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.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Wild Wild West

New Orleans' recovery czar is proposing seventeen recovery areas that will receive money for redevelopment/rebuilding.

Dr. Edward Blakely, Executive Director of Recovery Management for the City of New Orleans, today announced the first 17 targeted recovery zones that will spur redevelopment and accelerate our recovery. The zones will be built around public assets in key business corridors in an effort to generate further private investment from developers. "These recovery zones represent a critical component of our rebuilding, "said Mayor C. Ray Nagin. "We will continue to leverage our limited resources to accelerate our recovery. Our citizens will benefit from the higher quality of life that will result."

Target areas are consistent with the development approaches citizens suggested in earlier redevelopment plans, such as the Unified New Orleans Plan, the Lambert Plan and the Bring New Orleans Back Commission plan. The city will provide loans and other incentives to developers interested in investing in key locations within the zones. The zones are generally high visibility sites, with sufficient land and other assets. They also have a high potential to attract investors and possess adequate resources to catalyze development such as schools and libraries.

"The development zones will spur activity from investors," said Blakely. "When one area starts to do well, investors will want to invest nearby. This will allow the city to redevelop wisely and will help residents make smart choices about where to rebuild.

The zones take three formats:

Rebuild areas have experienced severe destruction of physical structures and social networks. These areas will require major rebuilding, or significant public and private investment in order to recover.

Redevelop areas are places where some recovery components and resources are already present. They have a high potential for attracting investment and acting as a catalyst for further redevelopment and recovery of the affected community.

Renew areas include specific projects that require relatively modest public intervention in order to supplement work already underway by the private and nonprofit sector.

Each development zone is approximately one-half mile in diameter, although the area can vary slightly. The first zones are:


1. New Orleans East Plaza
2. Lower Ninth Ward


1. Carrollton Avenue at Interstate 10
2. Harrison Avenue (Canal Boulevard to City Park)
3. Gentilly Boulevard at Elysian Fields
4. St. Bernard/ AP Touro at North Claiborne Avenue
5. Broad Street at Lafitte Greenway/Treme
6. South Claiborne Avenue at Toledano


1. Canal Street (Downtown)
2. Broadmoor (R. Keller Center and Library)
3. Tulane Avenue at Jeff Davis (Comiskey Park)
4. O.C. Halley Corridor
5. Bayou Road/Broad Street Cultural Corridor (Market Building)
6. St. Roch Street (Market and neutral ground)
7. Freret Street (Farmers Market)
8. R.E. Lee at Paris Avenue (Lake Terrace Center improvements)
9. Alcee Fortier Street (Street Beautification)

In addition to the recovery areas, the City plans to invest in projects throughout New Orleans. These include park improvements, street and traffic signals and other programs designed to spur investment and enhance the quality of life.
Dr. Blakely described the process as the wild wild west where pioneers put down stakes and people build around it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Let's Make A Deal

After months of debate, a compromise has been proposed to dismantle St. Frances Cabrini Church to make way for a historic Lower 9th Ward Catholic school destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, a school official said Tuesday.

The draft memorandum of agreement was circulated late Monday by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has been trying to balance a move to preserve the storm-damaged Gentilly church, built in the 1960s and celebrated for its modern design, against desires for a successful school in a neighborhood struggling to rebound post-Katrina.

Bill Chauvin, chairman of Holy Cross School's governing board, said the draft indicates that the church will be removed to make way for the Holy Cross campus: a middle school, high school, administration buildings and a sports complex. According to the draft, the church's stained glass, altar and baptistery will be saved, he said. And the Holy Cross governing board will spend about $15,000 to hire a crane operator to remove the large cross from the top of the church, he said.

Where the church's altar is now will be the space where the church is commemorated, Chauvin said. Ideas include a garden with a statue of St. Frances Cabrini or a garden that includes the church's large cross, he said.

Robin Brou-Hatheway, a member of Friends of Cabrini, which has opposed demolition of the church, has a different view of the draft agreement.

"This is not the last word," she said. "There's a lot more to do and I'm hopeful that Cabrini Church will remain at the site."

Representatives of the school, neighborhood groups and state and federal officials are scheduled to meet Friday to sort out the final language for the agreement, Chauvin said, and mitigation details will be hammered out after that meeting.

Although some neighborhood representatives and Friends of Cabrini are invited to attend the gathering Friday, only the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, Holy Cross School's governing board and the Archdiocese of New Orleans are required to execute the memorandum of agreement, Chauvin said.

A new Holy Cross School is expected to be completed in January 2009, Chauvin said. Until then, students in grades five through 12 will be housed at the Paris Avenue site in temporary facilities, he said.

Holy Cross' 17-acre campus on the Mississippi River, just downriver from the Industrial Canal, soaked in as much as 8 feet of floodwater after Hurricane Katrina.

Initially, the Jefferson Parish School Board tried to lure Holy Cross to a site in Jefferson Parish.

But in October, the governing board of Holy Cross voted to move the school from the flood-damaged Lower 9th Ward site it had occupied since 1879 to an 18-acre site in the 5500 block of Paris Avenue occupied in recent decades by St. Frances Cabrini Church and School and the adjoining Redeemer-Seton High School. The move was welcomed by some, including the Archdiocese of New Orleans and many neighborhood residents hoping to breathe life back into their community. Others, however, including some architects, decried any plan to dismantle the church, calling it historically significant.

