Big Easy makes way for new recovery czar
Ed Blakely, the planning guru hired to steer New Orleans out of its muddle, is like the Forrest Gump of disaster recovery.Skip to next paragraph
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California earthquake? There he is, amid wrecked interstates. Tsunami? That's him touring rebuilt villages. Terror attacks in Manhattan? When the dust settles, the distinguished-looking African-American man is at the center of a phalanx of planners. His arrival in New Orleans two weeks ago as the city's new recovery czar may be the biggest challenge for the "master of post-disaster," as his hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times, calls him.
Though largely unknown outside the circle of urban planners, Mr. Blakely is becoming a household name in New Orleans. Nearly 18 months after the storms, returnees have slowed to a trickle, the city is borrowing truckloads of money it has little hope of repaying, and actual recovery dollars from Congress have tightened from promises of billions to less than $10 million received.
What happens in the next year under Blakely's tutelage, experts say, will affect the city for decades to come.
"All of us are saying that this is a big one to take on, and it'll be either the culmination of his career or it's going to be a disaster," says Juliann Allison, associate director of the Edward J. Blakely Center for Sustainable Suburban Development in Riverside, Calif.
Brusque, yet funny, Blakely is one of the most effective planners in America today, his friends say. He's hypereducated with both an MBA and a PhD. Coming from a poor background in San Bernardino, Calif., Blakely went on to make enough money as a developer by age 30 to be able to retire. Blakely is known for balancing economic, environmental, and social interests in projects, including the "green" village of Dos Lagos in Corona, Calif., according to his friend, L.A. developer Ali Sahabi.
Civic duty drives the former college football star, who once lost a race for mayor to former California Gov. Jerry Brown in Oakland. "It's like the old adage about the fire horse: When there's a fire, he wants to get going," says Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association in New York, who came to know Blakely during the 9/11 recovery effort. "[New Orleans] is clearly the biggest planning challenge in America right now. Ed ... doesn't inspire a lot of warm huggies. But he has a remarkable ability to pull people together, to inspire confidence, grit, and determination."
Blakely's plans in New Orleans are straightforward: Encourage a smaller, more dense city by offering landowners in wrecked neighborhoods the opportunity to swap their land for lots on higher ground. Get pilot projects launched by summer. Build community centers. Begin to generate private investment. Last week, the new recovery czar led a delegation to Wall Street and was "warmly received" by bankers.
Blakely will conduct "charettes," or public planning sessions, with neighborhoods, but won't have meetings behind closed doors, he says. And as he always does when he arrives in a new city, he will "buy a bike for a few hundred bucks and ride around, talking to the cab drivers, garbage men, and even the prostitutes," he says, to get an unvarnished look around.