Much has already been said about the Bring New Orleans Back Commission's proposed land-use plan for the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Unfortunately, too many of the comments have taken the form of emotional outbursts at a time when reason and civil discourse are what's needed most. Some of the comments actually make us wonder if people bothered to read the plan. While no plan could possibly solve all issues right out of the box, we think the commission's Urban Planning Committee report is a good start to a long process. We also have some ideas of our own.
First and foremost, everyone should acknowledge the hard work done by the commission and its consultants. Many donated their time, talents and resources to the effort to make New Orleans a better, stronger city -- and a place where all its residents are welcome.
While it may seem axiomatic, it's equally important for everyone to agree that some kind of plan must be in place for the city to recover. At the same time, even the planners must accept the notion that the marketplace will play a huge role -- for many, a decisive role -- in the recovery process. These two concepts appear to be at odds: a specific, systematic recovery plan and the notion of a market-driven recovery. The truth is, New Orleans' recovery needs large doses of both. If we strike the right balance -- and that's the key word, balance -- we can have a plan that offers both a guiding set of strategies, goals and principles and enough flexibility to allow for individual choices on a human scale. How might such a balance be achieved? We think the answer can best be summed up in two words -- vision and process. Does the plan have the right vision for New Orleans? And, does it afford a process that is fair, reasonable, and inclusive?
Overall, we think the answer to both questions is yes. The vision put forth in the plan is one of a New Orleans rebuilt around its historic, vibrant neighborhoods. It also recognizes that some neighborhoods are already close to pre-Katrina levels of viability, while others need time to redevelop. Concerns about "bulldozing" certain areas against the will of residents ought to be put aside. The plan does not call for that. On the contrary -- and this goes to the second issue, that of process -- the plan places the fate of each hard-hit neighborhood squarely in the hands of residents. Thus, the plan has the flexibility to allow for market-driven decisions by individual property owners.
In our first post-Katrina Commentary, "By Our Own Bootstraps" (Nov. 1, 2005), we made the following observation: "[P]arts of New Orleans are resettling without official guidance or approval. We take [that] development as a positive sign. ... This is a time of tremendous challenge -- and virtually unlimited opportunity. Let's not squander it." We stand by those statements, and we think the commission's plan reflects that same spirit. Unfortunately, some have criticized the plan for putting too much pressure on homeowners to demonstrate the viability of their neighborhoods. If a neighborhood has to prove its viability going forward, don't blame the commission; blame Katrina. We take the view that the plan presents neighborhoods with a golden opportunity to demonstrate viability and a whole lot more. The plan calls for property owners within local "planning districts" to take ownership of their neighborhoods' future by writing specific recovery plans in the next four months. What could possibly be more empowering than that?
One key factor in the success of that process will be the standards by which individual neighborhood recovery plans are judged. We think that if more than 50 percent of a neighborhood's property owners -- homes as well as businesses -- commit to returning by May 20, then a neighborhood has demonstrated its viability. That raises another key question: how should property owners demonstrate such a commitment?
That brings us to the one part of the plan that we don't like -- the four-month moratorium on building permits. The plan suggests issuing no permits during the time in which neighborhoods are meeting to plan their recovery and demonstrate viability. We suggest doing exactly the opposite. Rather than prohibiting anyone from getting a permit during that four-month period, we think the city should require those who intend to return to get permits. What better, more objective way to tell who's coming back to rebuild? We note that permits are available either on-line or in person at City Hall -- and the city's Department of Safety and Permits has done an exemplary job of handling citizens' requests under the most trying circumstances.
There are many more layers of the plan, but these are the threshold issues for individuals as well as planners. We applaud the commission for its work, and we urge the mayor and City Council to embrace the many parts of the plan that can and will work. Indeed, we must all unite behind ideas on which we agree to show the rest of the world our determination to rebuild New Orleans together. That's the best plan of all.