Special Hurricane Report

Planning to rebuild: An interview with New Orleans's master planner

Last month, John Beckman, principal with Philadelphia firm Wallace Roberts & Todd (WRT), presented a master plan for rebuilding New Orleans [RECORD, February 2006, page 26]. WRT was asked to devise a plan for the urban-planning committee of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission (BNOBC), the team of professionals Mayor C. Ray Nagin formed to address the city's woes in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina.


How did the Bring New Orleans Back Commission end up choosing a Philadelphia-based firm to advise them on urban planning? JOHN BECKMAN: WRT has been involved in New Orleans off and on for over 30 years. In 1974, we rewrote the zoning ordinance to permit creation of a downtown development district. We also worked on plans for the warehouse district, which used to be skid row. We completed a master plan for City Park just before the hurricane. Joe Canizaro (local developer and BNOBC Urban Planning Commissioner) was on the board of the group that led the original Downtown Development District, and he suggested I come down and meet with the BNOBC.

AR: Who is paying for your services? JB: Neither the city nor the commission is funding our efforts. Some of the work is paid for by private funds. Some is on an at-cost basis, and we have donated an enormous amount as well. There is no city more wonderful in the U.S. than New Orleans, and if you can't step forward now, when are you going to?

AR: Many people greeted the plan with distrust. Why is that?

JB: There is a lot to be angry about. It is a clear case of negligence by the federal government. When you look at the dollars that were expended after September 11, they were completely out of proportion from what happened with Katrina and Rita. Clearly, planning before the storm could have been better— from lack of funding to restoration of coastal wetlands. This needs to be an equitably, and efficiently, managed resettlement of the city so the people who do come back have the services they need. It's a matter of phasing and timing, because everyone is not going to come back right away. The only piece of our action plan that was rejected was the moratorium [four months long, to assess which areas are most feasible to rebuild] on building permits.

AR: Is the committee working on design guidelines for new construction? JB: Not yet. Our plan recommends that the interim guidelines be developed quickly. We also recommended updating the city's master plan, giving it the force of law and placing the control of land use, land development, zoning ordinances, and building codes with the city planning commission. We felt it was important that these activities be taken out of the political realm.

AR: What types of zoning—for uses and densities—is WRT planning? JB: That's going to come out of the neighborhood planning process. The action plan we prepared [at www.bringneworleansback.org] was a recommendation. There also has to be significant input by the city planning commission.

AR: How is the neighborhood planning process being convened?

JB: We're setting up teams of residents and leaders supported by professionals and experts—planners, urban designers, architects, cost estimators, civil engineers, etc. Many neighborhoods have already started their planning. The professional teams are largely set up at this point.

AR: Are there any more solid facts about how many residents have returned and how many unsalvage-able houses there are? JB: The best estimates that I've seen are that there are now approximately 150,000 New Orleans residents. I do not have an estimate of the number of homes that are unsalvageable. The city and the federal government have given damage reports, but many homeowners are appealing their accuracy. Most people would feel more comfortable with an actual inspection of their properties.

AR: How are you determining future population estimates? JB: It is estimated that by September 2008, New Orleans will have 250,000 or so people. The biggest constraint is habitable housing. My gut feeling is that there may be more people than that because New Orleans is such a rooted place and has such a powerful pull.

AR: The plan talks about bridge financing and other means to help people to get their houses back. Any prognosis for those, especially since President Bush has repudiated the Baker buybackplan? JB: The Baker Bill [which calls for the federal government to buy large swaths of land for redevelopment] would have been very helpful, and it was a big disappointment that it was rejected by the White House. Congressman Baker has indicated that he will propose another version. When I presented the plan to the Louisiana Recovery Authority [on January 13], Baker said everyone who opposed the bill said they would support it if it were modified. There are also CDBG (community development block grant) funds, FEMA funds, U.S. Department of Transportation funds, and various housing agency funds. Another appropriations request must be submitted to the federal government by July 1. The reaction of the mortgage, insurance, and finance industries will be key, because if they don't provide financial backing, people won't be able to rebuild.

AR: Has this planning process been handled the same as any other would, or have the scope and enormity led you to use other methods? JB: We have done plans for larger cities than New Orleans, but there were many factors that made it unusual. For example, the lack of data. The city's computer system was knocked out, so we didn't know how many houses were destroyed, or how many people there were. There were no schools, very limited government to interact with, and a very small population. When we do a citywide plan, it usually involves hundreds of people and many meetings. We did this in an incredibly compressed time frame, with an enormous sense of urgency.

AR: How will your plans be affected by the release ofFEMA's flood elevation maps? [The maps are supposed to be released by the end of March.] JB: Those maps will specify what elevation the first floor of a building needs to be. Absolutely no one knows what will come out of that process or even when the maps will be released, and it is obviously extraordinarily frustrating for the people of New Orleans.

AR: What effect do you expect the municipal elections, scheduled for April and May, to have on the urban planning committee's progress? JB: I hope and expect that the citizens and elected officials of New Orleans will continue to focus on preparation of a long-term recovery plan. I believe everyone understands the stakes involved in building a better New Orleans based on the best of its legacy—a place where everyone can return and a place to which new residents will move.

Interview by Angelle Bergeron

For more of this interview, go to www.archrecord.com.


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