homeowners" in this planning process. Renters and the working poor are largely left out of the planning of far-reaching decisions that will impact when, if ever, they will be able to return to the city.

On the other hand, middle and upper income home owners who have the resources to return and participate in this planning process, are deciding for the majority of New Orleanians not only what our city will look like, but exactly who will be afforded the Right of Return.

Take public housing, for instance. If you go to the Gentilly Planning Process web site, at, there is an audio of an interview between a Mid-City resident, Virginia Blanque, and two planners, regarding their views on public housing.

In one breath, Blanque, asks Planners Fredric Schwartz and Carlton Brown their strategies "for dealing with Mid-City's many public housing developments."
Schwartz and Brown's answer: so-called mixed income developments, which always results in the drastic reduction of low income units.

In another breath, Blanque asked the planners "tough questions about outreach". Almost as an afterthought, Schwartz and Brown suggests that the Rockefeller Foundation "fund a singular outreach effort for displaced New Orleanians from all of the city's planning districts."

Talk about the cart before the horse. Plans are now being drawn up that will restrict the right of return of many people that the process itself has yet to reach out to. Just when will this outreach take place? How will displaced, working poor residents in Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Memphis be drawn into this process and given a voice in the rebuilding of their city?

For example, if public housing residents were included in this planning process, do you really believe they would advocate for demolition of their neighborhoods and mixed income housing a la River Gardens, where 1500 families were displaced for a paltry fewer than 100 families returning to that development from public housing?

So Ms. Blanque, a truly democratic process would take into account the needs of the working poor, and reopen public housing.

It is HUD's failure to reopen the public housing developments that is preventing the Right of Return of thousands. In their absence, home owners are planning the demise of their neighborhoods.

Will someone please point out to me where democracy and "fair play" enter into this process?

Low income renters who have zero opportunity of return right now, rank about as high on the priority scale as public housing residents. They have no voice in this process, though their numbers pre-Katrina far-exceeded the numbers of home owners.

A tyranny of home owners indeed, in this planning process. Having been afforded the right to vote on the plans themselves, homeowners are unhindered and apparently un-bothered by the needs of the absent, working poor.

Perhaps it is the utopian visions of rebuilt, perfect neighborhoods that is clouding the vision of those who value any sense of fair play. Read between the lines folks. It is not about who is present in your meetings, it's about who isn't.

add your comments

Listed below are the 10 latest comments of 6 posted about this article.
These comments are anonymously submitted by the website visitors.
Down with utopia Elizabeth Cook Thursday, Aug. 24, 2006 at 6:15 AM
Up With Utopia Miss Amanda Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2006 at 10:46 PM
To The Point Cory Turner Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2006 at 5:22 AM
Another Perspective Bart Everson Sunday, Aug. 13, 2006 at 10:30 AM

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