Under federal law, FEMA must consider whether actions involving its money will adversely affect historical structures, such as the church.

Should this proposal be accepted, a vital part of the rebuilding of Gentilly can finally proceed.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Go Your Own Way

The Veterans Administration will probably decide to move forward with building their new VA hospital without the state.

BATON ROUGE -- In a move that could scuttle a long-planned collaboration with Louisiana State University, federal Veterans Affairs Department officials said Monday that they will look for an alternative to the downtown New Orleans site that has been identified as the location for a new hospital complex.

The potential change of plans, prompted by recent delays in state financing caused by the debate over the future of Louisiana health care, is scheduled to be announced this morning at a congressional hearing. It comes after more than a year of planning by the VA and LSU to develop a 37-acre medical campus.

Although both LSU and the VA say they remain committed to the project, which would consist of two separate hospitals that share common features such as parking, cafeteria and laundry facilities, the planning process remains clouded by questions of what the region's health-care system should be like in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Unfortunately, the state is still clueless.
"It concerns LSU that something has happened which is causing the VA to look elsewhere," LSU System spokesman Charles Zewe said.
C'mon. The reason is obvious. Since the state is still unable to decide what the nature of the future of its Charity healthcare system, the VA is not willing to wait for it to make up its mind.

But this is not necessarily bad news for New Orleans. Although the federal government's land acquisition for land will be more difficult without the state's involvement, it is not impossible and will have one of two consequences:
  1. Force the state to get off the pot and move forward with rebuilding the Charity Hospital.
  2. Speed up the process of rebuilding which the new hospital will be a major part of.
Unfortunately, the governor seems to be no closer to making up her mind.

A state legislative committee has agreed to provide $74 million in federal block-grant financing for land acquisition and architectural design, but the money still needs approval by the full Legislature and U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson.

Another $226 million in federal money would be made available once LSU produces a detailed business plan for the new hospital, and the rest of the project, which could cost up to $950 million, would be financed mainly with state-issued revenue bonds.

Blanco said the VA's wavering adds to the urgency for the Legislature to approve the financing.

"This only underscores the need to move forward and fund this project -- the VA realizes the critical need and is acting to meet it, with or without us," Blanco said.

Gov. Blanco needs to read the previous paragraph. The state gets no money till a business plan is submitted, but she continues to wave the tin cup first as if to say 'give me the money first, then I'll tell you what I plan on doing with it'.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Katrina Marina

South Shore Harbor, heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina will be slowly returning to life.

In January the marina's landlord, the Orleans Levee District, launched a massive salvage operation that has fished nearly 100 boats and 550 tons of debris from the harbor floor. With that effort winding down, levee district officials say they hope to begin rebuilding by month's end, with full restoration scheduled for late next year.

Before the storm, the sprawling, 80-acre complex in eastern New Orleans was a cash cow for the district. The $4.6 million a year in lease payments and gambling fees from a floating casino docked there and more than $500,000 in slip fees from boat owners constituted more than 20 percent of the agency's operating budget.
But by listening to the news media, one would think that there would be no need for a marina, what with the city being destroyed and all.

...with demand for dock space at an all-time high in the metropolitan New Orleans area, officials hope that an improved marina will bump rental revenue from close to 500 boat slips as high as $900,000.

"Once the repair work is completed, we feel like we'll have a state-of-the-art facility," said Louis Capo, the district's managing director. "All the piers will be rebuilt. We'll have new electrical and plumbing systems and new lighting. I think we'll have no problem filling all the spaces."

Capo said his optimism is fueled by a waiting list of more than 100 boat owners looking to lease dock space inside the little-damaged Orleans Marina at West End, also owned and operated by the levee district. Adding to the pressure is the slow recovery of the adjacent city-owned Municipal Yacht Harbor, which remains out of commission.

For those reasons, Capo said he expects South Shore Harbor's occupancy rate to jump quickly to 100 percent, from 90 percent pre-Katrina. The levee district plans to maintain annual slip rentals at their prestorm rates, which ranged from about $1,600 to $6,400.

Plus, plans are already underway for repairs to be made.
The first step in the rehabilitation project will be the 26 covered boat slips on the marina's northwest corner.

Capo said a request for construction bids should go out in the next week or two. The timetable calls for work to start by June and the first tenants to move in by October.

A much larger project to restore the infrastructure that can accommodate more than 450 boat slips is not likely to start until late summer. While that work is expected to take more than a year, Capo said, the levee district hopes to open the marina in phases in an effort to address the needs of boaters and to begin generating money for the cash-strapped agency.

I only hope that this recovery doesn't turn into a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Code Talkers

Louisiana will get a grant from FEMA to upgrade its existing building codes.

After Katrina, the state passed tougher building codes to ensure future structures will be more resilient to hurricanes. Local governments must have implemented the new statewide building code by Jan. 1.

"It was very important to us that we support the building code officials and fire marshals as they get their arms around these new codes," said Tim Coulon, LRA board member. "It will take a lot of work, but we believe it is worth the extra effort to keep our families safe."

Local building code enforcement officials will be offered training so they can implement the revised code. Also, resources will be provided to jurisdictions to assist in the establishment of code offices.

In 2005 the state upgraded its building code but not entirely. Prior to Katrina, the state had adopted IBC 2000. After Katrina it upgraded to enforce only the portions of the code that deals with wind resistance. Currently, IBC 2006 has been released. Hopefully the state (and its municipalities) will adopt that code in its entirety.

