Many big visions for new Big Easy

Planners look to reconceive what took 300 years to evolve.

Even as the US Army Corps of Engineers claimed victory Tuesday in pumping out the last of more than 224 billion gallons of floodwater, some in New Orleans were looking forward to the chance to rebuild and, perhaps, reshape one of America's major cities.

Within days of hurricane Katrina, urban planners, architects, and engineers flocked to the city to get a first look at the potential. If their efforts seem uncoordinated, their goals are lofty. Many planners and politicians don't want to merely re-create New Orleans, but to make it better - socially, culturally, economically, environmentally, and physically.

Their excitement is palpable. "It's the urban planning challenge of this century," says Kristina Ford, an environmental studies professor at Bowdoin College who headed New Orleans city planning for eight years. "How can we rebuild the town so we can re- create over a period of a few years what took 300 years" to evolve?

Between 140,000 and 160,000 homes may need to be razed because of hurricane Katrina and subsequent flooding. Some estimates put the rebuilding cost at $200 billion. And that's with a host of questions unanswered: Which houses will need to be torn down? Will the city shrink because some neighborhoods become uninsurable and therefore unbuildable?

"This is a city that's had a terrible tragedy, but there's an opportunity to build it back and build it back better," says Ed McMahon, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute and a former New Orleans resident. "It could become a city that integrates rather than isolates, a city that inspires, a city that celebrates history and diversity and culture and people."

Mr. McMahon's organization, which helped New York, Oklahoma City, and other cities in the aftermath of disasters, is ready to assist and advise New Orleans. So are countless others. Recently, the mayor formed a 17-member Bring New Orleans Back commission. The American Planning Association has tapped five people, at the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to help in short-term planning. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana has proposed that President Bush appoint a commission to implement flood-control and hurricane-protection work. Local developers, politicians, and national organizations are all offering their two cents' worth.

"We're struggling through this as we speak," says Jeff Roesel, principal planner for the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission. "A lot is happening, and you really have to stay on top of contacts to figure out what they're doing. Everyone is going off in their own direction."

For his part, Mr. Roesel is hesitant to propose specific plans until more is known about FEMA's new flood elevation maps. Talking about a neighborhood "is all speculation until we know what insurable standard it can be rebuilt to," he says. "You can't plan something you can't rebuild."

That hasn't stopped others from speculating. Discussion of the future of the Lower Ninth Ward, in particular, has been contentious. Home of Desire Street - as in Tennessee Williams's "Streetcar" - and musicians like Fats Domino, the Ninth Ward has a colorful history but sits on a lower elevation than much of the city, and endured some of the worst flooding when the Industrial Canal levees broke.

It was also a largely poor, black community, many of whose former residents have been scattered around the country - a fact that has led to some charges of racism when planners suggest the whole Lower Ninth might need to be razed and turned into a wetland or park.

"It may turn out that there are areas where it was a bad idea to build in the first place, and there are going to be hard, painful decisions, but we as a community need to make those decisions together," says Geoff Coats, cofounder of the Urban Conservancy, which works to protect New Orleans buildings and communities. "It's very important that it not be some commission of 12 wise men."

Others suggest that relocating areas like the Lower Ninth Ward could help combat the concentrated poverty that was an entrenched problem in New Orleans. Instead of rebuilding on flood-prone land, such planners suggest, developers could create mixed-income, infill housing on the city's higher ground near the river. Some envision projects that have been used in other cities to replace failed public housing with integrated affordable housing.

More than one-quarter of New Orleans residents lived below the poverty line - one of the highest rates in the nation. Its high school graduation rate was about 65 percent.

Successful rebuilding "is going to take tackling the socioeconomic problems that bedeviled the city long before Katrina," says Thomas Campanella, an urban planning professor at the University of North Carolina and co-editor of "The Resilient City." "There's going to be billions and billions of dollars thrown at this, and it should be spent to fix the preexisting conditions that led to this massive underclass being in such a bad condition."

He ticks off a list: affordable housing, education, job training, preventing gang violence.

Other planners toss out ideas for change that are more physical: replacing the freeway network that looms over the downtown with a boulevard system, for instance, similar to what San Francisco did after the 1989 earthquake. Or developing better public transit.

"They should get the streetcar system back to where it was at the end of World War II," says John Norquist, former Milwaukee mayor and president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, who also suggests the freeway transformation. "They'd see that real estate investment would follow, and they'd be able to rebuild a lot of the neighborhoods faster."

Mr. Norquist and others also emphasize that New Orleans already was one of the more dense, urban, walkable US cities - qualities they hope will be preserved with any rebuilding effort. "The closer they stick to New Orleans' own forms, the better," says Norquist.

Perhaps the biggest unanswered question is whether former residents will return.

Part of that is related to safety assurances, and civil engineers are debating how well New Orleans can be protected from a future hurricane, and whether some modifications can help: higher and stronger levees, closing the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (a shipping canal that may have contributed to the flooding), raising ground levels, restoring wetlands, and replacing canals with culverts.

But the reality is that any project will take many years, and New Orleans will always be at some level of risk.

"With every passing day, more and more of these families are setting up homes elsewhere and deciding to leave for good," says Professor Campanella. "That's going to play havoc with the future of New Orleans as a robust, real city. It's the kind of thing where the clock is ticking."

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