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.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Coast To (the) Coast

The Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has released its revised master plan for coastal restoration.

A revised state coastal protection and restoration master plan unveiled Tuesday moves a proposed pair of major Mississippi River diversions to a location closer to the mouth of the river, as Plaquemines Parish officials and residents had requested.

Presented in Baton Rouge at a meeting of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, the master plan also for the first time outlined a list of flood protection and coastal-restoration projects to be financed by $523 million in offshore oil lease payments.

A summary of the projects are as follows:
  • Divert Mississippi River water at Violet to replenish wetlands along the MR-GO and in easternmost New Orleans.
  • Pump treated wastewater to create marsh, including cypress forest, in the wetlands between the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and the 40-Arpent Canal in St. Bernard Parish.
  • Pump sediment through a pipeline from the Mississippi River to rebuild wetlands in Jefferson, Plaquemines and Lafourche parishes.
  • Protect the Lake Borgne shoreline and create marsh along its northern shore to strengthen part of the fragile eastern New Orleans land bridge that separates that lake from Lake Pontchartrain.
  • Rebuild the southern edge of East Grand Terre Island, just east of Grand Isle in Plaquemines Parish.
  • Divert fresh water from the Mississippi into the Blind River in St. James Parish to reduce damage to wetlands and cypress swamp.
  • Protect the shoreline and rebuild wetlands along the east bank of Bayou Rigolettes in Jefferson Parish with dedicated dredging.
  • Remove a floodgate at Bayou Lamoque on the Mississippi River that will turn the project into a freshwater diversion, building wetlands in California Bay in eastern Plaquemines
  • Begin the planning process for redesigning the bottom of the Mississippi River to allow major diversions to create new delta.
  • Begin building a lock on the Houma Navigation Channel that will both protect inland areas from storm surge and provide a channel for freshwater to wetland restoration areas.
  • Protect the northwestern shoreline of Lake Salvador.
  • Buy easements and take other measures to protect coastal forests, mostly cypress, on private property.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

How Slow Can You Go?

The Road Home Program keeps promising to speed the process up, but the results are still unimpressive.

BATON ROUGE — The Road Home program continues to struggle to unspool money in the $7.5-billion homeowner aid program.

With 105,739 applications received to date and 74,571 appointments scheduled or held, officials say they are primed to increase the payout pace.

Benefits have been calculated 34,779 homeowners, which means they can agree to accept the money being offered, but just 532 homeowners have done so, including just 141 in the past week of the 19-week program. That's an average of 28 homeowners being paid per week

At this rate it'll take approximately 314 years to dole out all the money. Maybe I'll enter my pet snail in the next marathon and see who finishes first.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Flying High

A Houston base airline will begin non-stop flight from Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.

ExpressJet is the first new airline carrier to bring flight service to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005.

The airline will bring back daily nonstop flights to Kansas City, Mo.; Birmingham; Jacksonville, Fla., and the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. Service from New Orleans to those cities had not been available since before Katrina.

ExpressJet will also offer nonstop service to Austin and San Antonio.

A spokeswoman for ExpressJet said today that the cities were selected based on market research showing a business demand for daily flight service to those cities, as well as a need for residents who were scattered to those cities by Hurricane Katrina to come back to New Orleans regularly.

“All of these cities are very important to New Orleans doing well,” said Dan Packer, chairman of the New Orleans Aviation Board.

Tourism officials said the new flights are great news for New Orleans’ struggling tourism industry, which before Katrina was responsible for $210 million, or 35 percent, of the city’s operating budget, according to the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“We hope to help you rebuild your town,” ExpressJet spokeswoman Karen Miles told city, airport and tourism officials at a news conference today.

Sean Hunter, New Orleans Interim Director of Aviation, said receiving a new carrier, six new destinations and 12 additional flights per day are significant steps toward returning to pre-Katrina levels of air service.

It will restore flight service to about 75 percent of pre-Katrina levels, and restore the number of destinations to about 90 percent of pre-Katrina levels, Hunter said.

Adam Smith, Call Your Editor

It's said that people in Louisiana do things a little different. Why even the laws of supply and demand don't always apply.

NEW ORLEANS - John Schaff, a New Orleans real estate agent, recently advised a property owner to lower the asking price of a condominium at 3915 St. Charles Ave. by $20,000.

Before Hurricane Katrina, the 1,000-square-foot condo would have sold for the original asking price of $329,000 — but not these days, Schaff said.

The growing condo glut in New Orleans has experts predicting prices will fall and developers will have to target a less-affluent market.

In Uptown and the Warehouse District, 349 condos were for sale from October through Tuesday, Schaff said. That’s a 112 percent increase over the 165 condos for sale during the same period in 2005 and 2006, and a 92 percent increase over the 181 for sale during the same period in 2004 and 2005.

“There are a lot of units on the market. You’re going to see asking prices start to come down more,” said Shaun Talbot, vice president of Talbot Realty Group.

Talbot described the downtown condo market as soft.

Fewer units are selling.

Condo sales are down from pre-Katrina levels, according to the New Orleans Metropolitan Association of Realtors.

In January, 50 condos sold in all of Orleans Parish, down from 88 last January and 81 in January 2005. Only January 2004 had fewer sales with 30.