Culture Of Lazzaiz Faire posts an article that contends the failure of the levees in New Orleans were a matter of politics as well as engineering.

Newswise — As an engineer, Thomas O'Rourke can explain why the levees in New Orleans failed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But the real causes of the disaster are historical and political, he says. And we should not just build new protections for the Big Easy, but make all our communities "resilient" and better prepared to deal with catastrophe.

O'Rourke, the Thomas R. Briggs Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Cornell, is an expert on the effects of natural disasters on infrastructure and a member of a National Academy of Engineering (NAE) team studying the effects of Hurricane Katrina. He reported some of his findings on Feb. 16 in a lecture at Cornell, "Hurricane Katrina: Geosystems in Crisis," a civil infrastructure seminar supported by the Charles L. Crandall Fund.

The first seeds of the disaster, O'Rourke reported, were planted over 200 years ago with the systematic building of longer and taller levees along the Mississippi River. The result was that less sediment was deposited at the mouth of the Mississippi, and wetlands that might have absorbed storm surges from the ocean were not created. After Hurricane Betsy flooded the city in 1965, Congress appropriated money to upgrade the levees to resist a one-in-a-hundred-year-hurricane -- a Category 3 storm like Betsy with 6 to 9 foot storm surges. Katrina was labeled Category 3 based on wind speed, but it was equivalent in pressure and surge to a Category 5 storm with surges 18 feet and higher at New Orleans and up to 30 feet along the coast in Mississippi.

"When I gave talks in Europe, people were amazed that we only planned for a hundred-year storm," O'Rourke reported. "Many said they planned for 1,000-year storms. The Dutch design for one-in-10,000-year events."

As soon as levees are built, O'Rourke pointed out, they become "wasting assets" as they sink into soft and compressible soil. He added that levee and flood wall systems are paid for by the federal government but must then be maintained locally, sometimes causing local governments to resist more effective designs that require higher maintenance costs. Instead of building flood gates at the head of the New Orleans drainage canals, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, under local political pressure, built "I-walls" by driving sheet piling into existing levees, and many of these failed during Hurricane Katrina, O'Rourke explained.

Levees along the city's London Avenue Canal were built on sandy soil, allowing water to seep under them and exert pressure that heaved and cracked the soil on the community side. In other locations water flowing over the top scoured out the levee soil, creating massive openings for the invasion of storm water. Meanwhile, large pipes designed to drain rainwater into Lake Pontchartrain worked in reverse, allowing water to back up from the rising lake into the center city. Pumps that were supposed to take water out of the city sat idle with no electricity to run them.

The resulting disaster caused $82 billion in direct damage but far more in damage to the local and national economy, as it disrupted the country's primary oil production, refining and transport facilities.

The event changed the policy of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from a post-9/11 focus on protecting critical infrastructure to developing "resilient communities." O'Rourke said that "resilience" includes public education about risks, adequate leadership, sustained funding to maintain infrastructure after it is built, and planning that prepares communities to improvise and deal with the unexpected.

In repeated visits to New Orleans to fulfill his NAE responsibilities, O'Rourke said he experienced déjà vu, recalling the devastation he had seen in the aftermath of the 1988 Armenia earthquake, the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, and the Kocaeli earthquake of 1999 in Turkey.

"How often," he concluded, "do we have to experience the tyranny of déjà vu and repeat the cycle of destruction, rethinking, forgetting and more destruction?"

Bob The Builder Takes A Ride On The Banana Boat

Andrés Duany pens an article proposing an idea that certain areas of New Orleans be exempt for current building codes in order to maintain the Caribbean lifestyle present in pre-Katrina New Orleans.

It was possible to sustain the unique culture of New Orleans because housing costs were minimal, liberating people from debt. One did not have to work a great deal to get by. There was the possibility of leisure. There was time to create the fabulously complex Creole dishes that simmer forever; there was time to practice music, to play it live rather than from recordings, and to listen to it. There was time to make costumes and to parade; there was time to party and to tell stories; there was time to spend all day marking the passing of friends. One way to leisure time is to have a low financial carry. With a little work, a little help from the government, and a little help from family and friends, life could be good! This is a typically Caribbean social contract: not one to be understood as laziness or poverty—but as a way of life.

This ease, which has been so misunderstood in the national scrutiny following the hurricane, is the Caribbean way. It is a lifestyle choice, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it. In fact, it is the envy of some of us who work all our lives to attain the condition of leisure only after retirement. It is this way of living that will disappear. Even with the federal funds for housing, there is little chance that new or renovated houses will be owned without debt. It is too expensive to build now. The higher standards of the new International Building Code are superb but also very expensive. There must be an alternative or there will be very few “paid-off” houses. Everyone will have a mortgage that will need to be sustained by hard work—and this will undermine the culture of New Orleans.

What can be done? Somehow the building culture that created the original New Orleans must be reinstated. The hurdle of drawings, permitting, contractors, inspections—the professionalism of it all—eliminates self-building. Somehow there must be a process whereupon people can build simple, functional houses for themselves, either by themselves or by barter with professionals. There must be free house designs that can be built in small stages and that do not require an architect, complicated permits, or inspections; there must be common-sense technical standards. Without this there will be the pall of debt for everyone. And debt in the Caribbean doesn’t mean just owing money—it is the elimination of the culture that arises from leisure.

To start I would recommend an experimental “opt-out zone”: areas where one “contracts out” of the current American system, which consists of the nanny state raising standards to the point where it is so costly and complicated to build that only the state can provide affordable housing—solving a problem that it created in the first place.

