Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Surviving Gustav

Better late than never, I always say.

The Kinch family rode the storm out at my parents house near Baton Rouge.  Florida would have been a better choice.

Nonetheless, everyone came through it with a few nicks and scrapes but OK.

You can see the damage done to my parents neighborhood here.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ferrous Bueller's Day Off

The City of Slidell has passed an ordinance banning the use of metal cladding all new building within the city limits.

Brick, stone, stucco and various other materials - but not metal - will be the standard for building exteriors in Slidell from this point forward, the City Council agreed this week.

The council voted 6-0 Tuesday to ban new metal construction.

Officials have said they want to minimize the presence of metal buildings in the city to keep it from becoming too industrial-looking.

In addition, residents have said at meetings where the city's master plan has been discussed that they want to improve the look along the city's main thoroughfares, and that means fewer metal buildings. The change to the zoning code calls for the entire exterior of buildings in commercial districts to be covered in brick, stone, architectural block, stucco, glass, wood, fiber-cement siding or vinyl siding, though vinyl siding would not be permitted for more than 25 percent of the total exterior walls.
The first question I have is, what should industrial buildings look like. My second question is; is the city council totally deranged? Don't answer that.

But seriously folks, they want to ban metal cladding for new buildings but allow vinyl siding? Yeech! I was hoping to have something more substantial to say about this, but that would be like having a serious discussion about Beavis and Butthead.

I'm Still Here

To all my loyal readers out there, this blog has not ceased. Due the professional and personal demands made of me I have been unable to devote the the time and effort that I would like to make this blog what I would like it to be.

Hopefully in the near future more attention can be put into this blog.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Day Late And Dollar $hort

According to some, Governor Kathleen Blanco's Road Home Program is going broke.

If the Road Home keeps paying out homeowner grants at the current rate -- and all the remaining applicants qualify for compensation -- the state aid program could be more than $3 billion short, state officials said.

"There's no question we're going to run out of money," said Sam Jones, Gov. Kathleen Blanco's liaison for the federally financed Road Home.

The problem is twofold:

-- For the first 10,000 grants, the program paid out nearly $750 million. That left about 120,000 applicants in the pipeline as of last week. If Road Home grants continue to average $75,000 per closing, the state is on track to spend $9.75 billion. Based on awards calculated for 68,000 applicants so far, the total payout could be even higher, more than $10 billion. The state received $10.4 billion in block grants from Congress, but the Louisiana Recovery Authority budgeted only $7.5 billion of that for the homeowner program.

-- The $7.5 billion the state budgeted is really only $6.3 billion because, at least for now, $1.14 billion the state was counting on getting from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's hazard mitigation grants is not yet released. FEMA has cited legal issues as the holdup on releasing the money, and Louisiana officials have complained about the delay for months.

A shortfall could be easy to understand because it is difficult to accurately forecast the award amounts and the exact number of applicants. What makes this most distressing is the unexpected way in which it came to light, mainly due to Governor Blanco's own statements.

Blanco responded to a letter from Jindal late Tuesday by accusing him of not supporting all of her efforts to increase federal money to Louisiana and for not acknowledging that the state got short shrift from last year's Republican Congress when compared with Republican-run Mississippi.

But Louisiana did get an additional $4.2 billion in block grants from Congress last July when state officials argued Louisiana's initial share of $6.2 billion was not enough. When the money came through, Blanco said at a news conference, "We have all the funding we need to run our full program."

Can you say, "Hey buddy, can you spare a dime."

Friday, April 13, 2007

You're Hired

The New Orleans City Council voted unanimously to sell city property located on Poydras St. to Donald Trump to build his Trump International Hotel & Tower.

If you've got an extra $300,000 you've been looking to invest, you may want to bid on a 3,500-square-foot piece of land in downtown New Orleans.

But you might have to outbid Donald Trump to get it.

The City Council has authorized the sale of a small chunk of city-owned land that is part of the site of the planned 70-story Trump International Hotel & Tower.

The 1.6 million-square-foot tower, estimated to cost about $400 million, would fill most of a largely vacant block. It would be 716 feet high, plus a 126-foot spire, and would contain 734 luxury condominium and hotel units and a 715-space garage.

Developers have said they hope to break ground this summer on what would be Louisiana's tallest building. Construction is expected to take 28 months, putting completion in late 2009.

At its April 5 meeting, the council gave unanimous approval to selling its piece of the site, a 106-by-33-foot plot in a block bounded by Poydras, Camp, Natchez and Magazine streets. The minimum price is $300,000, with 10 percent due in cash immediately. The city reserves the right to reject any or all bids.

