Helping to Rebuild New Orleans

By Sean Almonte
City University of New York — Hunter College

October 2, 2007

This past summer I had firsthand experience with a dilemma that planners must encounter on a regular basis, far removed from the classroom. How does a planner balance the needs of the community with the experience and knowledge of his/her profession? This clash of worlds surfaced when the decision to rebuild communities butted against natural hazards and past planning failures. I learned this professional lesson, not in New York City, but in post-Katrina New Orleans.

I was in New Orleans on the American Planning Association Foundation Scholarship to Help Rebuild New Orleans. I worked in the Office of Recovery Management (ORM), a creation and extension of the Office of the Mayor. Dr. Edward Blakely directs the ORM and is supported by 20 full-time staff members. The office directs the recovery effort for the entire city by working with city agencies and communities to direct recovery funds efficiently. It was within the recovery context that I researched future proposals for a formal public participation structure. I also developed ways to obtain public assistance funds from FEMA to conform to the mayor's sustainability roadmap, specifically to rebuild public facilities to meet certain energy efficiency standards.

Until my experience in New Orleans, I was exposed to planning only in an academic environment. I am now entering my second year of the Master's of Planning program at Hunter College in New York City. In the classroom, I participated in the construction and development of a mock comprehensive plan for a Brooklyn neighborhood. I also studied extensively the sense of space and place within urban areas, and read numerous court cases upholding the constitutionality of zoning laws in the United States.

In New Orleans, the ORM is immediately targeting 17 areas across New Orleans for rebuilding, redeveloping or renewing. The ORM uses the following classifications: (1) Rebuilding target areas are neighborhoods with extreme devastation and in need of significant resources for recovery; (2) Redevelop target areas are neighborhoods with moderate devastation and need moderate resources; (3) Renewal target areas are neighborhoods with minimal devastation and need little resources for recovery. My team spent a considerable time on business development plans for two of the seventeen target areas. We chose the Lower Ninth Ward and the Carrollton Avenue/I-10 target areas because both of them present enormous challenges.

Recovery, in the context of housing, should happen quickly and maximize the percentage of the population who rebuild their homes in their original neighborhoods. The ORM was putting together a land swap program. This program would trade safer, city-owned properties with properties in low-lying, hazardous areas. The goal of the program was to attract residents back to New Orleans and rebuild in a safe and sustainable way. From this recovery perspective, land swaps were a viable plan for flood victims. Not only would they maintain property ownership, they would also increase property values since the buildings would be on higher, safer ground.

The dilemma I encountered in the Lower Ninth Ward was convincing residents to relocate to less hazardous areas in the neighborhood or within the city. The majority of residents in the Lower Ninth Ward continue to resist relocating to higher ground in the same ward because the houses they lost had been passed down through generations. This was their land and because of the long history of memories shared on that piece of land, they refused to see the ongoing dangers of their situation. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the homes that housed these memories were completely destroyed by the flood. All that remains is a parcel of vacant property overgrown with weeds.

The dilemma in the Carrollton Ave/I-10 target area was centered in the Gertown neighborhood, one of the residential areas, east of Carrolton Ave. In the neighborhood, there is a clinic and pool located on the same piece of property. The Gertown clinic/pool was the focus of the problem. After the creation of the ORM, the office identified city assets within target areas. These assets, including libraries, parks, and emergency services — in this case a clinic/pool — would be used to promote development around these established assets. This site was of special interest to our team because it is slated to receive FEMA Public Assistance funds for the rebuilding of the facility. Because this site will eventually receive money directly from FEMA, we envisioned that the rebuilding of this site would spark commercial and residential activity. My team was not directly involved in the extensive 2006 planning process that developed the Lambert Plans and the Unified New Orleans Plan, so we reviewed these documents to get an idea of the community's vision. We noted a new location for the pool a number of blocks south of its original location. We deemed it futile to relocate the facility because FEMA might not cover the costs of rebuilding the facility in a different location, and the original site was in close proximity to Carrollton Ave business corridor and Xavier University, which would support our planned development around this site.

We planned a mixed-use corridor adjacent to the Gertown pool, with low- and medium-density residential dwellings around the pool. We also proposed a more pedestrian-friendly connection to Xavier University to use the university population to support the new development. To our surprise, well into the planning process, the community opposed not only the rebuilding of the Gertown pool, but the entire idea of the pool. They saw the devastation of the clinic/pool as an opportunity to have it moved away from the neighborhood. We did not interpret this opposition from the various plans we reviewed because the target area and Gertown neighborhood overlapped two Lambert Plans, and two planning districts. We discovered that the Gertown community views Xavier University as an intruder in their community, so our idea of a better connection between the two would have made matters worse.

In the end, we went ahead with our original plan, drawing on the convenient location of the facility for consumers from Carrollton Ave and proximity to the large university population. In our assessment, these two important factors would be best for recovery and the long-term vitality of the area.

These experiences illustrated the conflict between the professional planner and the community. When should the planner make concessions to the community in order to win its support? When should planners trust their professional experience and decide what is in the community's best interest? What if the best interests of the community do not align with what the community wants? How does one determine what is best for the community?

In the context of recovery, I sided with practicality. If quick recovery was not the basis of this planning, I think there would be more time and more opportunity to reach a consensus or at least a tolerable compromise with the community. Planners can be disconnected from the community, but they still need the community's unique knowledge of the neighborhood.

I still do not know if choosing practicality over consensus was the best course of action, but it did seem to be the most appropriate under the circumstances. As I progress academically and professionally, I will have more opportunity to grapple with this inevitable issue, but I feel that it is the planner's responsibility to advocate what is practical for a community, despite justifiable, emotional opposition.