However it may sound, this proposal is not so odd. Until recently this was the way that built America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. For three centuries Americans built for themselves. They built well enough, so long as it was theirs. Individual responsibility could be trusted. We must return to this as an option. Of course, this is not for everybody. There are plenty of people in New Orleans who follow the conventional American eight-hour workday. But the culture of this city does not flow from them; they may provide the backbone of New Orleans but not its heart.

It's true that many homes were built in ways not meeting current building codes building them the same does not equate to building inexpensively. Unfortunately, people will still need a mortgage. Asking people to live in housing that is both structurally unsound and energy inefficient does a disservice to both the homeowner and the other residents of the city.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Y'all Come Back Now, Y'hear

New Orleans is currently hosting the 2007 HiMSS Convention and visitors are pleasantly surprised by the status of the city.

Ronald Shamlaty Jr. traveled to New Orleans this week by way of the Biloxi airport. As he moved westward in his rental car from Mississippi to Slidell to eastern New Orleans, he was arrested by the devastation that suddenly came into view from the interstate.

"As we went over the bridges," Shamlaty said, referring to the Twin Spans, "we noticed apartment complexes just destroyed, their windows all boarded up. What really got us -- we got that frog-in-the-throat thing -- was seeing all the trailers still there a year and a half later."

Shamlaty said he didn't know what to expect from New Orleans when he came to town this week for the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society's annual convention, which brought 24,600 visitors to the city.

What he found was two different worlds compressed into one city: a perimeter of devastation encircling neighborhoods like the French Quarter and the Warehouse District that survived Hurricane Katrina largely unscathed. For him, the divide between the city's tourist playground and its other neighborhoods was surreal.

"The French Quarter is almost like a mirage," Shamlaty said. "What we are seeing here is not what is going on elsewhere in the city."

The two different worlds most aptly describes the city as it stands now. But the lead of the story is that visitors can be our best ambassadors to the rest of the world. People need to know that the city is not as the media likes to portray it. The Lower Ninth Ward makes for good copy but that is not the entire city. The fact that I'm currently blogging from the CBD, walking distance from the Convention Center, should tell you something about the state of our city.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Oh Lift Me A Home...

Grad students from MIT and Oxfam America have collaborated to created what they refer to as the Lift House.

Designed to Last The design for the house reflects both the local style and the need for the structure to withstand the assault of howling winds and hurricane flooding.

"They look like they belong down here," said Peg Case, TRAC's executive director. "We took great care in making sure MIT understood that outside is important." People in the south do much of their living outdoors on their decks.

"I assume this house will be here and that won't," added local architect E.A. Angelloz, standing on the site of the new house and pointing at its neighbor, a low-to-the-ground bungalow of indeterminate age. "Another thing people don't take into account is shifting debris. By being up, you avoid the debris. The stuff will move underneath it as opposed to through it."

And the piling foundation, designed by local engineer Joseph Kowle, will ensure that the house stays put when all that water and debris does slop by.

Materials specified for the Lift House include a cladding of Hardie Board—a (sp) fiber board impregnated with cement that is water proof and won't dent when projectiles come hurtling at it. A broad deck that wraps around the house and a roof with a generous overhang provide plenty of outdoor living space and a comfortable amount of shade.

"We're very sensitive to making sure we don't waste energy," said Goethert, who directs MIT's Special Interest Group in Urban Settlement, or SIGUS. The house will be well-insulated, well-ventilated, and made from durable materials constructed in a way that will help them last, he said. That overhanging roof, for instance, not only protects people from the sun, but it will protect the exterior walls from heavy downpours.

Some of the ideas incorporated in the design are indigenous to the area, said student Zachary Lamb, such as the large volume of attic space. The cushion of air inside serves as a natural insulator helping to keep the house below it cool.

Elevating houses was once more commonly practiced in the region than it is now, Lamb added, noting that many of the area's older houses were built off the ground. When slab foundations became the new hot thing half a century ago, Louisianans started to build them, too, setting aside their more sensible traditions—and paying the price.

Lifting it Later MIT's original idea was to build the Lift House on the ground where teams of volunteers could work on it easily, and then hoist the completed structure onto its pilings. Affordability is one of the key objectives of the design, and, to achieve that, construction will depend heavily on volunteer labor. Goethert also points out that building the house on the ground and lifting it later is safer for everyone who might work on it.

But with this first prototype, TRAC plans to hire professional builders who traditionally work from the pilings up. Volunteers will be recruited later to help finish the interiors.
Fortunately, this is not Modernists fantasy trip.

Last January, when Fugate visited Dulac, Louisiana, a poor bayou community in Terrebonne Parish, he was struck by how precarious the setting was for homes—low, muddy, and not far from the wind-whipped waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s a beautiful but not a gentle landscape,” said Fugate.

The students’ objective was to design a bayou home that would neither flood nor get blown away. They had to take into account the corrosive salt water, soggy ground, and winds tearing across the flatlands at hurricane speed—all the while remembering the admonition that “weirdness” could sink even the best of ideas.

Coupled with that warning was the students’ recognition that regardless of how hard they studied the place, they would never know it as well as the locals. When Fugate suggested that carpeting would make a good floor cover for a house lifted high above flood waters, he found himself corrected: In the muddy bayou, shoes caked with muck are a fact of life. Better to install easy-to-clean tiling than carpets.

