When the city's Office of Recovery Management unveiled its first 17 "target development areas" two weeks ago, one could almost hear a citywide chorus of cheers. At long last, New Orleans has something that looks like a plan, even if this initial step was just that -- the first step in a long journey.
The target development areas announced by Recovery Czar Ed Blakely were not chosen haphazardly. According to Blakely, they also were chosen free of political concerns -- even if they happen to fall across all five City Council districts.
What's most striking about the projects selected by Blakely and his team is that all of them are eminently doable. In fact, some of them are already in the works.
Consider, for example, the revitalization of Comiskey Park in Mid-City, near the corner of Tulane Avenue and South Jeff Davis Parkway. Within days of Blakely's announcement that the park was on the list of "re-new" projects, actor Louis Gossett Jr. announced that he and a Los Angeles media company will move forward with plans to build a neighborhood center at the park and produce a seven-part documentary about the project.
Probably not, but that's a good thing. It's a sign that Blakely is planning to put the city's limited recovery resources ($1.1 billion initially) behind and around projects that have a high probability of success. That, in turn, means the city's first investments will have a corresponding chance of paying dividends in the form of collateral investment -- and recovery. All of which is important because, in the early stages of this process, we cannot afford to fail. Getting behind sure things is more than a safe bet, it's smart investing, particularly in light of the fact that Blakely wants to raise much of that first $1.1 billion in the private sector.
Let's take a step back now and look at the big picture of what Blakely is doing. His office has more or less triaged the first phase of recovery investment into three categories of "target areas." He calls them "re-build" areas (as in rebuilding from scratch -- the hardest-hit areas), "re-develop" areas (those that sustained moderate damage, where more investment will boost ongoing efforts) and "re-new" areas (those that are already recovering, where added investment will create even greater momentum and produce quicker returns on public investment).
Only two of the 17 first-phase projects fall into the "re-build" category -- both of them in hard-hit City Council District E. One is the now-vacant Lake Forest Plaza shopping mall; the other is the Lower Ninth Ward. Like Comiskey Park, there already is significant interest is seeing those areas rebound, but each will take time and lots of money. Putting those areas on the first list also signals that the city is not writing off the Lower Nine or eastern New Orleans.
Seven areas and projects made the list of "re-develop" target areas, and the preliminary list of "re-new" areas reaches into all five City Council districts.
In each instance, the strategy takes it cues from the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP), which included input from literally thousands of New Orleanians living here and elsewhere. UNOP is still making its way through City Hall's approval process (the City Planning Commission has it right now, and the City Council gets it next), but citizens' priorities are already well established. Here again, Blakely's team went for projects with lots of public support, which assures at least some measure of communitywide buy-in.
He noted at the outset, moreover, that funds are limited and thus some very deserving neighborhoods and projects didn't make the first cut. His office emphasizes that this list is only the first step. In fact, doing all 17 of the projects on this initial list could well cost more than the $1.1 billion that Blakely and Mayor Ray Nagin have identified in attainable public and private investment. But, at least now the city has a well-defined, clearly articulated list of projects to take to Baton Rouge, Washington and Wall Street in search of additional funding.
It's been a long time coming, but we're finally seeing the first fruits of New Orleans' protracted planning process. What we've learned thus far is that a good plan offers more than a blueprint for rebuilding. At its best, UNOP will be a multi-use document for planning, fundraising, coordination of recovery activities and development of recovery strategies (as in the "target areas" identified by Blakely's team). It should be -- it must be -- a living document that evolves over time, depending on what works and what doesn't.
Above all, we should remind ourselves constantly that this is just the first step. We also should hope that all 17 projects succeed -- because if they don't, the rest might never get a chance to try.