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Neighborhood Watch 

While politicians argue over who's in charge of the city's planning process, individuals and neighborhoods are taking charge of their own fates.

Pam Mercadel doesn't have to look far to see the source of her Katrina woes. Standing in front of her Hollygrove home, she can see a section of the 17th Street Canal. Even though the canal's floodwall didn't breach near Mercadel's house, she knows that water from the canal made its way to Hollygrove and flooded her home with four feet of water. She didn't have flood insurance -- it had never flooded in Hollygrove in her lifetime.

Until Katrina.

Mercadel plans to rebuild her 50-year-old concrete-block house on Colapissa Street, tucked away in a relatively secluded area bounded by the canal, Airline Drive and the beginning of the Earhart Expressway. She says her neighbors have similar plans. She has spent her entire life on Colapissa Street, and the 47-year-old says she can't give up on her neighborhood. You just don't give up on family.

"Most of the people back here are related to each other," Mercadel says, "mothers and daughters and sisters and cousins. Most are elderly and they're coming back, either to their houses or trailers. One or two never left."

What's missing for Mercadel and her fellow Hollygrove residents is a neighborhood rebuilding plan. It's one thing for Mercadel to make her house livable again; it's another matter for all of Hollygrove and its 6,919 pre-Katrina residents to be redeveloped as one of the 73 neighborhoods that make up New Orleans. They need a plan, and they need help constructing that plan. Neighborhoods require streets, drainage, utilities and city services such as police, fire and garbage pickup as well as schools, parks and transportation. But most of all, neighborhoods need people, and without the basics, many people won't return to their neighborhoods.

For the past six months, many New Orleans neighborhoods, particularly the 49 neighborhoods that suffered 2 feet or more of flooding, have begun formulating their individual neighborhood plans. Some have received outside assistance from universities, a group of urban planners hired by the City Council or renowned urban planners such as Andres Duany. Plus, the Greater New Orleans Foundation recently received funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and other sources for the "Rebuild New Orleans Fund." The foundation sent out a "Request for Qualifications" for its own set of neighborhood planners and a citywide planner.

With so many planning resources available to neighborhoods, one would expect things to be much further along.

That hasn't happened. In fact, almost the exact opposite has occurred as the planning process citywide has stalled while the major players -- the council, the mayor's office, the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) and the foundation -- squabble over who's in charge. Those groups met last week and reported "progress" but no agreement as to how to proceed with a uniform planning process.

Thus, almost 10 months after Katrina, New Orleans is still trying to plan how to devise a plan.

Meanwhile, Mercadel's neighborhood group, Hollygrove Neighbors, has been holding meetings, but she admits they haven't gotten very far -- and that has her worried.

"It's needed. If we don't get involved with the City Council and others, we'll be spinning our wheels," she says. "People aren't asking for a lot. They just want things they should already have."

THE BRING NEW ORLEANS BACK (BNOB) Commission's Urban Planning Committee report released in January promised that a "neighborhood planning process will be conducted in all neighborhoods." The report proposed a moratorium on building permits citywide while a four-month neighborhood planning process was conducted to determine the future of each neighborhood -- particularly whether there would be sufficient population to sustain each area. FEMA funds were expected to pay for the hiring of urban planners and other specialists to complete those plans. Neighborhood plans were to be finished by May 20, and a citywide plan was to be presented to the City Planning Commission by June 20.

Almost none of that happened.

Soon after the BNOB recommended the moratorium, Mayor Ray Nagin (who appointed the BNOB) said he would not support the unpopular measure. By March, it became clear that there would be no FEMA funding for the planning process. In April, the City Council adopted its own planning model and hired Lambert Advisory LLC to serve as project manager for helping flood-damaged neighborhoods devise reconstruction plans. Lambert in turn solicited a number of firms for assistance. They included Hewitt-Washington Architects, St. Martin-Brown & Associates, Billes Architecture and the Miami-based team of Bermello, Ajamil and Partners Inc., which served as a lead planning firm in the reconstruction of neighborhoods in South Miami-Dade County after Hurricane Andrew in the 1990s. These planners would represent the 10 local planning districts (there are 13 in the city's master plan) most affected by Katrina.

