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Report says city squandering recovery opportunity for lack of planning
By Gwen Filosa Staff writer

Without a citywide rebuilding plan or a central agency in charge of redevelopment, New Orleans is likely to squander its opportunity to make a strong recovery as billions of dollars head toward the Gulf Coast, according to top officials with the Urban Land Institute .

As the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina fast approaches, New Orleans lacks leadership from Mayor Ray Nagin and the City Council, said John McIlwain, the senior fellow for housing for the Urban Land Institute.

McIlwain was part of a panel of 50 specialists in urban and post-disaster planning brought in by Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission to help the city create a recovery strategy. The commission largely rejected the institute’s advice, particularly its recommendation to rebuild first on higher ground in the lesser damaged neighborhoods — a theory that turned into a hot debate over the city’s footprint and who would be encouraged to return.

“It’s virtually a city without a city administration and it’s worse than ever,” said McIlwain. “New Orleans needs Huey Long. You need a politician, a leader that is willing to make tough decisions and articulate to the people why these decisions are made, which means everyone is not going to be happy.” McIlwain, 62, who has worked for more than 30 years in housing, from the private sector to government-led initiatives, said New Orleans neighborhoods are plotting their comebacks and are grounded in determination. The federal dollars are about to pour in to pay for the state’s ambitious housing rebuilding plan. But the local government has yet to appoint a recovery leader or show that it can make the tough decisions needed to renew the battered city, McIlwain said.

“You still have a chance to pull it together, but you won’t have that chance for much longer,” said McIlwain, in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C. “Over the next few months, the money is going to go out faster than the planning. There is no organization.”

Not so, said City Council President Oliver Thomas.

Thomas said the Washington D.C. -based think tank, which was the first to recommend that the city concentrate its rebuilding efforts on the sections that occupy the high ground, has made some incorrect assumptions about New Orleans from the outset. “They started most of the controversy when they came out with that plan eliminating a lot of neighborhoods that we now find out are not below sea level,” Thomas said. “Money dictates authority. The city doesn’t have the money. The state has the money and the communities are planning. We just hope at some point, all the stars will line up. I think we’re getting there.”

In an e-mail exchange asking for his response to McIlwain’s criticism of his administration, Mayor Nagin replied, “No comment.”

Urban Land Institute fellow Tom Murphy, the former mayor of Pittsburgh who served for several months as ULI’s liaison to the Gulf Coast recovery effort, said New Orleans lacks a citywide plan and a single, powerful authority handling the rebuilding of homes and neighborhoods.

“Given the extraordinary circumstances of what happened to your city, you cannot solve this incrementally,” said Murphy, who presided over Pittsburgh’s revitalization of 1,100 acres of defunct steel mills along the riverfront. “You need to create an agency or an authority that has people who wake up every day and their job is simply to make development happen. You need to build on a scale that in the best of times most cities wouldn’t be able to do. You don’t need 200 houses a year. You need to do 10,000 houses a year.”

An Urban Land Institute spokeswoman said the group’s comments about New Orleans’ state of recovery are in response to the upcoming one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and not to Mayor Nagin’s speech Wednesday, where the mayor claimed the city was on the right path.

“We are on track,” Nagin said. “We’re moving forward... No one would have guessed that we would be sitting here today with 250,000 of our residents back in the city of New Orleans living, breathing and helping us to move forward.”

Without a change in City Hall’s track record, the image of vacant, blighted neighborhoods bleeding from years of neglect is New Orleans’ future post-Katrina, said McIlwain.

“We’re talking Dresden after World War II. I can take you through parts of North Philadelphia, or Detroit or Baltimore and show you what it will look like.”

Murphy said he’s also concerned about the troubled New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, the agency charged with seizing and selling blighted property, saying it hasn’t been historically “active or effective.”

Lisa Mazique, the authority’s longtime executive director, left last month to take a job in Miami. In addition, Nagin said recently that the terms of all of the agency’s board members have expired, though he portrayed that as an opportunity to inject more horsepower into the authority.

Nagin said Wednesday that he will announce next week the appointment of someone to handle all aspects of recovery, along with two new hires for his administration.

Many cities have a redevelopment authority that oversees private and public deals to make housing happen.

“Who’s the czar putting the deals together? You guys don’t really have an easy mechanism to make development happen,” Murphy said. “Yours is really divided among six separate organizations” that include the city’s finance authority and its economic development office.

Homeowners can decide for themselves whether the city is safe by reviewing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ reports and the rebuilt levees, said Murphy, and the state’s “Road Home” program has promised to funnel rebuilding aid to homeowners.

But two critical questions remain unanswered, he said: What is my neighborhood going to look like? And who is running the redevelopment?

Almost one year after Katrina, neighborhoods such as the Lower 9th Ward continue to struggle to obtain basic services. Those who have returned are rebuilding on their own, with one gas station and one corner store open, and block after block of abandoned homes. Activists and faith-based organizations have done the heavy lifting, along with the residents, without government’s guidance or support.

The Lower 9 residents who are rebuilding with their insurance settlements may be making nothing more than leaps of faith, said McIlwain.

“It’s a sheer crapshoot,” said McIlwain. “They are investing their hearts, soul and wherewithal because they believe and care.”

(Gwen Filosa can be reached at or (504) 826-3304.)