“We’ve have a lot of people looking and not really acting,” Talbot said. “They know there are a lot of units on the market. But there doesn’t seem to be that same sense of urgency (as immediately after Katrina).”

Average selling prices are rising, according to NOMAR.

In January, the average price of a condo sold in Orleans Parish was $268,216, up 5 percent from $254,954 in January 2006, up 30 percent from $206,534 in January 2005 and up 12 percent from $239,310 in January 2004.

“It’s by no means a depressed market in terms of price. But you’re not going to see the incredible double-digit increases on a year-to-year basis that we’ve seen in the past.” Talbot said.

Six months from now, condos might command higher prices, Schaff said. But not now.

So, some developers are turning their attention to a lower price range in hopes of attracting buyers. New Orleans native James Huger is one.

Construction is wrapping up Huger’s $4-million Charlotte Commons, a three-story, 24-unit project on Carondelet Street one block off St. Charles Avenue near Louisiana Avenue.

Huger is selling condos for $197,000 to $325,000. They consist of a dozen 1,250-square-foot two-bedroom, two-bathroom units and a dozen, 875-square-foot two-bedroom, one-bathroom units. They all have wood floors and granite countertops. Some have views of downtown.

“We’re after the people who can’t afford the traditional Warehouse (District) stuff, who want something new, good location and secure parking. We try to price things a little bit under the market,” he said.

Huger calls his project the “canary in the cave” because the market’s absorption of the condos will show how much demand there really is for housing, he said.

“We’re just rolling the dice that we can sell them,” he said.

It’s too soon to tell how much demand there will be for Huger’s condos, which he plans to finish this month. Huger held his first open house Jan. 20.

“In a way he’s right. If there is that much demand for housing and he’s got a product that’s reasonably priced in an area that’s OK, not fantastic ... then that tells us that the market is not that strong,” Talbot said.

One thing going against Huger’s project, Talbot and others say, is that it’s on the “wrong side” of St. Charles Avenue because it is not on the river side.

But if Huger prices the condos right, they “should sell,” Talbot said.

“I think we’ve brought a product to the market at a price point that no one else is bringing to the market, certainly not for new construction,” said Larry Patterson of G&H Construction & Restoration, which is building Huger’s condos.

John Rareshide, a New Orleans developer, said the New Orleans condo market is healthy for units priced around $200,000.

“It’s a price point. That’s what’s selling right now,” he said.

Rareshide recently sold five, 425-square-foot, one-bedroom condos for $135,000 each at 1200-1210 Austerlitz St. The units were renovated, he said.

He also developed 12 condos at 3308 Prytania St. Those units hit the market roughly two weeks ago. Rareshide is selling the 531-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bathroom condos for $179,000.

My own analysis of this is that those who could afford the pricy condos in the Warehouse District have already bought into the market. Those with a smaller budget, till now, have been left out. Whether or not they will buy into that market remains to be seen.

In the meantime, people are still waiting for their LRA money to rebuild the own homes.

Friday, February 02, 2007

So Sue Me

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers probably thought they were being glib when they claimed that they couldn't be sued. Well a Federal Judge says otherwise.

Residents of the three areas flooded worst by Hurricane Katrina can sue the Army Corps of Engineers over claims that a poorly designed navigation channel caused catastrophic flooding during Hurricane Katrina, a federal judge ruled Friday.

The Corps and federal government had argued they were immune from claims that the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet caused the damage to the Lower 9th Ward, eastern New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish.

But U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval refused to throw out a suit claiming that floods in those areas were caused by defects the Corps had known about for decades. There is no way to tell at this point that every decision about the waterway commonly called the "Mr. Go" were based in "social, economic or political policy," which would exempt them from lawsuits, Duval wrote.

Corps officials were not immediately available for comment.

I think speechless would would be more apropos.

At issue is a navigation channel built in the 1950s as a shortcut between the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans.

The channel has widened and allowed salt water to creep into interior marshes and lakes, killing swamp forests and marshlands. Scientists have repeatedly called it one of the worst environmental problems in the nation, and called for it to be closed.

Residents and scientists had long warned that the broad channel acted as a conduit for storm surge from hurricanes. The plaintiffs argued that storm surge roared up through the channel and overwhelmed the levees protecting their homes.

The Corps says the channel did no such thing, and that the storm surge was so high that the channel did little to increase the level of flooding.

The Corps has been reluctant to close the channel, arguing that it still served navigational needs. Shippers have also lobbied the agency to keep it open. Since Katrina, however, the Corps has said plugging the Mr. Go makes sense based on economic considerations, not concerns over flooding.

Duvall said plaintiffs should get a hearing at least about three allegations:

--The Corps failed to ask the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries about their worries about the canal's alignment and its effect on wetlands, and to present those concerns to Congress.

--The number of decisions made in building and maintaining the canal and whether the record shows they were based in policy.

--Whether some decisions were not based in policy, and whether those failed to meet standard engineering practices.

Remember, these are the same people who said that the levees in New Orleans failed because they were overtopped and continued to say that until long after engineers proved conclusively that the levees failed because they were substandard.Discovery in this trial will be very interesting.