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A Will-to-Rebuild Deadline Proposed for New Orleans

A $12-billion buyout is planned if residents don't stake a convincing claim in four months.

January 12, 2006|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Mayor C. Ray Nagin's commission to revive this city on Wednesday proposed that residents of the districts most heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina get four months to demonstrate strong support for rebuilding their neighborhoods or face the possibility of having to sell to the government.

The proposal, a centerpiece of the mayor's "Bring New Orleans Back" recovery effort, drew outrage from residents and community activists, who argued that many citizens -- especially the African Americans who predominated the flood-struck areas -- might be forced out of the city for good.

By allowing residents to help determine their neighborhood's fate, the Nagin commission hoped to defuse a flashpoint in the debate over how to restore the ravaged city: Should all of New Orleans be rebuilt, or should low-lying neighborhoods be returned to wetlands and green space that would serve as a natural barrier against floods?

The vast swath of the city in question -- which includes parts of the Gentilly, Mid-City, Lakeview and Lower 9th Ward neighborhoods -- represents about half of New Orleans. If residents could not reach a consensus to rebuild, city planners would shrink the footprint of New Orleans.

"None of us want to be in this particular place, but Katrina has forced us to take a good, hard look at what we need to do to rebuild our city," Nagin said. "The realities are that we will have limited resources to redevelop our city.... The other reality is this report is controversial. It pushes the edge of the envelope. It probably says some things to some people they are probably misinterpreting."

Despite Nagin's effort to ease tensions, residents across racial and class lines lashed out Wednesday at what they considered a land grab engineered by the city's elite. Much of their ire was heaped on New Orleans developer Joseph C. Canizaro, a key architect of the plan, whose name elicited boos from the standing-room-only auditorium crowd.

"How many people from my backyard are up there?" Harvey Bender, a laid-off city maintenance worker from eastern New Orleans, yelled at the officials. "I'm ready to rebuild and I'm not letting you take mine," he said. "I'm going to fight, whatever it takes, to rebuild my property. It's going to be baby Iraq for Joe Canizaro."

Under the plan -- which can go forward with Nagin's approval -- New Orleans would impose a moratorium Jan. 20 on building permits in the areas hardest hit by Katrina's floodwaters. Residents then would have to demonstrate there was sufficient critical mass in their area to rebuild to warrant public investment in schools and city facilities, possibly by showing that half of the population planned to come back.

To accelerate the process, Nagin's commission is asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency to release updated flood plain maps, which could effectively make the decision for many homeowners by raising home insurance rates and setting other new financial barriers to redevelopment.

Neighborhoods that failed to meet the critical-mass test would be shrunk or eliminated altogether; a new city agency called the Crescent City Redevelopment Corp. then would buy out residents or seize their properties through eminent domain. The estimated cost of the buyouts: $12 billion.

Federal legislation introduced by Rep. Richard H. Baker (R-La.) proposes to reimburse homeowners 60% of their pre-Katrina equity. The Nagin commission plan would go further, compensating displaced homeowners the remaining 40% with federal community development block grant money and FEMA funding.

But that federal funding, like many other elements of the ambitious plan, ultimately would need the support of Congress and President Bush -- who is scheduled to make a public appearance in New Orleans today and meet with the co-chairman of Nagin's commission, healthcare executive Maurice L. Lagarde III.

"We respect the rights of all citizens to return to their neighborhoods," Lagarde said, casting the four-month process, set to end May 20, as an opportunity for residents to control the future of their communities.

The commission's blueprint to revive New Orleans also includes proposals to address issues that have nothing to do with Katrina.

An education subcommittee wants to radically reorganize the city's school system, which has been plagued by corruption and low academic performance. The proposal would decentralize governing authority, giving principals greater authority over their schools and neighborhoods more say over management of schools in their area.

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