Years ago I visited friends, a professional couple living in a traditional apartment building in an old Northern city. It was part of a cluster of low-rise brick buildings that were well maintained and nicely landscaped but seemed strangely familiar. Then I realized why, and announced to my hosts that, except for some American Colonial flourishes, their apartment building "looked a lot like our New Orleans housing projects." They blanched, and I quickly tried to explain that many of our older projects were really very well designed and built, but I'm not sure they ever really believed me. Today, a fine example of what I meant can be seen at the River Garden development where the St. Thomas housing project once stood. There, amid many new and decorously fake 19th century-style structures, stand several of the original St. Thomas buildings, pristinely renovated and seamlessly simpatico with their surroundings. While River Garden predates Katrina, most of this city's 20th century institutional buildings were run down but still in use when the storm struck, after which many such as Charity Hospital (see "Inside Art," Jan. 10, 2006) were declared dead and politically buried. Many housing projects were shuttered, and now the C.J. Peete, St. Bernard and Lafitte projects are slated for demolition once the city and the feds hash out the final details on the proposed target date of Feb. 28. The B.W. Cooper project is already being demolished, and all that stands between the others and the wrecking ball are objections by activists demanding that the city adhere to the review processes outlined in the City Charter. The buildings in the Lafitte and St. Bernard projects are exceptional if neglected, and while no sane person would want to return to their former squalor even their former residents favor redevelopment their wholesale destruction could constitute "a human and architectural tragedy of vast proportions." Such was the near-unanimous view of speaker after speaker at a panel discussion of architects and preservationists moderated by New York Times
architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff at the Ogden Museum on Feb. 7. The panelists, including architects Ray Manning and Arthur Q. Davis as well as National Trust for Historic Preservation trustee Jack Davis, were of the opinion that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), aided by complaisant local politicians and an overwhelmed public and news media, had stampeded the city into a regrettable rush to judgment.
Controversial HUD secretary Alphonso Jackson, whose agency controls the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), has threatened to cut off redevelopment funds if his plans for the wholesale demolitions aren't promptly approved. Taken at face value, his threats suggest that we have no choice but to accept his ersatz, "Disney Creole" vision of new mixed-income housing or forever be damned by blighted projects festering in our midst. What's missing here is the common sense approach advocated by planners and preservationists who propose demolishing the worst buildings while renovating the best, then integrating them all, along with any new buildings, into the surrounding street grid for easy access by police and city services. A recent MIT study concluded that 75 percent of these project buildings need only routine renovation, an approach that would result in a much more sound result for less money. It also would allow for some structures to be occupied while the others are rebuilt, providing much-needed affordable housing at a critical time in the city's recovery.
These vintage St. Thomas housing project buildings, now part of River Garden, reveal how many former public housing buildings can be readily converted into high-quality apartments.