One thing that cannot be disputed about the latest draft of the city's proposed Master Plan is that it's a monster-sized document. The plan comprises three volumes and hundreds of pages. As experts and citizens consider the efficacy of the plan, a threshold issue is: How long should the deliberative process take? Earlier this month, the nonprofit Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR), a local government watchdog, released a study criticizing the plan and suggested that the process be slowed down so shortcomings in the current draft can be corrected. "At this point, it is more important to get it right than to get it done quickly," BGR concluded. We agree — up to a point.
In its critique, BGR does not state how much additional time is needed. Rather, it suggests specific steps that the planners should take to get the document on track. As things stand now, the City Planning Commission must vote on the document by Nov. 10. We believe an additional 30 days offer enough time to weigh BGR's recommendations — which are quite specific — and incorporate those deemed worthy of inclusion. In particular, we like BGR's suggestion of hiring an independent "editorial team" of planning experts to help revise and focus the document.
The city has allocated $2 million of recovery funds to the task of writing its first-ever master plan. In 2008, the City Planning Commission hired Goody Clancy, a Boston-based architectural and planning firm, to write a plan that provides vision, goals and policy guidance on land use, transportation, housing, community facilities, infrastructure and historic preservation matters. Late last year, voters amended the City Charter to give the plan the force of law. On Sept. 15, the planning team unveiled what it called a "visionary blueprint for moving the city squarely into the 21st century, mixing in equal measure residents' hard-won experience and their dreams for the future."
Not everyone agrees with that description. BGR says the latest version failed to provide an effective guide for shaping the city's future physical presence, is too cumbersome and unreadable, and lacks focus. BGR president Janet Howard says the plan should be shortened to make it more manageable. "I think there is supreme planning fatigue at the moment, but it is absolutely necessary that we get a useful document at this point," Howard says. "So rather than rush something through, let's stop ... and get it in a readable form, and see if we like what it says or not."
David Dixon, lead urban planner for Goody Clancy, says he understands many of BGR's criticisms. He says his team is reformatting the plan to make goals, strategies and plans easier to find. Dixon adds that the team is working on a guide to the plan, which will include priorities, goals and City Charter-based policies. Planners also will generate page references to the plan so that citizens can get information faster and more easily. He says all of this work will be given to the Planning Commission before the scheduled Nov. 10 vote.
Dixon defends the sheer size of the document by noting that while New Orleans has never had a master plan, early post-Katrina recovery plans generated massive public and private input via the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, the City Council neighborhood plans, and the Unified New Orleans Plan. The latest version of the plan incorporates comments from thousands of New Orleanians who have contributed ideas, hopes and dreams. Dixon also notes that BGR consultant Paul Sedway, in criticizing the size of the document, compared it to those of other cities. Dixon says the comparison is unfair. "Most of these places had well-established and longstanding traditions of comprehensive planning, policies that guide comprehensive planning, and agencies that have responsibility for individual areas of policy like transportation, housing, environmental, etc. — all of which is missing in New Orleans," Dixon says.
BGR's criticisms are significant, but not fatal. Planners deserve a chance to finish the job without being shackled by a Nov. 10 deadline. Extending the time to consider BGR's recommendations will not only give planners more time to improve the document, but it also will give citizens more time to digest the plan — and the criticisms. Ultimately, as BGR noted, the most important task is getting it done right.