The city also retains a "right of first refusal and option to purchase" the property for 10 years or until a building "assessed for ad valorem tax purposes" at not less than $50 million is built on the site.

In other news at the council meeting, a major local developer, HRI Properties, withdrew its application for a conditional-use permit for an $85 million, 10-story luxury condominium and apartment building in the Warehouse District.

HRI, the company led by Pres Kabacoff, wanted to build a 357,000-square-foot building with 221 apartments on the lower five floors, 105 condos on the upper five floors and a 509-space parking garage. The project would have included most of the block bounded by Andrew Higgins Drive and Constance, Poeyfarre and Annunciation streets.

Most of the 2-acre site is now a parking lot, but plans called for demolishing a small Pelican Ice & Cold Storage building at Andrew Higgins and Annunciation. The building would have lent its name to the new project, to be called the IceHouse Residences.

When it presented its plans to the City Planning Commission last year, HRI said it hoped to start construction by June, with the garage to be completed within a year and the residential building within 18 months.

The project needed a conditional-use permit and several other city approvals, including an 18-foot waiver to the normal 100-foot height limit.

The Planning Commission endorsed the project in December despite opposition from several residents of another building that HRI manages, the Cotton Mill condo building across the street.

Tara Hernandez, an HRI executive, said this week that the company has dropped the IceHouse project because it "no longer has site control." Richard Cahn, who owns the site, became concerned about repeated delays in getting the project under way, Hernandez said.

She said HRI might try to revive the project someday if it can regain control of the site.

Generally speaking I'm in favor development/redevelopment downtown and don't necessarily think that the Donald's project is a bad thing. However, overdevelopment is always a risk. The Trump International Hotel & Tower is a very large development and if the rooms/units can't be filled, a decaying tower will change the CBD from a shining beacon for business and commerce to a reminder to everyone that New Orleans is a dying city.

But I'm an optimist. Donald Trump didn't get where he is by investing in losing propositions.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A Former Carpetbaggers View

Tom Bethell has penned an article in The American magazine about the progress of rebuilding in New Orleans a former resident. Rather than comment on it, I prefer to highlight certain passages that I think are to the point of our current rebuilding process.

On employment:

On the subject of New Orleans, [Tommy Lemann] was cautious and judicious, sometimes insisting that he not be quoted. There’s a labor shortage, he said, and this is possibly the city’s most serious problem. Many positions are unfilled, and shop windows all over the city have “Help Wanted” signs. New workers need housing, but there is also a housing shortage. To get housing, you need a job. So which comes first, the chicken or the egg? I was to hear others mention the same apparent conundrum.

Activity at the Port of New Orleans is back up to pre-Katrina levels, and law firms “are doing pretty well from what I hear,” Tommy Lemann said. “So much business is coming out of Katrina.” Tulane University had a lot of damage, and freshman enrollment fell. But it has been sustained at the professional schools. According to the indispensable Katrina Index, published by Brookings, Tulane started the 2006–07 school year with four-fifths the number of students it had before Katrina. “It would be adverse if we couldn’t get the young professionals to stay,” he said.

Americans got a televised taste of that culture at the convention center after the storm. As some Orleanians pointed out, the scenes were probably not so different from those that prevail on any other day—minus the dreadful shortage of food and water—in the worst parts of the city’s housing projects. Katrina drove many of the poor to cities (possibly as many as 100,000 to Houston ) with a stronger work ethic and a different attitude toward welfare. In October, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in its final post-Katrina report, said that the unemployment rate among displaced evacuees was 17.9 percent, down from 34.7 percent in March; by contrast, the rate among return evacuees had actually risen, from 5.3 percent to 7 percent.

What no one says in public, but is widely conceded in private, is that, while tragic in many ways, the storm’s displacement of families may, in fact, encourage greater independence and better lives for the refugees. In New Orleans, many of them had become inured to state support and its perverse incentives.

On housing:

I had already read plenty about the flooding of the Lower Ninth Ward, in the part of the city east of the French Quarter, so I wondered if he could recommend some other, less advertised destination in the Tour of Ruin that is on every visiting journalist’s itinerary. Tommy Lemann suggested Metairie Club Gardens, “the most affluent flooded area of town.” Submerged under five feet of water, it is the only place where he has seen abandoned mansions. The owners in some cases are up in years, and don’t want to rebuild, he said, or they have no mortgages and are rich enough to move elsewhere. Or they worry that the area will flood again.
On population:

The population of the city, about 450,000 pre-Katrina, is now estimated at around 200,000. New Orleans may now be the second-largest city in Louisiana (Baton Rouge is probably first). The labor force in the New Orleans metropolitan area, which also includes suburban Jefferson Parish, has dropped from 640,000 before Katrina to 438,000 last October, according to Brookings. In the latest U.S. Census estimate, Louisiana had lost five percent of its population, a quarter-million people, mostly to Texas and Georgia.

