Katrina-Damaged New Orleans Faced Similar Planning Pitfalls To NYC After Sept. 11


Saturday, September 8th 2007, 8:24 pm
By: News On 6


NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ Charlesetta Feist's first home smells like fresh paint and polished wood _ a glimmer of life only blocks from the river that destroyed the neighborhood two years ago.

Encouraged by news that New Orleans was rebuilding itself, or at least planning to, she and her 18-month-old son returned from Houston a few months ago for the first time since Hurricane Katrina destroyed most of her hometown. She settled into her dream house with central air and granite countertops, relishing the peace, quiet and open parking spaces.

But there's no school, no grocery store and hardly any neighbors near her home in the still-desolate Lower Ninth Ward, where broken windows and spray-painted ``X'' markers on vacant houses far outnumber optimistic ``We're Home!'' signs.

The aspiring film director wants to leave again.

``All my friends, they're regretting coming back,'' said Feist, 24. ``There's no foundation.''

Feist lives in one of two neighborhoods targeted for hundreds of millions of dollars in rebuilding money, the latest of a half-dozen plans to redevelop the city since Katrina. Six months after that city-backed plan was introduced it is already behind schedule and has secured little funding.

There are too many ground zeros to count in New Orleans. Scattered, disorganized repopulation has been driven more by residents than politicians and planners. And while the territory is thousands of times larger and funding more scarce, its early planning process mirrors New York City's efforts to redevelop the World Trade Center site and surrounding neighborhood after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Loosely defined organizations are bickering about who controls what, while residents, planners and politicians debate what to build, when to build it and how to pay for it.

Both New York's ground zero and New Orleans ``are about contested space,'' said Darren Walker, vice president at the Rockefeller Foundation, which has donated millions to New Orleans' rebuilding plans. ``Ground zero is a highly contested space, as is New Orleans, and depending on who you ask, you will get a different answer for what the priority for rebuilding ought to be.''

Many involved in New York's rebuilding have helped in some of New Orleans' planning or offered advice, suggesting ways that the city could learn from New York's successes and failures.

Some advice was heeded, some was ignored. New Orleans' biggest failure, rebuilding leaders say, was not getting behind a plan in the first six months after the storm when there could have been great momentum to rebuild.

``You have to be able to achieve benchmarks along the way so that the public has confidence, so that it isn't just a vision, it's something that will happen,'' said former New York Gov. George Pataki, who oversaw rebuilding at ground zero and downtown Manhattan after the 2001 attack.

After touring New Orleans neighborhoods this spring, he found ``that sense of confidence, that there was a vision ... and that people's lives were getting better, I didn't feel that.''

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New Orleans was still in chaos and much of it was underwater when Stefan Pryor flew to Louisiana to help state officials begin rebuilding.

Pryor, then the president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., knew disaster recovery. He helped write the executive order that created the Louisiana Recovery Authority, providing the model he and others hoped would duplicate New York's rebuilding process, with the power to receive federal community development block grants for rebuilding purposes.

``There are very few precedents of any kind,'' he said. It helps ``when you can talk to someone who's actually done it.''

Pryor provided advice for cutting red tape to get federal community development grants and for building momentum. He touted New York City's success in streetscape programs, incentives for people to move near the trade center site and early reopening of critical subway lines.

Despite the advice, experts say New Orleans suffered one of its biggest rebuilding setbacks during this period _ abandoning the first plan, called Bring Back New Orleans.

``The amount of positive citizen energy that the city of New Orleans frittered away in the first six months is appalling,'' said Reed Kroloff, the former dean of Tulane University's architecture school, who quit the Bring New Orleans Back commission after seeing little political support for it.

Two months after the storm hit, Mayor Ray Nagin founded a panel headed by a developer who reached out to the Urban Land Institute and many experts from New York's post-Sept. 11 rebuilding. In a November 2005 report, the institute wrote that it was ``essential'' to develop a rebuilding plan in the three to six months after the disaster.

Failure to do so could ``result in scattered, uncoordinated, dysfunctional redevelopment; an ineffective infrastructure policy; and a greatly impaired urban fabric,'' the report said.

A few months later, the panel proposed a phased rebuilding plan that initially allowed resettlement of only the least damaged, most viable neighborhoods. The idea was to get as many people as possible back to the city quickly, said Warren Whitlock, a Columbia University construction coordinator who was on the panel.

Ignored as top priorities were the hardest-hit Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East, a neighborhood that was long home to affluent and upper-middle-class black families. Residents and Nagin were outraged, especially by one map that appeared to show new parkland covering their old neighborhoods.

``You can't let somebody just come up and take your house,'' said Sherman Copelin, a developer and business leader in eastern New Orleans.

But Whitlock and several others said the Bring New Orleans Back plan would have returned residents to the city more quickly, if not to their neighborhoods. Most residents would be home by now, he said; New Orleans estimates more than half of its residents have returned since Katrina.

``This is what we predicted,'' he said. ``It's a tragedy.''

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Under pressure for rebuilding delays as Katrina's first anniversary approached last year, Nagin told CBS News: ``You guys in New York can't get a hole in the ground fixed, and it's five years later.''

He later apologized, although his remark was largely accurate. No skyscraper or memorial to the attacks has been completed on the 16-acre World Trade Center site. New York for years was mired in conflicts between architects and developers over redesign of its iconic buildings and monuments, squabbles between state and city agencies and private developers for control and funding shortfalls for some projects.

Still, planners say New York, with far less space to rebuild, was many times more organized and well-financed than New Orleans.

Several more rounds of planning followed Bring Back New Orleans, following neighborhood-by-neighborhood outreach, mirroring New York's ``Listening to the City'' meetings that preceded ground zero's formal plans.

Planners Paul Lambert and Sheila Danzey proposed spending about $4 billion to rehabilitate 43 flooded neighborhoods, with transportation, infrastructure and retail services the top priority. City Council passed the plan unanimously, but it didn't go much further.

New planners were hired, this time funded largely by private foundations. The Unified New Orleans Plan came out in January with ambitious plans for every neighborhood, flooded or not, and with a $14.3 billion price tag, although none of the money was secured.

Two months later, the city's new recovery czar, Ed Blakely, unveiled a plan he called a pared-down version of the $14.3 billion one. The $1.1 billion plan would spend more than half its money on 17 neighborhoods, most of it on the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East, ignored in the first plan.

Blakely, an urban planner from California who still holds a job in Australia, has spoken with more confidence about the city's future than any other official.

He said in a recent interview that he might have liked to start while the city was still being stabilized. ``I do feel I am trying to catch up,'' he said.

However, he added: ``I don't think it would have been done any different.''