The City Council's decision to move was a good one, but its underlying premise was diametrically opposed to the Mayor's authorized BNOB report. The BNOB said it was inevitable that some neighborhoods would be consolidated, whereas the City Council considered every neighborhood's "viability" a given.

"The reason we're doing this was initially a reaction to [the BNOB's notion] that planning was about viability," says Paul Lambert of Lambert Advisory LLC. "The council said 'no.' Planning is about bringing neighborhoods back and recovery."

By the time Lambert and his team began their work, some neighborhoods had been formulating the basis of their individual plans since January. He was pleasantly surprised by the amount of work already completed by April.

"When we first started, we thought we would go to all the neighborhood groups, and we did that," Lambert explains. "But we found that a lot of planning was already going on. So we've adjusted our process and now we're sitting in with many of the planning meetings. Lonnie Hewitt, who's assigned to Gentilly [Planning District 6], met with the Gentilly Civic Improvement Association planning committee. We're doing that all over the city."

The Gentilly Civic Improvement Association (GCIA) spearheaded Gentilly's redevelopment simply by coming into existence. In October, several members of a "Gentilly After Katrina" Internet group decided to form an umbrella organization to represent all of Gentilly's neighborhoods; there are more than 20 that make up Planning District 6. Scott Darrah, president of GCIA, filed the necessary paperwork and the group began to reach out to smaller groups in order, as Darrah puts it, "to unify and come together on common issues like neighborhood plans."

This gives GCIA a larger seat at the planning table and makes things easier for Hewitt-Washington Architects, the Gentilly area's planning advisor. Instead of having to reach out to all of the organizations under the GCIA umbrella, Hewitt-Washington can attend GCIA planning committee meetings, which include members of smaller organizations. Lambert is quick to point out that Hewitt-Washington holds additional public planning meetings; thus, residents not involved with the GCIA can feel part of the District 6 planning movement as well.

Even the separate public planning meetings reveal the influence of the GCIA. At a recent Planning District 6 meeting, held at the University of New Orleans on June 10, Lambert and Hewitt ran the meeting, but Darrah and several members of the GCIA were on the agenda.

Across town, Mercadel and her neighbors in Hollygrove haven't had as much luck in establishing an umbrella organization for their neighborhood, much less one that would unify all of Planning District 3 -- which includes Hollygrove, Broadmoor, Leonidas, Dixon, Marlyville-Fountainbleu, Freret and Audubon. Mercadel and Carol Dotson, another Hollygrove resident whom Mercadel says she's known "forever," founded Hollygrove Neighbors, which they hope will become the umbrella group for their area. Dotson is confident it can happen, but notes there's work to be done.

"Everybody is looking out for their own little world, and that's fine," Dotson says. "Our goal, and there are other people in agreement with us, is to have a vision of Hollygrove as one unit."

On a much larger scale, the City Council, the mayor's office, the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the LRA are trying to devise one citywide plan with uniform standards that will dovetail with plans already submitted by every other storm-affected parish in Louisiana. Getting those entities to agree on a single citywide plan has been difficult, to say the least. Accusations of power grabbing and an improperly awarded contract have hampered efforts to adopt a single planning formula, as have fears that starting an entirely new process will inhibit "progress" already achieved on a grassroots level.

How is it that this long after Katrina New Orleans is still struggling to devise a planning process?

When the BNOB failed to secure FEMA funding, the City Council decided neighborhoods couldn't wait any longer. Council members used $3 million in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to hire Lambert. The council concluded it could use the CDBG funds to pay Lambert without seeking competitive proposals because it had already competitively selected Lambert in 2004 for another project.

The Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR), a privately funded, business-oriented think tank, disagreed with that logic. On May 8, BGR issued a report stating that Lambert's 2004 work was "for limited consulting services related to public housing" and that the new contract "should be rescinded or canceled." The BGR report went on to say that although the group shared the council's frustration with delays in the city's recovery, the hiring of any urban planners had to be conducted through a "serious, transparent" search. Despite BGR's concerns, the council allowed the Lambert group to continue working.