New Orleans probably has a smaller population today than it had in 1880, when, with 216,000 people, it was the tenth-largest city in the United States, just behind San Francisco and ahead of Cleveland and Detroit. An article in The Times-Picayune—a transformed newspaper since the 1970s, with copious and excellent post-Katrina coverage—reported before Christmas that 84,000 residents have moved to Atlanta. Many went by car (unlike Houston, to which refugees were herded in buses), and “significant numbers” are doing well. “They consider themselves Georgians and say so.” It seems likely that many will not return.

The racial composition of the city has changed since the storm. Because black areas suffered more destruction and because many blacks lacked the means to resettle in New Orleans after Katrina, the African-American share of the population of the city, according to a survey commissioned by state agencies last summer, has fallen from 67 percent to about 46 percent. By income, Orleans Parish, which is contiguous with the city, was the eighth-poorest county in America before the storm, and New Orleans over the years has maintained an entrenched culture of poverty and entitlement, epitomized by its vast public-housing projects.

On commerce:

Next, I contacted Jeannette Hardy, a veteran journalist who, years ago, was the editor of The Courier, the alternative weekly where I published my first articles. Ginny later became editor of New Orleans, the city magazine, and then joined The Times-Picayune. She drove me uptown to a coffee shop on Magazine Street. Between the Mississippi and St. Charles Avenue, Magazine Street is well located, and it is thriving. The neighborhood is a swath of cafés, bakeries, restaurants, antique stores, and clothing boutiques that runs five miles. Lately called the “isle of denial” because it was so little affected by Katrina (though it suffered serious wind damage), the area is likely to be central to the city’s recovery in the years ahead.

“This town is traumatized and everyone in it, including me,” Hardy said as we sat down to coffee. Katrina’s aftermath was “so much bigger than one poor little city can deal with—a poor, divided city with different cultural values.” People are paying mortgages on houses that don’t exist anymore for fear of ruining their credit ratings, she said. “New Orleans needs Washington. We need a Marshall Plan. We did it for Germany. Why not New Orleans?”

On "the Mexicans":

Hardy’s roofer moved his whole family to the city, she said, and electricians, plumbers, and painters are doing well. “A new class of entrepreneurs in the building trade is making a great contribution.” She admires the Hispanics who have come pouring in. In December, newspapers reported an immigrant “baby boom,” almost all Latino. Two healthcare units that saw over 1,200 pregnant women in 2006 said that virtually all were Hispanic. “Before the storm, only 2 percent were Hispanic,” the head nurse in Metairie said. “Now about 96 percent are.”

According to the Louisiana health and population Survey, the number of Latinos living in households in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes has increased by about 20 percent since 2004, even as the total population of the two parishes has fallen by 25 percent.

On restaurants:
Although tourism has lagged, conventions are beginning to return, and, according to the Brookings study, 89 percent of the hotels have reopened, as well as nearly all the well-known restaurants, such as Galatoire’s, Antoine’s, and Brennan’s, and the best relative newcomers, such as Emeril’s and Herbsaint. A friend was in town shortly after the gala reopening of Galatoire’s on New Year’s Day 2006 and said it was the same as ever, with local socialites and artists spending entire Friday afternoons drinking Myer’s Rum and soda and dining on trout amandine and oysters en brochette. Antoine’s, the most famous restaurant in the city, which opened in 1840, reopened just four months after Katrina. Since then, however, it has lost about $5,000 a day, according to a report in The Chicago Tribune. Commander’s Palace, in the Garden District, did not reopen until November, more than a year after the hurricane.
On Nagin:
The mayor of New Orleans, C. Ray Nagin, concluded that he could not prevent people from spending their own money to rebuild their own homes—probably a wise judgment, politically and economically, although The Washington Post has criticized the “helter-skelter return of residents.” Likewise, The New York Times reported in August that City Hall “has settled back into its habitual easygoing rhythms; a well-placed insider there reported, with alarm, no sense of urgency among its officials.” But was inactivity so alarming? The good news is that it indicated that nothing too authoritarian was in the works.
On Couhig:

The leading Republican candidate in the mayor’s race was Rob Couhig, a lawyer with offices not far from the Superdome and City Hall. He came in fourth and threw his support to Nagin in the final round, declaring that the Landrieu clan had failed the city. One morning, I went to see Couhig, who told me that his office building at 1100 Poydras—just down the street from Mother’s Restaurant, famous for its Ferdi poor boy sandwiches—is full, and his firm is looking for more space.

