Wednesday, January 31, 2007

City Plan: Finishing What Katrina Started

note: Title edited due to late inspiration.

The T-P has a rather strange front-pager about the (almost) finished and still unfunded rebuilding plan that will be "handed off" this week from planning consultants to city planners. In a style that has become typical of T-P reporting lately, the final paragraph contains a snarky hint at the possible exasperation or perhaps indifference of the consultants without really explaining it.
Consultants who directed the turbulent process were relieved to be handing documents over to city planners. As the news conference got under way, New Orleans architect Steven Bingler told one associate, "This is it, the handoff," and talked of jetting off to the Caribbean.
This paragraph suggests that Bingler is so disgusted with the results of his work that he's all too eager to "hand it off" and hop a plane to Jamaica... with his freshly collected consulting fee burning a hole in his pocket. It's an odd way to end the article if you don't plan to delve further into that issue. Bingler has been criticized at length elsewhere for "condescension" and "lack of candor". It is strange that the T-P is content to limit its criticism to largely unqualified tossed off remarks like the one above.

This is not to defend the plan or its architects however. If the suggestion is that the planning consultants have been little better than preachy opportunistic carpetbaggers, it will find little quarrel here. This was supposed to be a plan for restoring city infrastructure and bringing back communities that were broken and dispersed through the criminal negligence of the federal government. What it has turned out to be, instead, is a festival of condescension wherein professional planners from out of town have collected fees for 1) assigning blame to flood victims for not building high enough in neighborhoods prone to heavy damage caused by the breach of federal levees and 2) forcing those residents to abandon their neighborhoods.
Core features of the broad plan include incentive grant programs that would help city residents elevate their homes, rebuild slab homes using more traditional building styles and help residents relocate from flood-prone, mostly abandoned neighborhoods to more viable ones on higher ground. Those programs alone would cost more than $4 billion in coming years and would supplement any grants already available through the state's Road Home program.

The attempt to force residents off of their land has only been partially successful. In some.. but not all cases, the idea of abandoning rather than restoring victimized neighborhoods has met resistance. The planners have expressed their exasperation as they've been forced to budge a little.
Planning consultants refused to consider a relocation program, favored by some national experts, that would force residents to move out of neighborhoods that are mostly abandoned in order to save on infrastructure costs and allow for new land uses. They said there is no political will, so far, in New Orleans for such mandatory steps and that residents signaled during recent public hearings that there should be a right to return to every neighborhood.

"We had to look at that from a public policy point of view first," said Laurie Johnson, a disaster recovery expert from San Francisco who played a key role in shaping the plan. "That's not where the community is right now, and that's not where the city leadership is right now."
In other words, "Some of these stupid New Orleans people won't go along with what we say is good for them."

The real problem has been.. unsurprisingly.. a lack of coherent city leadership on this issue. In Broadmoor, where a vociferous and organized neighborhood advocacy exists, an entire section of the city has been reclaimed from the planners' ominous "green dot". In other areas like the Lower Nine and parts of Gentilly and the East, where the demographics don't skew so much toward educated professionals with easy access, there has been significantly less progress. Instead of functioning as an advocate for the forgotten neighborhoods that overwhelmingly reelected him, the Mayor has taken a demolition by neglect "market approach" to their recovery. Without leadership, city residents have had to fend for themselves. As a result,the planning and recovery process has become a perverse experiment in Social Darwinism... a chaotic scramble for the pieces of a broken city entirely devoid of vision.

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