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New Orleans Introduces First Master Plan for Rebuilding


Rough conceptual image of a future New Orleans neighborhood. Image courtesy Bring New Orleans Back Commission

On January 11, members of the Urban Planning Committee of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s "Bring New Orleans Back Commission" (BNOBC) presented their long-term vision for rebuilding the city. Dubbed, "comprehensive and aggressive" by committee chair Joseph Canizaro, a local real estate developer, and "controversial" by Mayor Nagin, the plan marries lofty, visionary concepts for a "bigger, better New Orleans" with tangible deadlines for those participating in the process.

John Beckman, principal with Philadelphia firm Wallace Roberts & Todd (WRT), master planners for the BNOBC, detailed the plan to a packed (and often contentious) room at the Sheraton New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina, 50 percent of New Orleans houses were flooded with at least four feet of water, Beckman said. The storm ravaged roughly 110,000 houses, and at least 25,000 of the city’s 38,000 historically-significant properties were damaged.

The urban planning committee’s rebuilding framework includes not only a call for greater flood and storm water protection, but suggests, in some cases, using canals and canal edges for park space and setting up a city-wide light rail transit network to connect neighborhoods, downtown, the airport, and Baton Rouge and the Gulf Coast. The plan also embarks on improving neighborhood infrastructure, schools, cultural and community facilities, health facilities, and retail.

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One of the biggest challenges faced by the committee, admitted Canizaro, is devising a long-term goal in the face of so many unknowns, including future population estimates and revenue streams. And one of the primary concerns among New Orleans residents, especially those who continue to be displaced from their flood-damaged homes, is that they will be excluded from the rebuilding process. Building committee director Reed Kroloff, dean of Tulane University’s school of architecture, pledged to utilize all means, including the Internet and public access channels, to include residents in the planning phase of the rebuilding.

The committee’s plan encourages Congress to reconsider passage of the Baker Bill, which would finance a federal buyout of heavily damaged homes for 100 percent of their pre-Katrina market value, less mortgage and insurance. The plan also supported creation of the Crescent City Rebuilding Authority, comprised of paid professionals, to manage redevelopment. Beckman said the authority should have about a ten-year life span. Beckman outlined the committee’s ideas for financial support for the plan, including bonding options, tax credit incentives, below-market interest rate loans, and separate funding institutions. The committee proposed a four-month delay in the issuance of building permits in heavily damaged areas, allowing time to assess future viability of those areas.

Residents are understandably wary, especially in light of the city city’s quick slating for demolition of storm-damaged homes in certain neighborhoods. Initially, 55,000 homes were marked for demolition, says Tami Frazier, a spokesperson with the Mayor’s office. Citizens filed a lawsuit against the city to halt the demolition, and on January 18 a federal court ruled that homeowners must be given seven to ten days notice before demolition. Locals also expressed concerns that a third-party panel comprised largely of non-residents would determine the viability of neighborhoods that they feared were being viewed more as plans and abstract concepts than their homes.

The commission now has its work cut out for it if it is to meet its self-imposed deadlines. By January 20, Kroloff and local architect Ray Manning will begin forming neighborhood planning teams comprised of residents and experts like economists, urban planners and public outreach specialists. The two have pledged to have the groups organized by February 20, and to have them identify the number of residents committed to returning to New Orleans by March 20. By April 20, the committee hopes to secure funding to enable homeowners who don’t want to rebuild to be bought out. By May 20, Manning and Kroloff will present the information gathered by the neighborhood planning teams. All committees of the BNOBC will make a final presentation June 20, and the urban planning committee has set a deadline for August 20 to complete a financial analysis, secure funding and begin reconstruction.

Through its efforts, the building committee is "setting up a model for the next major community that suffers another catastrophic event," Kroloff said. "More than half of the country lives in an area of geographic instability." "The question is not what will happen, but when," Manning added.

 

Angelle Bergeron

 

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