A new, improved New Orleans seen

With good planning, it could roar back

September 27, 2005|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

Until Hurricane Katrina exposed it, the overwhelming poverty of New Orleans was often overshadowed by its reputation for convivial excess. Much like Baltimore, the Big Easy had well-traveled tourist haunts that camouflaged dense pockets of urban dysfunction.

Now, as the city confronts a multibillion-dollar reconstruction - a redevelopment program of unprecedented scope - these sick neighborhoods could be healed, say planners and advocates of affordable housing.

Drawing on disaster lessons from around the world, including post-earthquake reconstruction in Japan, Mexico and California, and using progressive planning techniques that have encouraged blighted neighborhoods, many say it is possible to rebuild a New Orleans that is as welcoming to its thousands of poor residents as it is to its throngs of Bourbon Street tourists.

"It's a great tragedy but also a great opportunity to make it a much better city," says Aseem Inam, author of Planning for the Unplanned: Recovering from Crises in Megacities.

"Most cities just say, `How do we get back to normal?' But sometimes normal isn't good enough."

Before the storm, the level of concentrated poverty in New Orleans' metropolitan area was fifth-highest in the country and was worse in the city proper.

Don Carter, president of Pittsburgh-based Urban Design Associates, blames that on a flawed public housing program.

"It created isolated and concentrated areas of poor people. They became separate communities in the city," says Carter, whose firm recently helped redevelop a New Orleans housing project.

It doesn't have to be that way.

Though waterlogged and devastated now, New Orleans is in prime position to capitalize on the renewed interest nationwide in city living, said David Dixon, a principal with Goody Clancy, a Boston-based planning firm.

In five years, Dixon predicts, New Orleans could emerge as a city to be reckoned with, not only with low-income housing worth emulating, but also competing with top real estate markets for young professionals and empty nesters.

"They'll have the newest hotels, the jazziest entertainment, the newest and the best," says Dixon, whose firm is working on Baltimore's Uplands project, an effort to turn a vacant low-income housing project into a large residential community.

"While it's very hard to imagine now, the core of New Orleans will have a lot of appeal."

But only if it is reworked right.

"It's really an opportunity," he says, "that can be lost or seized."

For progressive-minded cities, mixing is the latest fashion. No more poor downtown and rich uptown. No more shopping districts and residential enclaves. No more work here, live there.

New Orleans can no longer relegate its poor to undesirable spots, Carter says. The city must build neighborhoods where people of all income levels can afford homes and enjoy the city's assets. Even individual developments, he says, should offer subsidized and market-rate units.

"It takes a progressive developer to commit to that, but it really works miracles," he says, pointing to Pittsburgh's Crawford Square, where half of the units are subsidized.

"In that community, nobody really knows who's got the units that are subsidized," Carter says.

After a 1985 earthquake in Mexico City left 10,000 dead and devastated the city's most economically fragile communities, Mexico City did a stellar job of rebuilding low-income housing that left many people better off than they were before the disaster, said Inam, the Planning for the Unplanned author who is a former urban planning professor at the University of Michigan.

The government used eminent domain to claim land, tore down decrepit and damaged housing, and built complexes. Hundreds of people moved into cheerful, colorful homes, comfortable in the architecture that paid homage to their Mexican heritage.

"What's amazing is, it's not mega-concrete blocks. It's pretty," Inam says. "They've done a great job given the scale."

Even better, he says, is that where almost all residents were renters before the earthquake, almost all in the new development own their homes.

Using a combination of time-tested government housing programs could get New Orleans on the right track to becoming a healthier, more diverse city, officials say.

Planners endorse Hope VI, a federal program used to turn dangerous and depressed residential projects into vibrant housing developments, to create the sort of mixed-income community they hope New Orleans becomes.

They point to housing vouchers to help low-income people rent apartments, a tool that helped people find homes after the Los Angeles earthquake of 1994.

A tactic called "inclusionary zoning" - which forces developers building homes or apartments to reserve some dwellings for low-income residents or give the government money for housing programs - is something many think could work post-Katrina.

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