“It’s a two-way learning street,”said Fugate.

The motto that the customer is always right will serve these vendors well and help ensure that flood-resistant housing takes root. Trying to create advanced housing concepts in a vacuum and then telling people they must adopt their ideas to survive is a quick path to failure.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Marcus Welby, MD v. ER?

Gov. Blanco and Sen. Vitter have come to an agreement of the nature of the future of public health care in Louisiana.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco and U.S. Sen. David Vitter agreed Wednesday on a plan to give Louisiana State University $74 million to buy land and hire architects for a new teaching hospital in downtown New Orleans.

The announcement serves to restart a process that stalled unexpectedly last week when the state House of Representatives rejected a plan to direct $300 million in federal money to the hospital project. But it leaves unresolved the deep divisions between state and federal policymakers over the broader question of how to overhaul the state's health-care system.

Calling the hospital a "vital part of our state's recovery" from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Blanco said LSU will get another $226 million in federal Community Development Block Grant money after it completes a business plan detailing how the hospital would operate.

"This state-of-the-art teaching and research facility will play a significant role in our efforts to redesign Louisiana's health care system," Blanco said.

There are two basic issues at work here:

1. Funding buildings versus people - One camp in this debate wants to rebuild the old Charity Hospital and dispense health care to the poor at those facilities. The other camp proposes the entire health care system in Louisiana be revamped.

LSU officials said the question of whether to build a hospital should not be tied to the broader health care redesign.

"They are two separate debates," said LSU System President William Jenkins, who said a final decision on the hospital is needed soon to reduce the threat of physicians and researchers leaving the New Orleans area.

"There is growing angst among that group . . . about what the future holds," Jenkins said.

With Charity and University hospital decimated by flood damage, state officials set aside the $300 million in block-grant financing for a single replacement hospital last year. But there has been disagreement over how big the hospital should be and whether it can survive financially if health care spending is reshuffled.

2. Its the size that matters - Even once the configuration of the health care system has been determined, the size of the hospital still remains. The state can either construct a single, large general hospital, or it can go with a smaller hospital with several clinics scattered about the city to dispense health care services at locations closer to the customers.

Wednesday's agreement also does not address the size or scope of the proposed hospital, which has been of great concern to the private hospitals that would likely be competing for patients.

After saying for months that they had hoped to build a 350-bed hospital at a cost of about $650 million, university officials unveiled a preliminary business plan late last year that called for 417 beds at a cost of $950 million.

The Louisiana Hospital Association, the Metropolitan Hospital Council of New Orleans and the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana are among the groups arguing that the hospital doesn't need to be that large or expensive.

State Sen. Joe McPherson, D-Woodworth, who heads the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, said the size of the hospital should be decided by professional consultants, not politicians.

"I don't think a congressman or a legislator or an insurance salesman should be dictating what kind of new hospital should be built," McPherson said. "That's a job for experts in the design and engineering field on the advice of expert consultants."

McPherson predicted the Legislature will move forward with a new hospital regardless of whether the federal government agrees to provide the seed money.

"If they take the federal money off the table we'll still be building a new hospital," McPherson said.

At least there is a debate going on in this state about this matter. Unfortunately the discussion revolves around moving forward versus the status quo. That means there always a chance the status quo wins.

Start Me Up

Entergy has plans in the works to replace its existing generator in New Orleans East with a new generator in St. Charles Parish.

Hurricane Katrina downed power lines, flooded substations and even killed Entergy's backup generator at the Patterson Plant in eastern New Orleans.

Except for one power plant at Waterford in Taft that remained up during and after the storm, the regional power grid could have gone dark even longer than it did.

Now, Entergy is planning to replace its flooded backup generator at Patterson with a new "black start" unit at the St. Charles Parish site that will be called Waterford 4.

In the event of a future major catastrophe in which all of Entergy's power plants go down, the 33 megawatt diesel-powered unit would be used to power up Waterford 1 or 2, which in turn would supply power to the grid to bring up other power plants.

Power plants "don't have an ignition switch," said Mike Twomey, vice president of regulatory affairs for Entergy Louisiana. "They have to have electricity from another source."

The $10 million purchase and installation of the generator should be complete in October. If approved by the Louisiana Public Service Commission, costs for the backup will be passed onto Entergy Louisiana customers, adding up to 10 cents a month to a typical customer's bill, Twomey said.

Entergy decided that repairing or replacing the black start unit at Patterson was not an option and chose Waterford as a better site because it is less vulnerable to flooding and hurricanes, according to company documents filed with the PSC.

Since Katrina, Entergy's customers in southern Louisiana have been without a local backup source of power. If a Katrina-like storm wiped out the region's power, Entergy would have to rely on power brought in over transmission lines from outside the area to restart the local grid.

"It's not the preferred alternative," Twomey said of such a backup plan. "It's not as reliable in the event transmission lines are damaged."

No one at Entergy could recall ever using the black start unit that was located at Patterson, said Chanel Lagarde, an Entergy spokesman.

Entergy already has purchased and received the used $3.2 million generator. Because of the high demand for emergency power, especially in the Middle East, similar new generators cost $16 million, according to Entergy's filings with the PSC.

The generator will be located in existing facilities on the Waterford site in Taft. Twomey said that in the future Entergy might consider using the generator to meet peak electricity demand, but that would require approvals from the PSC and from the state Department of Environmental Quality.

