Guarded optimism greeted the unveiling in late March of a targeted $1.1 billion redevelopment plan for New Orleans' neighborhoods, more than 18 months after the city flooded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Edward Blakely, the city's head of recovery management, emphasized the inherent limits of the plan, which is intended to be more surgical than sweeping in its scope. The plan focuses on 17 hub sites around the city that are meant to act as magnets for private development by leveraging public money into them. Fifteen of the sites lie in neighborhoods that either were not hit hard by the flood or have begun to rebuild. Together, they are to see $161 million in public investment. But Blakely would direct about $145 million toward sites in two devastated neighborhoods, the Lower Ninth Ward and a section surrounding the Lake Forest Plaza shopping center.
“The scope of it is deceivingly simple,” says architect Allen Eskew, principal of Eskew+Dumez+Ripple in New Orleans. “Blakely himself says he wanted to have some early successes.” Eskew adds that it was crucial for Blakely's list of target sites to seem modest and feasible, given the city's “planning fatigue” and frustration with all levels of government. “I'm very pleased that Dr. Blakely has come out with an action plan instead of a planning plan,” he says.
Among the chosen sites, the plan establishes a triage system for rebuilding destroyed areas, for redeveloping struggling areas such as the area around Gentilly Boulevard and Elysian Fields Avenue, and for renewing areas such as Canal Street downtown that show signs of life returning but could yet benefit from investment.
After Blakely's plan was announced, residents and city officials seemed to be putting stock in its realistic aspirations, particularly after a run of widely criticized plans that were seen as either too restrictive or too extravagant and costly.
“People can start to see where this targeted reinvestment is going to occur,” says Jane S. Brooks, professor and chair of the planning and urban studies department at the University of New Orleans. Brooks attributes the Blakely plan's wider acceptance to the broad public participation that led up to it. “People are ready to understand that this is the first wave of investment,” Brooks adds. “If this works, maybe there will be another wave of investment. There's no miracle here. What he's trying to do is use public money to attract private money” for neighborhood reinvestment.
Not all of the money is in hand, however. The city has about $400 million to put toward the plan. More than half of the other $624 million would hinge on the federal government waiving its rule that state and local governments match 10 percent of federal grants for reconstruction. As of the day of the plan's unveiling, the Bush administration said it has no intention of waiving the matching-funds requirement.