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.