Entergy has asked the PSC to rule within 120 days on whether it can recover its costs for the generator by charging customers.

Monday, February 19, 2007

It's Not The Size That Matters...

Its what you do with it.

Slowly, old American cities that have been in a downward population spiral for a half-century or more are reinventing themselves as, well, smaller cities. They're starting to adopt — many, like Richmond, do it unknowingly — tenets of the burgeoning, European-born "Shrinking Cities" movement. The idea: If cities can grow in a smart way, they can also shrink smartly.

"Everybody's talking about smart growth, but nobody is talking about smart decline," says Terry Schwarz, senior planner at Kent State University's Urban Design Center of Northeast Ohio. The center runs the Shrinking Cities Institute in Cleveland, a city that has lost more than half its population since 1950. "There's nothing that says that a city that has fewer people in it has to be a bad place."

New Orleans has been in a steady population decline for the past 30 plus years. This decline was instantaneously accelerated on August 29, 2005. Hopefully, Katrina will also speed up the process planning for the decline as others cities have done. Now that everyone is in agreement of what has happened, we need to look forward and decide on where we go from hear. Others cities offer insight into how this can be not only managed, but can improve the city.

It's a startling admission in a nation that has always equated growth with success. Cities are downsizing by returning abandoned neighborhoods to nature and pulling the plug on expensive services to unpopulated areas. Some have stopped pumping water, running sewer lines and repaving roads in depopulated neighborhoods. They're turning decimated areas into parks, wildlife refuges or bike trails. They're tearing down homes no one is living in and concentrating development where people want to move.

Richmond's acclaimed Neighborhoods in Bloom program targets six areas. Public funds are pouring in and private money has started to follow. The city wants to grow, but it's not waiting for a population boom, says Greg Wingfield, president and CEO of Greater Richmond Partnership Inc., an economic development marketing group. "We don't as a region aspire to be the next Atlanta or the next Charlotte," he says. "It's about quality. It's not about growing for the sake of growing."

As I've stated in an earlier post, the City of New Orleans needs to look into unincorporating the city east of the Industrial Canal (with the exception of the Lower Ninth Ward and Holy Cross) among other things.

  1. New Orleans should simply unincorporate most or all of New Orleans East. Bayou Sauvage Wildlife Refuge has no business being inside the city limits. Those living in New Orleans East will not like being unincorporated at first, but it simply means that the parish will take over those services that the city currently provide. In other words, be more like Jefferson Parish.
  2. If you want to convert neighborhoods back to wetland, don't be impatient about deciding where they should be. Recovery will be long term so let's plan long term. City officials certainly can wait to see which area make a substantial recovery. We may find some areas with few residents. If those residents decide they don't like living in "ghosts towns", the government coud offer to buy them out. Homeowners might be happy with this arrangement. If the government tried to force people out of their homes, they will be asking for nothing but trouble.
  3. Some City Council members will not take kindly to having their district being eliminated and will likely put up a fight to maintain the status quo. A city-parish form of government might be a good comprise to get some council members on board.
This approach might be described as "slash-and-burn" but the reality is that if a city is to shrink, it needs to shrink. Fortunately, other cities have managed this in a softer manner.

"European cities are grappling with how you deal with shrinking cities more forthrightly than we are," says John Accordino, urban and regional planning professor at Virginia Commonwealth University here. "(U.S. cities) are still trying to figure out how do we get our piece of the metro growth."

Youngstown, Ohio, is an exception. It has fully embraced its shrinkage. The population, now about 83,000, is less than half what it was when the steel industry collapsed in the 1970s.

"You look at the facts and come up with solutions," chief planner Anthony Kobak says. "The first step the city has come to terms with is being a small city."

Youngstown approved a 2010 plan. The goal: "A safe, clean, enjoyable, sustainable, attractive city," Kobak says.

The city long was better known for gritty steel mills than green space. Now that the mills are gone, there is plenty of space. With the help of a grant, Youngstown preserved 260 acres. It's targeting neighborhoods and redesigning them with the help of residents who stayed.

The city may let homeowners buy abandoned lots next door to create gardens. It's considering relaxing zoning rules to allow small horse farms or apple orchards. It's offering incentives for people to move out of abandoned areas.

"If you had three or four square blocks that at one time had 40 homes per block and now have maybe five homes total, we could relocate those people across the street and convert the vacant area into a large city park," Kobak says.Residents would live be living across from a park rather than being surrounded by decrepit homes and lots overgrown with weeds.

"If we're looking to preserve an area for green space, we may offer that person relocation money rather than rehab money," Kobak says.

Other cities may be less enthusiastic about shrinking but they're adjusting, nevertheless:

• St. Louis is reviewing abandoned commercial areas to determine if they're still needed. "We had a lot more people here," says Rollin Stanley, director of St. Louis' planning and urban design agency. "We had a lot more need for commercial strips. That need isn't here today."

The historic Gaslight Square area once teemed with nightclubs, theaters, bistros and art galleries. It was abandoned for more than 20 years. The city recently converted some parts to row houses and single-family homes.

"We have to rethink where we house people," Stanley says.Converting declining commercial areas to trendy residential housing has helped. Family incomes citywide increased 13.7% from 2004 to 2005, he says."We're rethinking land use allocation to meet the needs of the population we're going to see," he says. We're not shrinking. We're rethinking."

• Detroit spreads across 139 square miles and has almost a million fewer people than it did in 1950. Until now, revitalization efforts have focused on the 3-square-mile downtown.

