New Orleans renewal plan meets strong opposition


Published: Thursday, January 12, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 12, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
NEW ORLEANS - Residents of the city's most devastated neighborhoods responded with anger Wednesday after the city's rebuilding commission unveiled its most contentious proposal: giving neighborhoods in low-lying parts of the city from four months to a year to prove they should not be bulldozed.
The plan was presented at a standing-room-only meeting punctuated by catcalls and angry outbursts that often interrupted members of the panel.
"Over my dead body" was uttered more than once.
"I'm going to suit up like I'm going to Iraq and fight this," said Harvey Bender, a laid-off city worker, who shouted out his comments before an audience at the Sheraton Hotel that numbered in the hundreds and spilled into the aisles and hallways.
Bender owns a home in New Orleans East, a predominantly black middle-class neighborhood of 90,000 residents largely destroyed by the flooding after Hurricane Katrina. Portions of the neighborhood might not survive, according to the plan, if they do not attract enough returning residents.
Speaker after speaker, black and white, prosperous and poor, dismissed a plan that Mayor C. Ray Nagin described as "controversial." But Nagin gave them hope as he walked a middle line that neither endorsed the plan nor opposed it.
"This is only a recommendation," Nagin said in remarks that preceded the formal presentation of the rebuilding plan. "We as a community will have the ultimate say in how we move forward."
The mayor called on people to listen to the commission's presentation with an open mind. "Take the time to digest this information, to look it over very carefully," Nagin said. "The reality is we will have limited resources to redevelop our city."
Yet the audience did not seem in the mood for calm debate.
"Please let us build our own homes," said Charles Young, a homeowner in Lakeview, a largely white middle-class neighborhood. "Let us come back on our own time. Let us spend our insurance money, which we paid for on our own."
Under the proposal, residents would not be permitted to move back into the hardest-hit neighborhoods - about two-thirds of the city, including more than half its homeowners - for at least four months.
During that time, leaders of each neighborhood would have to submit to a citywide planning body a recovery plan that would have to be approved before residents would be allowed back.
Neighborhoods not able to formulate an acceptable plan, or those that do not attract sufficient development within a year, could be bulldozed and returned to marshland, with the city compensating homeowners.
The plan represents a compromise between the homeowners in low-lying areas who are determined to rebuild, and the scientists and other experts who believe the city should allow large portions of its flood-prone areas to revert to marshland.
Each neighborhood would have at its disposal teams of planners and other experts to help residents do what they need to prevent the city from forcing them to live elsewhere.
"We want to give every community as best a chance to come back as we can," said Joseph C. Canizaro, a member of the commission. Much of the crowd's enmity was directed at Canizaro, the plan's main author and a prominent developer here, who was booed several times.
"Joe Canizaro, I don't know you, but I hate you," said Bender, the New Orleans East resident, when granted his turn at the microphone.
Robyn Braggs, another resident of New Orleans East, said, "I don't think four or five months is close to enough time given all we would need to do."
Because former residents are scattered around the country, she said, many, especially those with school-age children, "won't be able to even return to do the work necessary until this summer."
Marc H. Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans who is now president of the National Urban League, described the commission's proposal as a "massive red-lining plan wrapped around a giant land grab." Many homeowners will not be able to settle with their insurance companies if they do not know the future of their neighborhoods, he said.
"It's cruel to bar people from rebuilding," Morial said. "Telling people they can't rebuild for four months is tantamount to saying they can't ever come back. It's telling people who have lost almost everything that we're going to take the last vestige of what they own."
Not everyone opposed the plan. One resident of Eastover, a wealthy, largely black community in the eastern part of the city devastated by the storm, told the commissioners, "I accept your challenge" to craft a workable rebuilding plan. He added, "I probably will get hit up the side of the head for my comments."
The plan also impressed Sean Reilly, a member of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, who criticized the city last week, saying it had given the impression that all neighborhoods could be restored. Wednesday, he said the plan struck the proper balance between residents' self-determination and tough choices.
The plan was developed by the rebuilding commission's Urban Planning committee, which Canizaro led. It is the first of seven committee reports to be unveiled over the next week and one component of a comprehensive redevelopment plan that includes proposals for a $3 billion light-rail system and an economic development corporation, fashioned after the one New York created to oversee rebuilding in Lower Manhattan after Sept. 11, 2001.
The commission is also proposing that New Orleans borrow a second idea from New York: asking the federal government for permission to sell tax-exempt bonds to rebuild businesses, just as New York was able to do to rebuild downtown.
But the commission will clearly have a difficult time convincing residents to support the plan.
"This is a big, audacious plan put together by obviously brilliant people," said Fred Yoder, a resident of Lakeview. "But you missed the boat. We don't need a rail system. We need housing."

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