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Lower 9th Plan: Start `From Scratch'

Residents of the New Orleans neighborhood will hear results of a consultant's study today. But it's not the only proposal in town.

September 23, 2006|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — A consulting firm hired by the New Orleans City Council to devise a plan for the city's most storm-damaged neighborhoods will recommend rebuilding the Lower 9th Ward -- considered by many "ground zero" of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina -- "from scratch."

Miami-based urban planner and housing consultant Paul Lambert, along with other urban planning groups, met with Lower 9th Ward residents and incorporated their ideas into a proposal to change the area's street pattern to create a new "town center." That idea is part of a report he is to present to residents today.

In some 300 community meetings and workshops over the last five months, residents of most New Orleans neighborhoods have told a variety of urban design and planning sub-consulting firms that they want their old neighborhoods rebuilt as they were. "But that's different in the Lower 9th Ward ... because of the destruction," said Lambert, whose firm is co-managing the neighborhood planning process. "It was so decimated that you're really rebuilding the entire neighborhood from scratch."

Lower 9th Ward residents were adamant that their neighborhood not be razed and left fallow or taken over by developers.

"The idea is that [the area] will come back in its entirety," Lambert said.

The city is expected to receive the official report by October.

Across 49 neighborhoods, wish lists include repair of streets and sidewalks; school reconstruction; revitalization of parks, community centers and libraries; and the reopening of shops. "Every neighborhood just wants the grocery store back, just wants the pharmacy back, just wants a sit-down restaurant," Lambert said. "Retail consistently shows up in terms of what people want."

The report is part of the city's broader neighborhood rebuilding process.

Meanwhile, another initiative -- the Unified New Orleans Neighborhood Plan, which encompasses all neighborhoods, not just those damaged by Katrina -- is financed in large part by the Rockefeller Foundation and is managed by a nonprofit created for the purpose. And the Unified plan has strong support from the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which is charged with directing billions of dollars in federal Katrina aid.

The plan for the most damaged neighborhoods has no funding source. It may be folded into the Unified plan.

But some people have grown impatient. Lambert has publicly criticized the pace of the Unified process, saying the plan has delayed release of federal recovery aid to the city.

The head of Concordia, the New Orleans firm coordinating the Unified planning process, said orientation sessions had been held and the first public meeting would be Oct. 14, with final recommendations -- incorporating many ideas from Lambert's plan -- expected by the end of the year.

"We are all anxious to get to the finish," Concordia President Steven B. Bingler said. "We just know that the finish is not partial plans. It's a unified plan for the whole city." And, he added, that's what the Louisiana Recovery Authority requires.

New Orleans Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, whose constituency includes the Lower 9th Ward, called for "a sense of urgency" to move beyond planning to implementation.

"We cannot be stuck in a malaise of planning," she said.

Residents are also frustrated, and confused.

"There are too many hands in the pot," said Cory Turner, a fair-housing and criminal-justice activist. "There are too many planning groups. The Unified plan was meant to unify, but it's not doing that. Six months from now, we're going to be in the very same spot, arguing about what plan to use -- that's my fear."

Bywater neighborhood resident Elizabeth Cook said she doubted some proposals would ever be implemented because they were unrealistic and too grandiose.

"This is pie in the sky," she said. "They're stringing people along. A lot of it is fluff ... to give the illusion of reconstruction."

Other residents, however, said they welcomed such recommendations as more bike lanes, parks and beaches, because they were fed up with the devastation and needed to be able to dream of better days ahead.

For the Lambert-managed plan, neighborhoods such as suburban New Orleans East have asked for a reduction in the density of low- to-moderate income rental housing, and for the lakefront beach and entertainment district to be restored.

In upscale Lakeview, residents' priority is maintaining property values, Lambert said, and homeowners are keen to have first dibs on a neighboring property where the owner has decided to sell.

"This gives them the opportunity to expand their home, or rebuild for another family member," Lambert said. "This is a way of keeping the wealth in the community" and ensuring properties comply with the area's codes and zoning regulations.

Lambert acknowledged that much work remained to finalize a vision for certain neighborhoods but said the recommendations are "an important step into the future of this city."

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