This month, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick announced an initiative in partnership with philanthropies, business, civic leaders and faith-based organizations that will target six neighborhoods that make up less than 10% of the city. "Some neighborhoods don't need to be addressed right away," says Matt Allen, the mayor's press secretary.

In February, the city will focus on parks and recreational facilities, most of them developed from 1920 to 1958, when the city boomed. When people left, many facilities were barely used. "People don't walk five miles to go swim in an 80-year-old pool," Allen says. "It costs a heck of a lot of money to run an 80-year-old boiler."

The city already has closed 14 recreational facilities and built state-of-the-art centers in the northeast, where there is the highest concentration of families with children, and in the southwest, where the Hispanic population exploded.

So far, city leaders have refused to address this issue. It may be that they are reluctant to move forward on this this issue due to the uncertaincy of the rate of repopulation. It's hard to plan for the future when you don't have any idea of what the future will be. Much of the cause of that is due to lack of leadership in Baton Rouge where the Governor Kathleen Blanco Road Home Program is handing out checks like molases in January and no one wants to address the insurance crisis.

However, others have addressed this issue and hopefully a public dialog can begin soon. With or without the politicians.

Trash Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

The French Quarter is finally being cleaned the way New Orleanians have been begging for years. And for that we can thank the guys who actually pick-up the trash.

The light-blue garbage can was full, but Cornelius Washington twirled it across the pavement like a 70-pound ballerina. From his gloves, the can danced to the back of a garbage truck at the edge of Canal Street, where Washington's younger colleague "T," Torreyon Davis, waited.

Davis reached out with one hand, flipped the can into the air upside down and tapped it against the truck, spilling its contents into the truck's big metal jaws. Then he flicked the empty can back to Washington.

The performance earned hoots from a group of college kids standing nearby, draped in flashing beads. "Did you see those garbage men?" said one, punching his friend on the arm. Washington raised a gloved hand in acknowledgment, then ran alongside the moving truck and hopped on.

Washington, who has ridden garbage trucks in New Orleans for 15 years, said that those kids must have lived a deprived childhood, one that didn't include garbage workers hefting cans across the street. Over the past few decades, many cities have moved to automated garbage collection, using trucks with metal arms that reach out to grab plastic trash bins. In those places, there's no need for hoppers, the guys who ride the back of the truck.

Other cities may still hire hoppers, but to Washington they seem lackluster. "They got a textbook thing," Washington said. "They stop the truck. They step off the truck. They pick up the can. They dump it. Then they put the can back down in that one spot."

But in New Orleans, where street crews have always prided themselves on their choreography, a new city garbage contractor is earning plaudits for its work. The best place to view these shows and the result of them is the French Quarter, where SDT Waste and Debris Service crews have been collecting garbage twice a day, seven days a week, since Jan. 1.

Almost overnight, French Quarter residents -- historically, not an easy bunch to please -- began raving about the tidiness of the Quarter. To some, however, SDT's first big test is Mardi Gras. Can they handle streets crammed with drunks, huge piles of garbage and sidewalks scattered with parade detritus? Will their work suffer?

Perhaps the people of SDT Waste and Debris Service can go down to Tulane and Broad to show the DA how to clean up the streets.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Breaking Away

East Baton Rouge Parish has recently completed the Mississippi River Levee Bicycle Path from downtown Baton Rouge to the LSU campus. Some would like to extend it all the way to New Orleans.

A recently completed stretch of paved bike path that runs atop the Mississippi River levee from downtown Baton Rouge to LSU soon could be extended all the way to New Orleans.

The proposed levee bike path would run an estimated 110 miles and cost an estimated $33 million.

The first step is to complete a $250,000 master plan that could qualify the project for federal funds likely to cover 80 percent of construction costs. The other 20 percent would come from local and state sources.

Pete Newkirk, public works director for the city-parish government, said he plans to ask the Metro Council Wednesday to chip in $12,500 to help fund the $250,000 study.

Bruce Wickert, an experienced cyclist who the heads the local Metropolitan Planning Organization's Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee, said a bike path has already been constructed from Audubon Park in New Orleans north almost to Norco.

Wickert said that if the proposed Mississippi River Levee Bike Path becomes a reality, it will likely be used in segments for recreational purposes.

"But you could travel the whole 110 miles about six hours at a moderate pace of about 17 mph," Wickert said.

East Baton Rouge and Jefferson Parishes are now in the breakaway, the state needs to suck wheels and catch up to get the project going.

Catch A Wave And Your Sittin' On Top Of The World

Unfortunately flood victims in south Louisiana are finding out that raising their homes is no day at the beach. Insurance companies are making it a cruncher and some may be headed for a wipe out.

Even before the storm, Fitzpatrick's Lakeview Drive house was shoulder-height off the ground.

To make it as resilient as possible against any future storms, Fitzpatrick is rebuilding with rebar and concrete pilings, and he is raising the house another two to three feet, as required by the new flood advisory maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to maintain flood insurance coverage. When he's done, the house will be eight to nine feet off the ground.

But Fitzpatrick is encountering opposition from an unlikely source: his insurance company. Allstate told him he's ineligible for homeowners insurance if he raises his home.

"I'm actually rebuilding higher than it was before, but now they're saying, 'We have a rule that if it's four feet above the ground, you've got to get the state plan, the Citizens plan, and it's always been that way,' " a dumbfounded Fitzpatrick said. "I said, 'Ya'll never had a problem with this before.' Of course the home has to be elevated: I'm trying to protect it from the storm surge."

