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Q&A: New Orleans Planning is 'Visionary within the Envelope of Feasibility'

The following interview, as published in the 4th Edition of the Planetizen Guide to Graduate Urban Planning Programs, features Jason Neville, senior planner for the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority.
February 26, 2015, 5am PST | Jason Neville
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The interview featured here was originally published in the 4th Edition of the Planetizen Guide to Graduate Urban Planning Programslightly edited for clarity and readability, to inform potential graduate students of the immense potential of the study and practice of planning. In Jason Neville's case, our interview focused on the unique challenges for planners in New Orleans, faced with decades of declining population and the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. The planning challenges of New Orleans inspire Neville to think in two ways: forward, to a vision of a future, improved city, and backward, from the city's unique constraints of financing, politics, and environment.

How do you describe your work at the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority?

My passion is working together with people to make cities better, and I feel very fortunate to have a job that I get excited about, not just for the day ahead but also the coming weeks and months.

I work for a public agency in New Orleans charged with making investments in blighted neighborhoods of New Orleans across three program areas: affordable housing, commercial revitalization, and land stewardship. My role as senior planner is to thoughtfully guide those investment decisions and ensure that they are catalytic, holistic, and enduring.

On the eve of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans was a shrinking city, or a so-called "Legacy City"—losing about a quarter of its population since its peak of 627,000 in 1960. There was already extensive blight and abandonment. After Katrina, 80 percent of the city was flooded, almost every single neighborhood was touched, and many people chose not to come back. That exacerbated the blight and abandonment problem, and the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) inherited about 6,000 properties that were sold back to the state of Louisiana through a voluntary buyout program.

Unlike most redevelopment agencies in the United States, NORA also functions as the city's land bank, managing a portfolio of thousands of residential properties, about 90 percent of which are vacant lots. Recognizing that there isn’t a market strong enough to return all of these properties to commerce, we’ve been taking a lead in the city and the nation in using vacant lots for stormwater management, urban agriculture, and landscape-driven projects. That’s the "land stewardship" piece of our work.

We also provide subsidies to developers to build affordable housing. In New Orleans that mostly means single-family homes and duplexes because that’s the historic fabric of our city. The third thing is commercial revitalization. We do two things for commercial revitalization: one is to give financing to developers to build new commercial projects in under-invested corridors, and the other is a newly launched façade improvement program called Façade Renew, which provides grants to small business owners and commercial property owners to improve their commercial storefronts.

As a planner, it’s my job to think strategically and in two directions. One direction is forward to a long-term, comprehensive vision for how we can make this city better. The other direction is backward from the various constraints—financial, political, ecological, zoning—realities that must be dealt with. We ask ourselves: "Where, between the big vision and the reality of the situation, can we actually pull off a project?"

It sounds like you need to be an expert in a bunch of areas—market economics, watershed management, landscape design, and public policy. How did you develop expertise in all these areas?

My area of focus in grad school was urban design because I was interested in public space and improving the design of the public realm. If I had to do it again I would have taken a lot more classes on economic development and real estate finance to provide a broader perspective. It’s one thing to learn how to Photoshop a cool new building onto a vacant lot; it’s another thing to know how to get a building built. That gets back to that dialectic of being visionary within the envelope of feasibility. You can’t simply be visionary without understanding the constraints in which you must operate. I learned that on the job at the Community Redevelopment Agency in Los Angeles and here at NORA.

There are a lot of cities that are struggling with this question of how to make strategic investments in cities where the need is far greater than the resources available to address that need—there’s a whole circuit of analysis happening on Legacy Cities. Alan Mallach is a strong thinker on that concept. There’s an organization out of Philadelphia called the Reinvestment Fund. New Orleans commissioned them to do a residential market value analysis, a data-driven map of the city showing areas of relative strength and weakness of the residential market, used to help guide public and private investment decisions.

Unlike Los Angeles, a substantial portion of New Orleans’ land area has so little economic value that it won’t support development of any kind—not even the construction of a modest house. At NORA, we are committed to being strategic about how we make our investments—whether it’s housing, commercial, or land stewardship. We want our investments to be catalytic and help turn neighborhoods for the better.

We are a very data-driven organization. Besides looking at data compiled by other organizations, we also closely analyze the sales of our properties, which we sell via auctions, RFPs, and other programs, like the Lot Next Door program. We have a great team here looking at locations of sales, sale prices, and whether or not the properties get fixed up by the buyers. Based on these analyses, we can be a lot smarter about where the demand is and where we should be making investments and putting properties up for sale. In that sense, we are both "producers" and "consumers" of data.

What are the most valuable lessons you gained while in graduate school?

What I tell interns and potential planning students is that when you're in grad school, you’ve bought yourself a two-year window to talk to interesting people and elbow your way into meetings that will be tough to get into again. If you call someone say, "Hey, can I come to your building and find out how you did it?" They’ll gladly do it, and they’ll divulge all sorts of proprietary information about how much it cost and how they did it. Graduate school is a window of time to throw yourself into as many relationships and projects as you can. That will benefit you once you graduate.

What advice would you offer students deciding whether to go to grad school, and where?

My advice to people considering graduate schools is to ask whether there are people doing research there that you are interested in. I benefitted from having a strong, supportive mentor at the University of Southern California, Dr. Clara Irazabal, who is now the director of the Latin Lab at Columbia University. It was really important to have someone who valued my enthusiasm, helped guide me to greater knowledge, and supported my personal and spiritual growth.

I also strongly benefitted from my internship at the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles (CRA|LA). My boss, Don Spivack, had worked in many cities, and had an exceptional knowledge of citymaking—he had seen it all and understood the lifecycle of cities and neighborhoods. He also took a sincere interest in my professional development (as he did with all interns). When a job for an entry-level planner became available, I was in a prime position because I had worked at CRA|LA for six months and was already doing a lot of the work that a new planner would assume. I beat out other candidates, many of whom probably had a lot more experience, because I had proven myself during the internship. I treated my internship as a six-month job interview. I’m very grateful for that original professional opportunity and Don’s mentorship; it set the course of my life for years to come.

Part of my advice to students is that internships are really important, not only for developing great relationships with mentors, but also so you can see what work you actually want to do. It was only going to CRA|LA that I realized that I didn’t want to work in the city planning department, because I did not want to be a city-regulator; I wanted to be a citymaker. I wanted to initiate, guide, and coordinate a series of investments to transform neighborhoods.

Neville leading guided tours in connection with CicLAvia in Los Angeles.

It definitely matters what city you are in for planning school. I fell in love with Los Angeles—this incredible, kinetic city, teeming with an immigrant entrepreneurial spirit that was a tremendous departure from what I knew growing up in a shrinking city like New Orleans. The Los Angeles River was poised for an incredible revitalization, the transit system was about to be built out, CicLAvia blew everyone’s minds, new parks were being built, and incredible contemporary architecture was flourishing. I really felt like it was a historic, citymaking moment. It was an exciting thing to be a part of. Pick a city that has work going on that you would really like to do, a city that inspires you.

I would also just caution people about going into too much debt. There are some great, affordable schools out there. The cost of planning school is not necessarily proportionate to its value.

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