About $25 billion in federal money will be spent in New Orleans in the next five years, he said. “The money is already in place.” He thinks that the fortunes of the city will depend more on the port, the universities, and a revival of the medical community (now much reduced) than on tourism.

“Our biggest need today is people,” he said. “We need fifty thousand people. There are employment opportunities for everyone from accountants to zookeepers.” But he is concerned that the powers-that-be have misdirected their talent search. Governor Blanco, for example, in a recent session of the state legislature, allocated hundreds of millions of dollars of state funds to attract a new German-owned steel mill with 3,000 jobs.

“But we don’t need jobs; we need people,” Couhig said.

On education:

I came away from the two schools impressed at the turnaround. Katrina has put one of the nation’s most retrograde school systems in the vanguard of reform. Currently, a significant majority of New Orleans public schools are charters, and that condition—different from any other large district in America—is likely to continue. A recent report estimates that 31 charter schools, enrolling 16,000 students, will be operating in the 2007–08 academic year, compared with 17 conventional public schools, enrolling 9,000 students.

As to whether charter schools can make a permanent difference, it is too early to say. Many of the students come from backgrounds that are hostile to learning. Can a relaxation of bureaucratic rules and the introduction of competition overcome that disadvantage?


The question is whether the aftermath of Katrina—filled with both bureaucratic foul-ups and individual enthusiasm, hard work, and perseverance—has at last dispelled the inculcated passivity and victimhood that have been especially strong in New Orleans.

Looking back, I was reminded of something that Tripp Friedler had said. A familiar metaphor occurred to him as we spoke, and he applied it to New Orleans. It’s the story of the frog dropped into water that is being heated slowly. It doesn’t notice, fails to react, and dies. Turn the heat up suddenly, however, and the frog jumps out. In New Orleans, the deterioration has been going on for decades, and, on the whole, the city’s leadership, too absorbed both by Mardi Gras balls and racial politics, refused to acknowledge it. Then came Katrina, abruptly turning up the heat.

A change for the better could no longer be avoided. My impression, after a week in the city, is that it has begun.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Drop Anchor

An LSU professor has proposed that we should look into a system developed by a Dutch architect as way to mitigate the flooding in SE Louisiana.

Elizabeth English, who is affiliated with the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, hopes to borrow an idea from the Dutch, who use "buoyant foundations" in some flood-prone communities to reduce flood damage.

In effect, the system works like a floating dock. When flooding occurs, the house is lifted above the water by flotation blocks beneath the home. The house settles to ground level when the flooding recedes. The concept, she said, is designed especially for wood-frame homes, such as the shotguns common in New Orleans. It would not work, at least as now conceived, for brick or concrete slab homes.

"I thought this could work in New Orleans," English said. "If the Dutch can do it, we should be able to do it in Louisiana."

A less sophisticated version has been used for years along some waterways in South Louisiana, she said.

The concept is relatively simple.

The flotation blocks, made of expanded polystyrene, commonly known as Styrofoam, are held together by steel frames and attached to the underside of a house, according to a description of her proposal. Four vertical guidance poles are attached not far from the corners of the house.

When flooding occurs, the flotation blocks lift the house.

Collars are attached around the poles to ensure that the house doesn't go anywhere but up when the water rises and down when it falls, English said. The homes would be strengthened with steel channels attached to the bottom beams to ensure they are strong enough to withstand being lifted and dropped.

But the concept is not without its hurdles.

Hilary Inyang, director of the Global Institute for Energy and Environmental Systems at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said English's proposal is a "more sophisticated version" of what many countries in flood-prone communities have used for decades.

"There are some practical difficulties with that concept, such as what you do about utilities that are generally tied in one place," Inyang said. "You'd have to make them more flexible. And you'd have to make sure that with these new foundations that you don't make these buildings more vulnerable to other environmental stresses, such as wind.

"So you'd want this done experimentally at first before you do it wholesale."

In her proposal, English talks about using "self-sealing breakaway connections for utility lines, or long, coiled umbilical lines that would allow electrical and telephone lines to move away from a home when it rises during a flood. Plumbing and sewage lines also can be designed to break away as needed, she said.

She estimated that building and installing the foundation would cost about $20,000. She conceded the figure is "very preliminary" based on estimates for the cost of materials and installation and experience building floating foundations along some Louisiana bayous.

But the difference between the Dutch designs and what Ms. English is proposing is that the Dutch intend their floating homes to be built over existing waterways whereas our homes would be built on dry land and float on the water when a flood does occur.

