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New Orleans Rebuilding Leadership Beginning to Take Shape

While the physical rebuilding process in New Orleans is still in its infancy, its leadership structure is slowly emerging.

Mayor Ray Nagin did not name an architect or planner to his 17-member “Bring New Orleans Back” commission on rebuilding. But, he appointed Joseph Canizaro, a local real estate mogul who has developed more than $1 billion in projects, to lead the committee on land use. The mayor later named Reed Kroloff, dean at Tulane University’s School of Architecture, and Ray Manning, AIA, a local architect, to co-chair the subcommittee on urban design. Peter Trapolin, AIA, another local architect, has been chosen to chair the subcommittee on preservation. And, the commission has appointed Philadelphia-based Wallace, Roberts & Todd to devise a temporary master plan for rebuilding the city.                                                                  

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The Bring New Orleans Back Commission was established to resolve conflicting visions of reconstruction, to help decide how to spend federal relief dollars, restart a crippled economy and rebuild neighborhoods. Among the 17 commissioners are a few religious and cultural figures—including musician Winton Marsalis—but most commissioners represent business interests. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco’s Louisiana Recovery Authority, which currently does not include any planners or architects, will name its own task force on rebuilding, according to AIA COO Jim Dinegar. He says the authority has approached the AIA for appointment recommendations.

Kroloff, who attended the recent Louisiana Recovery and Rebuilding Conference, says his subcommittee is “still getting up and running.” But he acknowledges some of its overwhelming challenges, like strategizing solutions for an unprecedented disaster and facing the organizational challenges of what is proving to be a divided recovery effort. It must also navigate divisions between many design professionals and local leaders over land use, architecture, and preservation.

“The city is definitely in need of a revision of its old-fashioned notions of urban design and planning,” Kroloff says. He supports historic preservation, but believes that new buildings should not be copies of trasditional ones. He also supports restricting high-density development to limited areas, near the Mississippi River for example, rather than letting the city sprawl as it once did. And, he advocates mixed-income housing developments, rather than allowing zones of racial and economic poverty to reemerge.

Not everyone feels this way. Many local leaders and residents want a historic aesthetic for new buildings, and want to continue the single-use, single-income planning that has long existed in the city. Steve Villavaso, president of the Louisiana chapter of the American Planning Association, notes, “I think ‘density’ is good. But if I say that in a public meeting in some parts of Louisiana I get booed.” Angela O’Byrne, president of the AIA New Orleans Chapter, adds “when people here think of density, they think of housing projects.”

Other thorny planning issues include deciding which historic properties to keep; whether to rebuild on higher ground or rebuild at all; where to use eminent domain to help secure levy, wetland and revitalization zones; whether to allow wood construction in the future, and how to bring people back to a city that is now considered unsafe. And politically, the commission must face a recovery effort that has stagnated because of a lack of unity. So far, parish, city, state and federal leaders seem to have shown little ability to work together. “The government system here is broken,” says O’Byrne. “That’s what keeps Louisiana back. People can’t seem to get on the same page.”

 

Sam Lubell

 

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