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press clipping
June 18, 2006
In New Orleans, Money Is Ready but a Plan Isn't

NEW ORLEANS, June 17 — Billions of federal dollars are about to start flowing into this city after President Bush on Thursday signed the emergency relief bill the region has long awaited. But, with the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaching, local officials have yet to come up with a redevelopment plan showing what kind of city will emerge from the storm's ruins.

No neighborhoods have been ruled out for rebuilding, no matter how damaged or dangerous. No decisions have been made on what kind of housing, if any, will replace the mold-ridden empty hulks that stretch endlessly in many areas. No one really knows exactly how the $10.4 billion in federal housing aid will be spent, and guidance for residents in vulnerable areas has been minimal.

A month into his second term, Mayor C. Ray Nagin has said little about his vision for a profoundly different city. In an interview on Friday, he said it would be six months before a "master planning document" was issued to address questions like which areas should be rebuilt, although he suggested that thousands of residents were making that decision on their own.

Caution should be the watchword, Mr. Nagin said, months after the apparent demise of a planning committee he set up. "New Orleans is a very historic city," he said. "We can't come out and just do something quickly."

But a close collaborator of Mr. Nagin acknowledged that the process has lagged. "Let's just admit something straight out: we're late," said David Voelker, a board member of the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

Mr. Voelker, who is in charge of the state authority's efforts to coordinate with neighborhood planning, sounded uncertain even about the nature of the master plan.

"I don't know what this master plan is going to say, because I'm not a master planner," Mr. Voelker said.

The lack of a redevelopment plan and the state of the city's ruined neighborhoods have some worried that the city government has lapsed into the pattern of inactivity for which Mr. Nagin was criticized before last month's election.

"The city desperately needs leadership on planning and housing issues," an editorial in The Times-Picayune said last week. "Without strong guidance from City Hall, crucial decisions about the future of New Orleans will be made by default. Or they won't be made at all."

In occasional public appearances, the mayor has voiced characteristic optimism. "Today is another great day in the city of New Orleans," he said Wednesday after the A.F.L.-C.I.O. announced a $700 million housing and economic development grant. He called the grant "an incredible tipping point," but offered no specifics about which neighborhoods he was committed to rebuilding.

The mayor's flurry of appearances before the election has been sharply curtailed. Streets remain abandoned, sometimes for miles, and blocks are carpeted with trash.

"We do need to have a clear vision from the mayor," said Oliver Thomas, the president of the New Orleans City Council. "Tell us what you're for, or not for. We don't know exactly what neighborhoods he's committed to, kind of committed to, and not committed to."

Mr. Thomas added, "We don't know specifically what the roles of the neighborhoods are going to be in the new New Orleans. Can people build anywhere? Can they live anywhere? Are they going to be funded? We don't know that."

In the absence of a redevelopment vision from the city, residents are pushing ahead on their own, a process likely to be accelerated late this summer when washed-out homeowners begin receiving checks from the federal housing money appropriated by Congress. Whether homeowners who are rebuilding in ruined areas will remain isolated pioneers or will receive city services is still unclear.

A few badly damaged neighborhoods have undertaken their own planning efforts. "The initiatives for planning and rebuilding are coming from the neighborhoods themselves," said Pam Dashiell, a member of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, in the city's Ninth Ward.

The Broadmoor district, with a mix of incomes and races, has plans for converting abandoned dwellings to community use and wants to provide housing incentives for police officers and firefighters.

But few neighborhoods are as far along, and none of the efforts are being centrally coordinated.

During the recent election campaign, Mr. Nagin and most of his rivals carefully avoided pronouncements on the fate of specific neighborhoods, tiptoeing through a volatile issue that had many residents on edge. But now, critics say, the mayor does not have politics to use as an excuse.

"The election is over, and it's time for governing," said State Representative Karen Carter, Democrat of New Orleans. "He's the mayor, and he has to show that level of leadership and engagement."

Within a week of his re-election on May 20, Mr. Nagin announced that two ex-rivals from the campaign — both lawyers, one a Republican and the other a Democrat — would be aiding him in urgent planning for the city's future. In 100 days, there would be a plan, it was announced.

Since then nothing has been heard from either lawyer. One was traveling outside the country this week, and the other did not return calls.

In the interview on Friday, Mr. Nagin indicated that the entire city west of the Industrial Canal would be rebuilt, a more optimistic projection than some urban planners had given.

As for areas east of the canal, the mayor said that the prosperous New Orleans East area would probably come back and that the flattened homes of the Lower Ninth Ward would probably be replaced by what he called "multilevel living facilities," presumably apartment buildings.

Success, he said, is more likely to be defined by what residents do than what the editorial board of The Times-Picayune says. The city's current population of 220,000 is ahead of most projections, he said, and was made possible by his administration's willingness to provide building permits to almost all who asked, in any neighborhood.

"I think that most citizens can make intelligent decisions," Mr. Nagin said. "This city will be rebuilt. Most areas will come back. There are people who are rebuilding."

Mr. Nagin appears to be counting on a strategy that involves large-scale economic development projects, like one unveiled two weeks ago that called for demolishing a decrepit downtown shopping center and the city's frayed municipal complex and replacing them with a National Jazz Center set in a 20-acre park. Such development promises, largely unfulfilled, were a feature of Mr. Nagin's first term in office.

As for the planning body created after the hurricane, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, little has been heard of it for months. The commission's tough plan, unveiled in January and now apparently dead, called for a four-month building moratorium in the hardest-hit neighborhoods while they proved their "viability." Ultimately a new public agency would have been empowered to seize land in areas that failed the challenge, and the city's footprint was to shrink.

Mr. Nagin, in the face of a public outcry, almost immediately rejected the plan.

Ray Manning, a local architect who played a key role in early planning efforts after the storm and who was a co-chairman of the mayor's neighborhood planning committee, said this week that he had withdrawn from the process.

"I said I would not speak about this issue any longer," he said.

At a conference at Tulane University this month, Mr. Manning had harsh criticism for the lack of guidance from City Hall.

For his part, the mayor in a brief appearance before reporters this week said of the neighborhood planning process, "That's just about completed."

Naming Mr. Thomas, the City Council president, as a collaborator, Mr. Nagin said, "There's a structure we'll be announcing in the next day or so, and we'll move that forward." But Mr. Thomas responded: "I don't know what the structure is. We've talked about some possibilities, but nothing definitively."

Now, 10 weeks before the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, some residents are losing patience.

"We are entitled to hear something now," said LaToya Cantrell, head of the Broadmoor Improvement Association. "We've been waiting. It's nine months out. We need to know what's going on. We need to know what the process is. The center of my community has yet to return, and this is nine months out. This is ridiculous. This is frustrating."