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Bring NO Back

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FEMA ESF-14

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Jed and Brendan’s Thoughts on the Lambert Process

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One of the most important differences between this new effort and the earlier BNOB process was that planners explicitly avoided a discussion of neighborhood “viability” and, instead, detailed a list of projects suggested by residents under the assumption that the basic form of the city was sound and should be left intact.[1]

While there are arguments on both sides of the issue of the city’s “footprint”, the political implication was clear – Lambert wished to avoid the fate of BNOB by deferring the question of who was to return to the city. Another apparently political calculation was the emphasis made on hiring local consultants, including the pairing of Danzey with the Miami based Lambert – a move praised by both Mayor Nagin and Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell during opening comments at the final unveiling of the plans.

The Lambert process, now essentially complete, continues to have supporters who argue that New Orleans cannot wait any longer for federal money and should use the finished plans as a basis for immediate requests for assistance from the LRA. City Council members Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and Cynthia Willard-Lewis, in particular, have made arguments to this effect, rallying New Orleanians to demand their fare share of reconstruction funds. It is unclear, however, exactly what pots of money are available and whether the Lambert plans will be considered sufficient to loosen the purse strings at the state or federal levels. In fact, an initial investigation has found the exact opposite to be true: without a plan that covers all of New Orleans (as has been done in every other hurricane-impacted Parish), no money will be released. That said, there has been some discussion among decision makers at the state level to fast-track projects that have broad-based support, and Lambert can claim a small victory in that regard.

On the whole, however, the Lambert planning process was deeply (perhaps fatally) flawed. The City Council and Lambert ignored two basic requirements that have been publicly voiced by the LRA: that the planning process be as apolitical as possible and that the entire city (not just the flooded neighborhoods) be included in the recovery plan. It has also failed to engage the City Planning Commission during the planning process, the body that, presumably, will oversee the implementation of many of the ideas detailed in the final documents. There is also some question about the legality of Lambert’s no-bid contract, a point made vociferously by a local organization known as the Bureau of Governmental Research.[2]

Finally, it is unclear how the City Council could have properly overseen the teams’ work, particularly given that it was proceeding without any clear direction from the City Planning Commission as to what criteria it would look for in a well-designed plan.

Apart from the statutory and legal requirements that were apparently overlooked, the final plans as unveiled by Lambert are technically flawed and would, in our opinion, likely not be accepted by the LRA even if the two basic requirements listed above were relaxed. The most obvious error was an unwillingness to knit the 46 plans together into one coherent document, which makes planning for city-wide infrastructure nearly impossible. Several individual neighborhood presentations described improvements to public infrastructure such as public transportation and utilities that can only be coordinated at a city-wide scale.

Moreover, those projects that could be completed at a neighborhood level were arbitrarily (if at all) prioritized. Although each neighborhood plan came with a “funding matrix” that divided projects into short-, near-, or long-term categories and detailed costs accordingly, this delineation appeared un-coordinated between teams, resulting in huge discrepancies in the amount of money requested by each neighborhood and the timeframe for delivery. These matrices also included both public and private projects, making unclear what needed to be funded versus what should merely be advocated for. This failure is particularly insidious because it adds confusion to the already poorly defined relationship between planning and implementation and gives residents unrealistic expectations about what can be delivered to their neighborhoods. Cost estimates, regardless of their accuracy, have a tendency to become permanent once published, as is the case in Lambert’s plans. The final plans are a perplexing bundle of short and long term public and private projects, the logical result of a process which refuses to appropriately distinguish between planning for trash pickup and planning for light rail.

The emphasis placed on hiring local consultants is often described as a virtue of the plan, and officials, Mayor Nagin in particular, have praised the Lambert team for this effort. Objectively, however, it is hard to imagine that any city has the internal capacity to do work of this scale on its own. As one of the main supporters of local planning efforts, Nagin has been rightly accused of pandering to a proudly insular political base suspicious of outside influence. While a full critique of the plans offered by Lambert is beyond the scope of this paper, the presentations so far have not met professional standards that, perhaps, would have been adhered to if the teams had been selected from a nation-wide pool of planners and architects.

Discussions with different neighborhood associations that have worked closely with Lambert have thus far expressed mixed reactions about the experience, largely dependent on the competence of the planners assigned to their respective areas. De Saix residents found the Lambert planning teams to be receptive to neighborhood concerns and feel satisfied and guardedly optimistic about the plan that was developed, but skeptical about its implementation or long-term relevance. Sherry Waters, one of DANA’s board members, noted that the most pressing demands in the neighborhood are repaired utilities and properly paved streets, and that the sooner those amenities are restored the better.

Tulane/Gravier, on the other hand, was so upset about the Lambert planning process in their neighborhood that the TGPC sent a formal complaint to Councilwomen Stacey Head stating that Lambert’s presentation was “unprofessional and a huge disappointment”. The letter goes on to state that “[Tulane/Gravier] need[s] professional help with planning. So far this hasn’t happened.” In part, TGPC felt that their neighborhood was ignored by the planning team assigned to assist it, and that many of the recommendations presented in the final plan were not vetted properly by residents. Although the experience of these two neighborhoods suggests that some good work was done by Lambert, the broader failure of the process is evident: a consistent, unified plan for the entire city was not drafted, and, at least in some neighborhoods, not enough was done to ensure public buy-in for the process.

With the Unified New Orleans Plan now the clear path to releasing money from the LRA, Lambert has apparently assumed a new role as advocate for the rapid delivery of funds to New Orleans, rallying residents to demand an immediate infusion of cash from the powers that be, even before UNOP has a chance to complete. Unofficially, sources close to the UNOP process have called this move “irresponsible” given that the question of what monies are available still remains unclear. One source high in the decision making chain claimed that “if [Lambert] knows of money he can get, [I have told him to] go for it,” suggesting that UNOP fully supports all planning efforts but does not think the work thus far is complete.


[1] During the final presentation of neighborhood plans on September 23rd, Lambert admitted that the question of “viability” was, in part, the motivation for the planning effort, which would show that all neighborhoods in the city were planning to return. That all neighborhoods were “viable”, however, was a clear assumption made by all planning teams.

[2] It remains unclear when, exactly, Lambert was hired. He had been working with the City Council since 2002 on issues related to public housing, and the Council has publicly argued that his new work is merely an extension of his original contract and, therefore, did not require an additional public RFQ.

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