New Orleans relief effort dithers, population withers

An urban renovator advocates New Urbanism, but the “model project” leaves some cold.

Poor New Orleans. A city full of character, and characters, it’s had continual trouble marshaling a response since Hurricane Katrina.

In mid-November the American Institute of Architects, American Planning Association, American Society of Civil Engineers, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation convened a three-day Louisiana Recovery and Rebuilding Conference, sponsored by the state. Its goal: to discuss the city’s future and produce an agenda that would help guide rebuilding. More than 600 movers and shakers attended the conference, which one participant, David Dixon of Goody Clancy Associates in Boston, said “produced a series of principles extending from flood protection and infrastructure to planning and designing for rebuilding neighborhoods.”

“Odd as it may sound,” said Dixon, “these principles were very important because there is a leadership vacuum and people desperately need a sense of common vision to hold onto and use to formulate plans in virtually every direction.” Dixon was one of two architects — the other was Michael Willis of San Francisco — who spoke about planning and designing great neighborhoods. Dixon argued for “developing at densities that would really support community and accommodate diversity.” He urged walkable, mixed-use places where buildings frame the streets and parks.

The audience seemed warm to his ideas, but in the absence of massive federal aid, many locals think reconstruction will be nearly impossible. “We don’t have money. We have zero revenue at the moment,” said Jacquelyn Clarkson, who represents the French Quarter on the city council. The state is facing a deficit of nearly $1 billion, and hundreds of businesses that used to pay city taxes were ruined. The scale of the challenge “overwhelms the normal city planning process,” Willis observed. Two and a half months after the hurricane, more than 80 percent of New Orleans’ population had still not returned, largely because there was no normal life to return to.

New urbanist and Louisiana native Ann Daigle said New Urbanism received only a small part of the conference’s attention, and she was concerned that a project often identified locally as new urban — the River Garden HOPE VI project of Pres Kabacoff’s Historic Restoration Inc. — is a poor model to emulate. River Garden has been controversial because it included a Wal-Mart Supercenter and entailed considerable demolition and displacement. Daigle believes condominium units built at River Garden “are completely out of place and disconnected from the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Be that as it may, Kabacoff has suggested “a series of 10-acre, freshly built, densely populated new urban enclaves between downtown New Orleans and Armstrong airport,” according to a report by Doug MacCash in the Times-Picayune. Kabacoff has argued for building a light-rail line linking new mixed-income communities that would include housing, businesses, and schools — wherever there’s a large tract of high ground available. Kabacoff’s espousal of New Urbanism is problematic for some because New Urbanism is equated in many minds with River Garden.

New Orleans author-photographer Richard Sexton, who lives part-time at Seaside, said in the Times-Picayune article that New Orleans, despite its tight traditional neighborhoods, “always yielded to the suburban model of expansion” in the twentieth century. On the other hand, local architect Peter Trapolin, who designed a hotel at Rosemary Beach, says, “New Urbanism is based on properties [land-poor] New Orleans has.” MacCash quoted Trapolin as saying that new urban communities “are more compact and they encourage unique, quirky features like balconies that overhang the property lines. They’re more pedestrian in nature, with urban corridors, scattered pocket parks.”

Unfortunately, it will take a lot of resources — much more than have yet been offered — to resuscitate the drowned city. u