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Unified NO Plan

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Jed and Brendan’s Thoughts on the Unified New Orleans Plan

A de-politicized and professional planning effort is crucial for two reasons. The first, and most obvious, is that the LRA has effectively required such an effort and is able to decide when and if New Orleans is ready to receive rebuilding money. Second, it has become clear from discussions with nonprofit leaders in the city that the world of private philanthropy has essentially the same criteria before it will release a parallel stream of private funds into the city. Rockefeller, in effect, took a risk by offering the initial grant to UNOP, with the expectation that other national foundations will follow with more support (both for the UNOP process itself and for other, related recovery projects) once the city can prove worthy of further investment. As overseers of the process, Concordia and the CSO/CSF have gone to great pains to avoid the mistakes made by both Lambert and BNOB in this regard, and plan to produce documents that clearly satisfy both formal government requirements as well as informal requirements in place by other sources of money.

While its ties to state-level decision makers are clear, UNOP and Concordia have been somewhat less successful in securing the support of other players at the city level. Although the Mayor, the City Council, and the City Planning Commission verbally agreed to a memorandum of understanding outlining the UNOP process on July 5, 2006, the document was not signed until August 28, 2006, a delay which pushed back the unveiling of the planning teams and other important milestones, undercutting already thin public support for the process.[1]

Even though the City Council and the Mayor are parties to the MOU, Councilwomen Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and Cynthia Willard-Lewis, as well as Mayor Nagin, have since made statements claiming, effectively, that the Lambert Plan is the final planning document necessary for New Orleans’ recovery. This public stance calls into question the depth of their support for UNOP and willingness to convince their constituents to participate in yet another series of public meetings. Another political difficulty is the approval of the recovery plan itself, a multi-phase process in which each step creates another potential pitfall and can add a host of unwanted or ineffective pieces to the final document.

Finally, once approved, pieces of the UNOP document will fall to the City Planning Commission to implement. Unlike its counterparts in most other American cities, the Commission does not have the force of law behind its decisions, meaning that all development and infrastructure proposals are vetted by the notoriously political City Council that has already demonstrated hostility to the UNOP process. Even if its decisions did have legal standing, the City Planning Commission is currently operating with less than half of its pre-storm staff, and is unlikely to serve as an effective advocate for city rebuilding without a major overhaul and infusion of resources.

Paul Lambert himself has fanned the flames of this conflict. In a full page ad published on August 3rd, 2006, he personally blasted UNOP, describing it as a “fledgling” process that would unnecessarily delay funding until the spring of 2007. He also argued that his plans were fully qualified for state and federal funding, contrary to all other indications given by state and local decision makers, and suggested that the UNOP planners would better serve the city by only drafting documents for the un-flooded neighborhoods or for a “recreational lakefront” area. While it was later argued that Lambert’s criticism may have loosened some state requirements and allowed decision makers to fast-track projects that are obviously in need of funding, in retrospect this attack seems petty and misinformed.

Given the confusion and exasperation that many residents feel after having gone through two earlier processes with little tangible result, the other difficulty confronting UNOP is one of public relations and outreach, a crucial and under-emphasized piece of the puzzle. So far, the UNOP team has not paid proper attention to this issue or allocated sufficient resources so that its PR team, led by local consultant Peter Mayer, can effectively manage the process.

An illustrative example is the confusion that many residents felt about the way in which planning teams were selected. After a series of two public meetings held in New Orleans’ City Park to introduce city residents to the national planning teams that had been pre-identified through an RFQ process,[2] residents were asked to express their preferences through a survey conducted in person, through the mail, and over the internet. Many neighborhoods expressed confusion about the process, and although all districts ultimately got a planning team from their top two choices, the decisions were made internally by Concordia and necessarily took into account other considerations beyond the individual preferences registered. In this case, it is apparent that these sorts of decisions should not be made purely democratically, but Concordia’s mistake was to, in effect, promise more than it could deliver by not clearly describing to the public what was going on.

