The mixed reactions last week to the Bring New Orleans Back Commission's land-use plan were predictable as well as understandable. Those who could be displaced are incensed. Those who see the need to shrink the city's footprint in the face of its smaller population are impressed. At a minimum, we should all be glad that a plan has finally been put forward.
Most important, we should view the plan for what it is: merely the first step in the long rebuilding process. Now that a vision and planning document is on the table, everyone also should exhale and commit to a process rooted in civil discourse.
Slicing through the rhetoric on both sides, several hot-button issues arise from the plan, either as specific proposals or as items not addressed:
• Should the city try to shrink its geographic footprint by encouraging property owners to relocate closer to New Orleans' urban core? How much "encouragement" is prudent, and at what point does it become a "taking" of someone's property?
• Does the plan put too much of an onus on property owners by requiring them to come up with neighborhood plans just because their areas flooded? Assuming neighbors will devise such plans, who will decide the "viability" question for each neighborhood --Êand what benchmarks will be used in making those decisions?
• Should the plan instead have bitten the bullet and stated outright that certain low-lying or out-lying areas should not be redeveloped, so that people can just move on?
• Might the proposed four-month moratorium on building permits in certain areas actually do more harm than good by discouraging people from coming back -- thus making the call for a smaller "footprint" a self-fulfilling prophesy?
• Will the plan be revised when FEMA issues its new flood maps? (The maps could affect everyone's access to flood insurance by setting new "base flood" elevations citywide. Homes below those elevations would have to be raised -- or they won't qualify for flood insurance.)
No doubt the framers of the plan wrestled with these and other questions before presenting it to the public last week. At first glance, the plan appears to be an attempt at compromise between the Urban Land Institute's "top-down" idea of eliminating some neighborhoods and turning them into parks or open spaces, and the populist "bottom-up" approach, espoused by former Mayor Marc Morial and others, in which every neighborhood would be brought back no matter what the cost to the greater community.
The plan lays out a "top-down" solution, but gives property owners in areas that would be converted to public use the opportunity to show that their neighborhoods are still viable -- provided they come up with revitalization plans within four months. During that four-month period, no new building permits would be issued in those areas.
The idea behind the building permit moratorium is to avoid a scenario in which people spend their insurance money on costly renovations, only to learn months later that the neighborhood won't be coming back. Critics of the plan say a moratorium virtually guarantees that affected neighborhoods won't come back. Supporters say it gives the market -- and the people --Êa manageable time frame within which to weigh in.
That tension between the "top-down" and "bottom-up" approaches raises two threshold questions that New Orleans must answer in the wake of Hurricane Katrina:
What do we want New Orleans to look like one year, five years, 10 years from now?
Who gets to make that call?
There are no easy answers.
Moreover, two other factors will affect where the plan goes from here -- the citywide elections, scheduled more or less for April, and the much-anticipated new FEMA flood maps. The former tends to prolong the decision-making process; the latter could have the effect of pre-empting it. Politicians are loathe to make tough decisions at election time, and decisions don't get any tougher than the ones facing New Orleans in the next four months. On the other hand, if FEMA imposes significantly higher base-flood elevations in large portions of the city -- which means thousands of homes would have to be raised in order to qualify for flood insurance -- then many property owners' decisions as to whether to rebuild will be made for them. Rebuilding would simply be cost-prohibitive.
The market is a coldly efficient decision-maker. FEMA may not be as efficient, but, depending on where the lines are drawn, it could prove to be colder than any market ever imagined.