OPINION

The Unified New Orleans Recovery Plan Nears Completion

As I said in my last posting, the main, if not the only, topic of discussion in planning circles in New Orleans these days is recovery planning from Hurricane Katrina. A year and a half after the storm, we are getting close to having a recovery plan. In late January the Citywide Strategic Recovery and Rebuilding Plan, otherwise known as the "Unified New Orleans Plan" (UNOP), was presented to the New Orleans City Planning Commission (CPC), of which I am the Chair. The CPC has held several public hearings on the plan and we have at least one more scheduled.

I was warned by a good friend that I need to tread carefully here. As Chairman of the CPC, what I write here could be construed as the opinion of the rest of the Commission and the CPC staff. So until the plan is finished and adopted, I will simply talk about some of the issues but offer limited opinions at this time except those that are part of the public record already.

The purpose of the UNOP plan is to provide strategic guide for the future investment of funds by the Louisiana Recovery Authority and other state and federal agencies to support the rebuilding of the City. Until a plan is adopted, the City will not be eligible for much of this funding.

A brief summary of how New Orleans got to the UNOP process:

Shortly after Katrina, the City was strapped for revenue and most City employees, including 75% of the Planning Commission's, the agency designated by state law and the City Charter and the logical agency to facilitate a recovery plan, were laid off.

Instead, Mayor Nagin appointed the "Bring New Orleans Back Commission" (BNOB), which was predominately made up of architects and business people assisted by the Urban Land Institute (ULI). The recommendations by BNOB received mixed reviews. It had some well thought out ideas on some issues, such as education, but generated significant controversy by suggesting that some parts of the City should be converted back to green space - the "green dot" issue, referring to the maps with large green dots to symbolize open space.

One recommendation that caused a giant stir was that City and other government resources should only go to those neighborhoods that could demonstrate that a majority of its residents would return and rebuild. The resulting storm, pardon the pun, of neighborhood grass roots planning was and is incredible. Aided by consultants hired by the City Council and several universities, including Harvard, Cornell, Tulane, the University of New Orleans and others, many of these neighborhoods reorganized their neighborhood associations. Many others organized for the first time, all intent on removing the green dots from the maps of their neighborhood and proving that their neighborhood was coming back.

In mid-2006, the Rockefeller Foundation, along with the Greater New Orleans Foundation, put up several million dollars to finance neighborhood planning efforts for all neighborhoods in the City, the "dry" as well as the "wet" ones. This helped fill the gap left by the layoffs at the Planning Commission. Dozens of local and national consulting firms divvied up the City with some assisting neighborhoods prepare their plans, others working on District plans.

Another group of consultants comprised the "Citywide" team. Their task was to consider the early BNOB recommendations, the neighborhood plan recommendations by the City Council's consultants, thirteen Planning District plans (the districts followed the pre-Katrina designations established by the Planning Commission staff), and numerous neighborhood plans. This was a Herculean task for anyone to take on but the Citywide team did and turned in a draft of the unified plan to the CPC in late January. Based on staff comments and public input, revisions are being made as I write this and a public hearing will be held on the revised plan. The discussions and revisions center around the list of recommendations presented in the plan and the prioritization of these mostly infrastructure projects, with a price tag of about $14 billion. Presumably, the Planning Commission will forward some version of the plan to the City Council for adoption and the City will finally have a recovery plan.

The incredible amount of public participation and ground up planning efforts are the most important things to come out of UNOP. Most neighborhood and planning district leaders have demanded a continued systematic place in the planning process and the implementation process. Some are already part of that evolving process with the Ninth Ward, District 5 / Lakeview , and Broadmoor neighborhoods leading the way. Only time will tell how well the UNOP Plan helps in the City's recovery and how the citizen planning efforts will change the face of planning in New Orleans.

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