While falling short of its promises of an “authentically democratic” process, Concordia has, however, been the most transparent effort to date, and should be applauded for making tough decisions when necessary and avoiding the overt politicization of the Lambert Plan and BNOB. Convincing the public that this is the case, however, is much more difficult. In our discussions with residents, reaction to UNOP has run the gamut from resigned optimism (“if they fix the streets we will be happy”) to outright anger about the further delay in releasing CDBG money. The political and administrative delays described above have further exacerbated the problem, and the UNOP teams are in danger of losing the public’s trust and sustained interest in the process. Moreover, there has yet to be an effort to explain to neighborhoods what UNOP can and cannot promise, even to those who have been engaged by the public outreach to date. According to Michael Haggarty, a planner with Frederic Schwartz’ team assigned to Districts 3 and 4, UNOP cannot draft zoning ordinances, write grants, or issue building permits – all things that people have requested in initial meetings with the team. Once public meetings begin in earnest, neighborhood residents will be forced to confront these realities. One perhaps symbolic failure is the UNOP website, which has not been updated in at least a month and does not yet list the teams assigned to each district. Overall, however, these early missteps stem from the unprecedented scale of the effort and the political mismanagement by other parties that has characterized it to date.

Finally, UNOP has also undertaken a better vetting of the qualifications of it consultants and the members of the CSO board, standing up to the parochialism that prevented Lambert from hiring qualified teams from outside the New Orleans area and that hampered effective oversight of his work. In particular, the choice of ACORN to lead the planning effort in the heavily damaged and low-income Lower 9th Ward was particularly appropriate, given the organization’s network in the city and attention to the needs of low-income residents, as well as its experience in developing affordable housing. The Rockefeller foundation has also not been afraid to pull strings to avoid potentially fatal political decisions. One source close to the UNOP process has said that a move to put a local developer and political player from the New Orleans East area on the CSO board was scuttled when the foundation threatened to withdraw its support for UNOP. Joe Canizaro was also explicitly asked not to apply for a position on the board because of his professional and political stake in the process. Another important move was the decision to hire one qualified planning team to oversee the entire process – an element missing from the Lambert plans. A crucial role of the city-wide team is the establishment of criteria and boundaries within which the district teams must operate. In practice, this has delayed the district planning efforts, but it is an essential step in realistically prioritizing infrastructure improvements.

Neighborhood-level reaction has been mixed. While Tulane/Gravier is clearly ready to be done with Lambert and anxious to move on to the UNOP process, De Saix residents are concerned about the initial delays experienced. Planning fatigue has set in to some extent in De Saix, but residents agree that as long as the prior work done on the Lambert plan is incorporated, they will proceed with UNOP. Given that pre-Katrina conditions in the area were poor relative to most American cities, De Saix residents’ hopes for the end result are modest. Both neighborhoods have complained about the overcrowded and disorganized initial city-wide meetings held in August, 2006.

While imperfect, UNOP is clearly the best alternative offered so far and will, for better or for worse, likely be the final say in recovery planning in New Orleans. An early estimation suggests that, come January 15th, 2007, New Orleans will be handed a well-constructed planning document that will be useful as neighborhoods continue to recover from Katrina.

[1] It should also be mentioned that continued delays in the process have confused some of the local planning teams, which are currently operating without contracts and have been forced, effectively, to begin independent outreach efforts in their respective districts without effective citywide guidance. As of late September, it had not yet been made clear the respective roles of the neighborhood- and district-level teams, and UNOP did not hold a citywide orientation until September 28th, fully one month after the process was officially announced.
[2] The New Orleans blogging community, in particular, has complained loudly about these two meetings, charging that they were held in too small a venue and were difficult to digest, and that not enough public notice was given beforehand. Again, this misstep is significant because, at an early stage in its development, UNOP failed to project an image of thoughtful, community-led planning.

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