Locals' plan: a more walkable Big Easy

Gentilly district's planning process offers first glimpse of how New Orleans might rebuild.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

April Allen has torn down her 1950s ranch-style home and plans to replace it with a raised Arts-and-Crafts-style home.

She's one of the few in the New Orleans neighborhood of Gentilly who knows what she will do with her structure. But what of the neighborhood she loved so much, water-logged for three weeks after hurricane Katrina?

"Neighborhood parks, corner stores. We now have the opportunity to make all that happen," she says.

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That's why Ms. Allen is participating in a neighborhood planning project - the first of its kind in New Orleans - which some local politicians believe will serve as a model of bottom-up planning for the rest of the city's neighborhoods. The project also offers a first glimpse at what the city might look like. Two new features the Gentilly plan calls for: a more walkable town center and raised housing designed to withstand future floods.

The Gentilly urban-planning method is called a "charrette," French for "cart," where architects, developers, environmentalists, sociologists, and transportation experts work directly with the people who will inhabit a community.

The idea is to design collectively a model that everyone can agree on, and it happens in a very short period - in this case, eight days.

"This is part of a bigger process going on city wide," said Gentilly's City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge- Morrell.

Indeed, charrettes like this have been going on throughout Katrina-ravaged communities in Louisiana and Mississippi, but this is the first in New Orleans and the only all-volunteer charrette, so it is free from governmental restraints. Ms. Hedge-Morrell believes this charrette will be a model for other neighborhoods to follow.

Gentilly: microcosm for city's challenges

So do some of the city planners who helped get the project rolling.

"Everything that will come up for discussion in New Orleans comes up in Gentilly," says Andres Duany, a Miami-based urban planner who approached Gentilly because he sees the neighborhood as a microcosm of New Orleans. "It has some of the highest ground and some of the lowest ground, it has every housing type, a wide spread of economic diversity."

Few of the 27,000 residents of Gentilly, just north of downtown, have returned. But many who have were active in the charrette.

Each day there was a spirited meeting where residents and designers discussed issues, came up with suggestions, and studied plans.

The residents' first task was to decide whether they wanted their community to revert back to Aug. 28, the day before Katrina hit, or create a more cutting-edge walkable community with corner grocery stores and schools that don't require busing.

Also discussed were the options for rebuilding homes. For instance, the preliminary FEMA flood maps state that all homes in New Orleans must be raised three feet above the base flood elevation. Architects showed residents what three feet looked like as opposed to eight feet, which would allow the bottom story to be converted into a garage.

Flood-proof home has garage as first floor

Residents with slab-on-grade homes were advised to covert their first floor into a garage and build a second floor with living quarters because the cost of raising the structure three feet is exorbitantly high.

Those with pier-and-beam homes were told to get started right away because the cost of raising a structure would rise with time. All were given architectural options that mimicked the many New Orleans styles.

"Do what you must do, but do it right," said Mr. Duany to the afternoon crowd assembled in a local church. "[City hall] will forgive anything if you do it right. You've got to get on with your lives."

But residents voiced concerns about building while the levees are still under repair. They are scheduled to be completed June 1, the start of the hurricane season, and should be able to handle Category 3 storms.

Duany assured residents that the levees would be excellent "because the honor of the nation depends on it. The levees are in better shape than they have ever been." But the reality, he said, is that rebuilding in New Orleans is a risk because the entire city is below sea level.

"We've been living with this risk all our lives so it's really a nonissue," said one resident.

"I just want people to know that they don't have to raise their homes at all," said another resident, referring to structures that are already three feet above the base flood elevation.

"Your flood insurance rates will be better if you do," added another resident.

"But they will go up rudely anyway," interjected Duany, as the designers buzzed in the background. "The simple fact is, a raised home looks better, has better curb appeal when it comes to resale."

In the end, the group hashed out several proposals, which will have to be approved by the city council. They include:

• Transforming the Gentilly Shopping Center, currently in disrepair and out-of-date, into a walkable town center with retail, residential, and office space.

• Creating the Gentilly Neighborhood Housing Corporation to buy, renovate, replace, and resell abandoned homes.

• Redesigning public open spaces to be easy to maintain and highly useful.

• Providing architects to guide residents though the process of rebuilding and raising homes.

• Creating a mixed-use employment center on the Pontchartrain lakefront.

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