A simpler, and less expensive solution would be to merely raise existing houses or build new ones higher.

However, this does have some promise in areas where houses are built over water as the Dutch do. These would primarily be camps. And currently, there is no urgent need to rebuild them.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Hey Brother Can You $pare a Million

New Orleans is requesting that the state pitch in several million dollars for repaving many of the city's roads that were damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

In addition to the $1.1 billion in federal and local money that New Orleans officials hope to pump into their new recovery plan, City Hall will ask the state Legislature to earmark $47 million for capital projects in seven of the 17 target zones identified last week as hot spots for government spending.

The largest chunk of money -- $19.2 million -- would go to rehabbing streets, sidewalks and lighting around tourist hubs such as the French Quarter and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, according to a priority list provided by the city.

The wish list also includes money for civic assets key to reviving two of the zones: Joe Brown Park in eastern New Orleans and the Gernon Brown Community Center in Lakeview. A complete overhaul of Harrison Avenue in Lakeview also is on the docket, along with the repaving of four major roads that criss-cross the target zones and, according to city officials, serve as key evacuation arteries.

But the push for state dollars won't stop there.

City officials say they will request $52.3 million to repave 11 additional roads that could be critical in moving residents out during an evacuation.

The city also will support a $100 million request by an Algiers development agency for a new headquarters at the "federal city" complex, a pre-Katrina project that would consolidate military and government offices at the Naval Support Activity along the Mississippi River.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Cats' New Crib

The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance is looking for a new scene from its current pad at the University of Southern California and will move to Loyola University in New Orleans.

One of the jazz world's foremost institutions -- an organization dedicated to developing first-rate musicians who are teachers as well as performers -- is moving to New Orleans from Los Angeles in an effort to keep jazz alive and thriving in the city where it was born.

The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, whose instructors have included some of the genre's top artists, is scheduled to announce its relocation today at a news conference at Loyola University, which will be its new home.

The move from the University of Southern California is the focal point of the institute's four-year initiative, "Commitment to New Orleans," designed to reinforce the importance of music to the city's post-Katrina comeback by collaborating on programs with other colleges, setting up school- and community-level jazz programs, providing work for local musicians and persuading performers who have lived elsewhere since the storm to return home.

Crazy man.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Baby's First Steps

Mid-City may the home of New Orleans' largest retail development.

A Georgia development company has been quietly working to assemble a vast swath of Mid-City, including the Lindy Boggs Medical Center, to create a nearly contiguous 20-acre site for 1.2 million square feet of retail space for national chains that until now have been unable to find a home inside the city.

The site being assembled by Victory Real Estate Investments LLC is huge, covering more than half a square mile from Jefferson Davis Parkway to Carrollton Avenue and from Toulouse to Bienville streets.

A second phase being discussed would involve an additional 9 acres on the lake side of North Carrollton, across the street from Sav-A-Center. Victory owns the Sav-A-Center and the former Winn-Dixie store that was converted into a small Home Depot last year.

The project has been well below the radar, with few city officials aware of it aside from Councilwoman Shelley Midura. Midura has been briefed on the project and is working closely with the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, which has been playing a behind-the-scenes watchdog role on the development.

Many New Orleanean's have been reluctant to embrace national retail chains locating in the city because of the suburban nature of their developments and its incompatibility with the urban fabric of New Orleans.

But if the developers are willing to be flexible in their designs, they may be greeted with open arms.

"We don't want a suburban-style development plopped in the middle of an urban area," association member Janet Ward Pease said.

Jennifer Weishaupt, chairwoman of the association's newly formed economic development committee, said the association became aware of a potential Home Depot or Wal-Mart Supercenter proposed for the Bohn Ford vicinity in November 2005. In January 2006, it discovered the developer was Victory and expressed concerns over the project. It began meeting with Victory President Alton Darby and Vice President Kent Cost about their plans.

She said the association was blunt in telling the executives this go-round that if they "even mention Wal-Mart," the group wasn't going to meet with them about the plans for the 20-acre parcel. The company then showed association members its plans and asked the association to keep the information confidential.

Victory has asked the association to develop a list of what neighbors must have in the development and other things they'd like to see, Weishaupt said. The group met Thursday to begin working on the list.

The importance of this development is that it may be a baby step toward the New Urbanism concept of cities being walkable. Although not truly walkable for everyone in Mid-City, it will be an immense improvement for residents now not to have to drive to neighboring parishes to do their shopping. With some forward thinking, this could spawn other, smaller retail developments scattered throughout the area along with schools, medical clinics and parks could be the genesis of the vision of what New Urbanists have been dreaming of.