Meanwhile, another player was about to join the scrum. The Greater New Orleans Foundation (GNOF) secured $3.5 million in funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and additional $4.4 million in private and public funds for its "Rebuild New Orleans Fund." The $7.9 million total would be used for hiring neighborhood planners as well as one citywide planner. GNOF then established the New Orleans Community Support Foundation (NOCSF), which would serve as the fiduciary agent for GNOF. The NOCSF's board of directors includes David Voelker, who also is a board member of the LRA, which is in charge of coordinating the statewide rebuilding plan. The LRA has directly assisted other parishes' redevelopment plans, but until now has taken a hands-off approach in New Orleans.

The May election brought in four new council members -- Arnie Fielkow, Stacy Head, Shelley Midura and James Carter -- and possibly new opinions regarding the neighborhood planning process. The previous council had awarded the contract to Lambert, but the new council members have to decide how Lambert's work should be integrated into a citywide plan -- and whether they will cooperate with the LRA and the NOCSF.

At the Planning District 6 meeting on June 10, returning Councilmember Cynthia Hedge-Morrell offered her assessment. "The biggest thing that we have going on right now is whether you, neighborhoods, have a seat at the table," Morrell said. "There's a move to put the state in control of this, and with every drop of my blood, I'm going to fight that."

Fielkow, who also attended the Planning District 6 meeting, expressed a more conciliatory view when asked about the role of the state and the LRA. "There are ongoing discussions on how we can most effectively interconnect neighborhood planners, neighborhood organizations, and the desires of the LRA," Fielkow said. "We're in discussion with everybody who has a role to play in the redevelopment of the dreams and visions of the community."


Clearly, the mayor plays a role. Although the BNOB plan hasn't garnered substantial funding, any citywide plan will need the mayor's support. Nagin hasn't talked much about the neighborhood planning process in the past few months -- likely because of the BNOB's lack of financing and his own bid for re-election -- but recently he hinted that a deal is in the works.

"It's almost done," Nagin said at a recent news conference. "I've been working with [Council President] Oliver Thomas, the LRA, and the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and we will make an announcement in the next day or two."

So far, there has been no such announcement.

In early June, NOCSF send out a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for a citywide planner and for neighborhood planners. Although Voelker commends the City Council for its work in the neighborhoods, he agrees with BGR's contention that the process of selecting a citywide planning consultant must be transparent. In fact, Voelker says, foundations such as Rockefeller require it.

According to Voelker, in order for the hiring process to be objective, an outside review panel of experts will make hiring recommendations to a Community Support Organization (CSO). Members of the review panel will remain anonymous until they've met and made their suggestions to the CSO. The CSO will consist of a representative from the City Council, Mayor Nagin, a member of the City Planning Commission, a representative from the GNOF, two representatives from nonprofit groups that work within the community and neighborhoods, and five members from various neighborhood organizations.

As part of the RFQ process, interested parties sent in questions regarding the application process. In turn, NOCSF responded with the answers to commonly asked questions. One of these questions was: "Will the City Council's Planning Team (Lambert Consultants et al.) continue their parallel planning process during the planning efforts described in these RFQs?" The answer: it's up to the City Council to make that decision. Voelker hints that the council's planners likely would continue their work in the neighborhoods under the GNOF process.

"If you're a planner hired by this sort of process and a neighborhood is out there under the wing of those hired by the City Council, why wouldn't you work with them?" Voelker says, adding that the LRA and GNOF only want to improve the planning process, not control it.

"Let me be crystal clear on one thing," Voelker says. "The state has no interest in planning New Orleans. The LRA has no interest in coming down and being in charge of planning in New Orleans."

Voelker also believes that deciding which neighborhoods are to be rebuilt won't be up to urban planners, but instead will be market-driven. "I think it's going to be the banks and the insurance companies," he says. "If you have a house somewhere in the city that isn't tenable for them to insure or to mortgage, that's going to make those decisions."

THE GNOF PLANNING MODEL, ACCORD- ing to Voelker, will take six months from start to finish. When completed in December, there will be a citywide plan, including neighborhood plans and solutions to larger issues such as economic development. Lambert says his work, a plan for each neighborhood as well as a plan for each of the 10 planning districts, would be finished by the end of August.

