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AIA Co-hosts Louisiana Recovery & Rebuilding Conference

It is apparent that the rebuilding challenges facing the state of Louisiana are going to be as huge as the destruction wrought by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. New Orleans, for instance, appears to be in little better condition almost three months after the first hurricane struck the city. Although most homes are standing, the majority are water-logged, and filled with trash, and mold which is growing worse by the day. Thousands will have to be gutted, thousands more will have to be bulldozed, and more still will likely be demolished because owners—many without insurance—will not be able to afford to fix them. Many neighborhoods sit still, without residents, electricity, or other infrastructure. Many other coastal cities and towns throughout the state face similar challenges.

The first gathering of experts to approach rebuilding in the state occurred November 10th through the 12th at the Louisiana Recovery and Rebuilding Conference in New Orleans. The meeting was a goal of Governor Kathleen Blanco and her Louisiana Recovery Authority. It was led by the AIA and the American Planning Association, and co-sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The conference was intentionally wide-reaching, a response, its organizers noted, to the incredibly complex problems posed by the situation, and the need for a coordinated response. Participants, numbering roughly 600, largely from Louisiana, included architects, planners, engineers, preservationists, businesspeople, politicians, local leaders, and citizens.

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The goal was to establish core principles to help direct all future rebuilding efforts. Specifically they will be handed to Blanco’s Louisiana Recovery Authority for its planning. Unlike the Congress for New Urbanism’s Mississippi planning charrette in early October the conference did not generate specific plans or designs. Speakers related expertise, while participants created and ranked principles in tableside breakout sessions, helping generate the final principles. The sessions were moderated by America Speaks, a Washington, D.C. non-profit that helped oversee conversations about rebuilding in Lower Manhattan at the “Listening to the City” town hall meeting. Governor Blanco, a keynote speaker, pledged to utilize the principles in the state’s rebuilding efforts.

Overall, the mood was hopeful, buoyed especially by a desire to rebuild communities in a more effective way than they had originally been built. “If you believe in redemption, in second chances, in rebirth, then this is the place,” said Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, in a speech on Friday. “Many ideas that have sat on shelves will hopefully get realized thanks to an infusion of money,” noted Angela O’Byrne, AIA, president of the New Orleans’ AIA chapter. But the optimism was tempered by some participants’ desire for more specifics than generalities, and by the staggering realities faced by the state and the city of New Orleans. Here, it is likely that over 300,000 buildings have been destroyed, and where the majority of the displaced are still living elsewhere. “The scope and complexity of this disaster has been unprecedented in the history of this nation,” said Vice Admiral Thad Allen of the U.S. Coast Guard, who is serving as the interim head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), on Friday.

The securing of regional levees to withstand a Category 5 storm, and the restoration of coastal wetlands to further secure against storms, were widely recognized as the most important principals of all. “Without coastal protection we cannot rebuild,” said Governor Blanco in her keynote speech. Dutch Engineer Rene Zijlstra shared comprehensive techniques for securing the area, including the use of giant, ocean-based hydraulic floodgates, and water pumps.

Another theme stressed by Blanco was historic preservation, an important element in a city with over 35,000 historic properties, many outside the spared French Quarter and Garden Districts. “We must rebuild in a way that retains the heart and soul of this community,” she said. “We’re all interested in rebuilding for the future while listening to the past.” Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, concurred, saying that people— who are understandably in a hurry to move forward—shouldn’t just think about rebuilding, but about preserving. Moe said that the Trust is pushing congress for preservation tax credits and $60 million grants to help with this process.

Tackling design issues, presenters and participants proposed mixed-use and mixed-income development, vital for this racially-divided city, as well as smart growth without sprawl, construction of mass transit. The establishment of a unified building code could, for example, require higher building bases. Difficult issues that must still be faced include using eminent domain to help secure levy and wetland space, deciding which historic properties to preserve, and how to bring people back to a city that was already declining, and is now seen as unsafe. Michael Willis, FAIA, founder of Willis Architects in San Francisco, referred to the importance of public input for subsequent efforts. “We’re not too smart that we can’t hear other peoples’ ideas.”

Other core themes generated at the proceedings included the cleanup of brownfields, development of comprehensive sustainability guidelines, the building of community demonstration projects in the region, designing communities for walking. Governmental issues included developing a unified disaster response, using recovery as an economic catalyst, redesigning the state and local education systems, and developing better job training. Making government more transparent is an obvious need in this region, known for corruption and for lack of unity in politics.

The next, and perhaps more burning questions are how the principles will be implemented, and who will implement them. Neither has been solved. The city, state, and federal government have not agreed on a coordinated leadership strategy. For instance, the city of New Orleans is to hold its own rebuilding session led by the Urban Land Institute today. It is also unclear whether the principles from the last week’s conference will be explicitly shared with the mayor’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission, made up of local leaders, or with federal leaders at FEMA, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and elsewhere.

“If everyone’s in charge, no one’s in charge said AIA COO Jim Dinegar. “If there is a fragmented set of voices, the process will stall.” Lieutenant Governor Landrieu said that history will either say “We were united and worked to revive and rebuild a great state,” or, “the federal government, the state government, local governments, and business and community leaders couldn’t come together, allowing political agendas, personalities, egos, and enormous challenges of the day to paralyze them. And because of that, one of the most culturally rich places in America died.”

Meanwhile, disaster funds have already been handed out by Congress, but money for rebuilding remains largely unavailable. Engineers at the conference estimated that $30 billion would be needed for rebuilding the levees alone. Senator Mary Landrieu suggested asking Congress to allow the state to keep more of its federal tax money. Congressman Charles Melancon recommended sending a large group to Washington, D.C. to rally for funds.

“If I sound frustrated I am,” said Melancon. “If you could spend billions of dollars in Florida and New York City without blinking an eye, surely you can help one of the oldest and finest regions in the United States.”

Sam Lubell

 

 

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