January 31, 2007

New Orleans Planners Brief Board and Commission on New Unified Plan

The APA board of directors and AICP commissioners traveled to New Orleans January 26 to 29, 2007, for their annual winter retreat. In addition to APA business, the leadership team spent time with local planners, touring flooded areas and learning about the Unified New Orleans Plan, released on January 30. The plan is available at http://unifiedneworleansplan.com/home2/.

The Unified New Orleans Plan, a comprehensive recovery plan that incorporates six months of recent planning work as well as the numerous processes undertaken since hurricanes Katrina and Rita, is being handed over to the New Orleans City Planning Commission. Local planner and Louisiana APA chapter president Stephen Villavaso, FAICP, and his team are heading up the UNOP effort. The process was funded by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and local organizations.

The planning commission is charged with reviewing and recommending an official plan to the city council for adoption. The approved plan will be a key tool for the city's new director of recovery, planner Edward Blakely, and for requesting funds from the Louisiana Recovery Authority, Villavaso says. Orleans Parish, which is coterminous with the city of New Orleans, is among the 30-some parishes expected to submit recovery plans for the LRA's review.

UNOP framework

On January 28, Villavaso, city planning commission chair Timothy Jackson, FAICP, UNOP coordinator Steven Bingler, and Robert Becker, FAICP, CEO of the City Park Improvement Association and former planning director of New Orleans, briefed APA and AICP leadership on the Unified Plan.

The plan responds to five goals identified through the public process: safety from future flooding; community empowerment; an opportunity for all to return; sustainable, equitable public services; and schools that meet community needs. It identifies implementation strategies based on time frames — within the next two years, two to five years, and more than five years — and flood risk and repopulation rates.

A core recovery strategy is to raise many of the structures in the city and demolish slab-on-grade buildings and rebuild them on piers. Some of that has already started, particularly in neighborhoods like Lakeview and New Orleans East, but many residents are waiting for better, more definitive information and standards than they currently have — not to mention money, in most cases.

FEMA has released only advisory base flood elevations, mandating that structures more than 50 percent damaged be rebuilt or raised at least three feet higher than they were before the flood. Final BFEs will likely be significantly higher in certain areas, but are not expected to be out for some time.

The Unified Plan provides incentives for exceeding those standards. "How are we going to tell someone who had five feet of water in their house to raise it just three feet?" Villavaso asked.

However, he stressed that the plan calls for voluntary participation — perhaps in part because of the public outcry against previous plans that specifically identified low-lying areas that might be off-limits to development. A key element in making the voluntary program work, planners say, is helping residents to understand and evaluate the various personal risks of building in high-risk flood areas — including financial ones like eligibility for flood or homeowners insurance and the recovery plan incentives.

"A well-constructed voluntary program will bring most people along," Villavaso said, adding that the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority will play a strong role in helping to make those risk decisions.

The plan calls for stabilizing neighborhoods by encouraging residents to cluster homes on high ground — in the neighborhood or nearby — to reduce flood risk, as well as to target infrastructure investment and avoid the jack-o-lantern effect, in which blocks are an unplanned mixture of occupied houses, blighted properties, and vacant lots.

Villavaso and his colleagues noted that a core principle of the plan is fairness and equity, embodied by a democratic and inclusive planning process and a relief program that will "make citizens economically whole." Such a program would fill the funding gap between what residents receive from insurance, LRA, and FEMA and the true costs of elevating or rebuilding.

The plan already has strong support from the community. At a January 20 community meeting attended by 1,300 New Orleanians — both in person and remotely with the help of America Speaks — 91 percent said they "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that the plan should go forward.

A call for help

City Park CEO Bob Becker also appealed to the board and commission, as well as all APA members, to continue to support planning in the area and offered specific ways that planners can help.

He urged planners to speak with their congressional representatives, advocating for increased federal funding and helping legislators to understand the importance of professional planning in the Gulf Coast's recovery. "We need a huge amount of resources to carry this off," said Becker. "If we don't get a maximum influx of money, this plan isn't going to go very far."

Becker requested greater support of the planning program at the University of New Orleans, stressing the importance of training young planners to help continue the long-term recovery efforts. He also challenged planners to help New Orleans systematically monitor how the plan is being carried out. "Developing a plan is incredibly important and it's a huge accomplishment that our citizens are buying into it," he said. "But we need to monitor its implementation and provide course corrections."

At the New Orleans meeting, American Planning Association CEO and Executive Director Paul Farmer, FAICP, pledged APA's continued assistance to the region. APA has been involved in the Gulf Coast's recovery since early on, sending a planning team to New Orleans in October 2005, convening planning sessions, and lobbying Congress to support pro-planning and disaster recovery legislation as well as funding.

Meghan Stromberg
Senior Editor,
Planning magazine