Big Easy makes way for new recovery czar

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Ed Blakely, the planning guru hired to steer New Orleans out of its muddle, is like the Forrest Gump of disaster recovery.

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.

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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.

"The planning job here is relatively easy," says Blakely in a phone interview, "because the city pretty much shows you how to plan it. But what's happened is fragmentary leadership and ad hoc [planning] well before Katrina killed the opportunity structure. It has lost its structural identity and that's what has to be restored. This city has great bones, but you forget that she had a great face."

So what should be done now? "We have to go to scale – I have to start building 1,000 houses a day," he says.

Since hurricane Katrina bowled over the Gulf Coast and sunk most of New Orleans under the surface of Lake Pontchartrain, recovery is piecemeal, contested and, some say, myopic. Only half the residents of New Orleans, perhaps 200,000, have returned.

Much of the problem lies with sunken neighborhoods, where pockets of people have come back to a rotting wasteland of homes from Gentilly Woods to the Lower Ninth Ward. Plans to discourage people from returning to the lowest-lying areas failed after Mayor Ray Nagin put forth a "laissez-faire" rebuilding effort in his campaign for reelection last year. The concept was to leave things alone for a year and see which neighborhoods came back and which didn't. But the city is growing restive.

Elvira Robertson is one of the 20 percent of people who returned to Pontchartrain Park, the city's first black suburban-style subdivision. It was soaked by breaches in both the London Canal and Industrial Canal after Katrina hit. Now, in the middle of a residential wasteland, she has created an oasis of green lawn and flowers, a feeble attempt to not only create normalcy but also urge others to return. "We need people; we need a lot of people," she says.

Her frustration is widespread, observers say. "New Orleans has lacked leadership on these issues. People have had it with the let's see what happens, and let's muddle through approach," says Mr. Yaro.

It's the kind postdisaster malaise that Blakely handled in New York. As part of the Civic Alliance, he envisioned a Lower Manhattan as a better place than it was before 9/11. Similarly, Katrina has given New Orleans an opportunity to become a wealthier and less provincial city, experts say.

From rebuilding housing to establishing services, Blakely can help "to bring the public and private sectors together, to leverage resources and to paint a vision of hope for the future that's realistic and uplifting," says Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana, in an e-mail.

But unlike in New York after 9/11, there is no "unified politics" behind New Orleans's struggle. Divisiveness still rules at City Hall, a situation that will test Blakely's skills, critics say.

"He's just an appointee; he's not the mayor," says John McIlwain, of the Urban Land Institute in Washington. "As smart as he is, he's not smarter than the hundreds of planners who have been talking about this. Ed can give the right recommendations, but will the city back him up? Nobody knows."

"We'll be watching him very closely," says Mary Louise Johnson, one of the returnees to Pontachartrain Park. "Right now, he's our best hope."

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