In short, Fitzpatrick is trapped in a post-Katrina insurance conundrum that could affect thousands of people in south Louisiana if other insurance companies have rules similar to those at Allstate. Fitzpatrick is required to elevate his home to maintain flood insurance coverage, but if he elevates he won't be able to maintain a private homeowners insurance policy.

Allstate's excuse seems bogus to me.
Fitzpatrick said his Allstate agent told him that the rule started in 2000 because of concerns that if a house is too high off the ground, people might fall off of railings or try to barbecue under the house and catch the place on fire.
Current building codes require that decks/balcony's over 30" above grade be constructed with a minimum 42" high guardrail sufficient to resist at least 200 pounds lateral force. Besides, I don't believe homeowners insurance covers falls. I would imagine that is covered by ones' medical insurance.

Nonetheless, people in Lakeview are raising their homes and not bailing out. Awesome! My guess is that these people don't use dweebs for their insurance. Kowabunga!

Friday, February 09, 2007

Wrecking Krewe

The Lake Forest Plaza Mall is finally meeting the wrecking ball. After being closed for the past year and a half and empty (except for a couple of stores) for several years prior, developers are now finding use for the existing site.

The Plaza's owners have closed their deal with Lowe's, and demolition of the entire mall -- with the exception of the closed 12-screen Grand Theatre -- is already under way. The Lowe's store is slated to open by the end of 2007, perhaps even by the fall, Lowe's Regional Vice President Debbie Hobbs-Singletary said. She also confirmed that the Lowe's on Elysian Fields Avenue has become the best-performing site in the 1,375-store chain.

Doing business as Lake Forest Plaza LLC, mall owners Ashton Ryan and Gowri Kailas said they are using a loan to pay for the demolition of the 1.1 million-square-foot damaged and vacant mall, but said they weren't allowed to identify the lender.

A Lowe's corporate spokeswoman Monday declined to discuss financing for the project, as did a regional manager Tuesday.

Lowe's has committed to building its $18.5 million store, and discussions are ongoing with other unidentified retailers that could occupy sites in the new complex, including an electronics chain, a discount retailer, and an unidentified department store. The plan sets aside 225,000 square feet for a discount retailer and 100,000 square feet for a department store.

In addition, about 600,000 square feet of retail or office space will be distributed among nearly two dozen buildings on the site. One parking garage will even have townhouses atop it. A second phase eventually would add even more retail outlets in front of the department store and wrap retail space around two other parking garages.

But this promises to be more than just your average strip mall.

Kailas said plans for the new complex are based on concepts of noted "new urbanist" architect Andres Duany, who has been active in neighborhood planning in the post-Hurricane Katrina recovery.
Whatever the final result is, I think it bodes well that corporations are investing capital in this part of the city.

However, don't be surprised if this deal falls into the pothole.

But a controversial financing mechanism called tax-increment financing, or TIF, might complicate the deal. Under the TIF, part of the future sales taxes generated at Lowe's and the other stores in the new complex would be used to cover the costs of developing much of the planned retail space. Legislation passed in 2003 created a special financing district to help pay for the site's redevelopment by drawing 4 cents of the sales tax for economic development purposes. Kailas said the TIF money is needed for infrastructure improvements and to build 600,000 square feet of retail, office and other construction that will round out the development.

Nagin said the TIF is an option, but he was noncommittal to its use other than to say that "right now this is a self-sustaining project" with all private financing.

TIFs have been highly controversial, and unless they are structured according to legal precedent established by the Louisiana Supreme Court, they also can be difficult to accomplish.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

U-Haul; We Bawl

Fed up with the pace of recovery (or lack thereof), many New Orleans residents are pulling up stakes and gettin' outta Dodge.

A year and a half after Hurricane Katrina, an alarming number of residents are leaving or seriously thinking of getting out for good.

They have become fed up with the violence, the bureaucracy, the political finger-pointing, the sluggish rebuilding and the doubts about the safety of the levees.

"The mayor says, `Come back home. Every area should come back.' For what?" said Genevieve Bellow, who rebuilt her home in heavily damaged eastern New Orleans but has been unable to get anything done about the trash and abandoned apartment buildings in her neighborhood and may leave town. "I have no confidence in anything or anybody."

A survey released in November found that 32 percent of city residents polled may leave within two years. University of New Orleans political scientist Susan Howell, who did the survey, said more will give up if the recovery does not pick up speed.

In fact, figures from the nation's top three moving companies suggest more people left the area than moved into it last year.

"People are in a state of limbo. They're asking, `Is it worth it for me to stay? Is it worth it to invest?' If you don't feel safe, from crime or the levees, and you see destruction every day when you drive, it becomes discouraging," Howell said.

If there is an exodus, it could mean more than just a shrunken New Orleans. It could mean a poorer city, financially and culturally, and a more desperate one, too, since the people likely to leave are the most highly educated and younger.

Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco have urged residents to return under rebuilding plans with names like Bring New Orleans Back and Road Home. The mayor has warned that the recovery will take a decade and has urged people not to give up hope.

But New Orleans' population appears to have plateaued at about half the pre-storm level of 455,000, well short of Nagin's prediction of 300,000 by the end of 2006. And in many ways, it is a meaner city than it was before the hurricane.

In a related story, the Road Home Program continues to hand out checks at a snails pace.