IF ANOTHER GROUP BECOMES INVOLVED in Planning District 6, it will be the fourth group to do so. Besides Hewitt-Washington Architects, Andres Duany brought a team of planners to Gentilly in late April and led a weeklong workshop hosted by GCIA that culminated in a presentation of ideas and recommendations to an audience of 500 at St. Leo the Great Catholic Church. Darrah says many in the community liked the Duany suggestions, but GCIA wants to build consensus by presenting Duany's final draft to each neighborhood organization under the GCIA umbrella.

The University of New Orleans' College of Urban and Public Affairs also sent a team of students to study the area and offer suggestions for a redeveloped Gentilly.

Darrah sees all of these groups and their reports playing an advisory role in the Gentilly neighborhood plan, which is currently in a phase of assessing current conditions and available opportunities. Darrah would like to see GCIA follow the Lambert timetable and finish its plan by the end of August. He fears a new qualification process might impede progress.

"How long would a new qualification process take?" Darrah asks. "How much more are we going to have to slow it down?"

NEW ORLEANS DISTRICT 5 NEIGHBOR- hood Recovery Group shows no sign of slowing down. The group, which consists of organizations representing Lakeview, Lakeshore, Lake Vista and other lakefront areas, unveiled the first draft of that district's plan on June 17. The group considers the draft "a work in progress for years to come" although this first version reflects a tremendous amount of work and dedication.

The group first met in January and began with the question: How can we prove our viability and create a plan and recovery effort? After studying the BNOB report and expanding upon the report's list of issues to be addressed by neighborhoods, the group produced an organizational chart of eight subgroups, including a neighborhood planning team focused on zoning, mitigation, environmental and public health, historic preservation, urban design, finance and education. Martin Landrieu is the team's leader as well as the chairman of the District 5 Neighborhood Recovery Steering Committee, which is at the top of the group's organizational chart.

The neighborhood planning team has been supported by UNO's College of Urban and Public Affairs as well as Alfredo Sanchez of Bermello, Ajamil & Partners, one of the firms working through the City Council. Landrieu reports that both groups have played a major role in developing the draft plan.

With so many volunteers -- the district has a block captain initiative with 350 members -- and organizations involved, the group has clearly demonstrated widespread community support within the district. "This wasn't 10 people sitting around a table," Landrieu says. "This was hundreds of people with more than 72 subcommittees that gathered information and discussed in detail the issues and came up with recommendations to be put into a plan."

Additionally, the plan will be presented to each neighborhood organization represented within District 5, and there will be a final community-wide meeting held after those presentations.

As for delays to neighborhood planning caused by the NOCSF's hiring process, Landrieu doesn't view it as a hindrance.

"If they can offer additional expertise, and if in fact Alfredo Sanchez's group isn't involved in the process after our plan is finalized, then we accept and welcome additional expertise to improve the plan where it needs to improved, whether it's long-term or short-term or mid-term goals that have to be addressed."

BROADMOOR IMPROVEMENT ASSOCIA- tion (BIA) is another neighborhood organization that is close to finalizing its plan. (Editor's note: As previously reported in Gambit Weekly -- "Call to Action," 3/14/06 -- the author, a Broadmoor resident, works on BIA's media relations committee.)

Broadmoor is part of Planning District 3, but, unlike the district-wide planning strategies in Gentilly and Planning District 5, BIA's plan will be concerned only with the Broadmoor area. The association has been assisted by graduate students from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government as well as by the local architectural firm Eskew, Dumez and Ripple.

A weeklong series of workshops in May presented an overview of various options and concluded with a final meeting to gain neighborhood consensus for urban design recommendations. Since then, BIA has been working on a written draft of its plan.

Like Landrieu in District 5, LaToya Cantrell, president of BIA, thinks additional planners could improve her group's plan.

"We welcome all the help we can get," Cantrell says. "But we would like to have at least a version of the plan now, so we can approach private foundations for donations."

MID-CITY NEIGHBORHOOD ORGANIZATION (MCNO) has just started working on its neighborhood plan. Bart Everson, a board member of MCNO, says unrelated issues account for the relatively late start. In late May, for example, the group hosted the Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo, a daylong festival of music and art. The organization also attempted to turn Dibert Elementary School into a charter school. According the MCNO Web site, that application was denied, but MCNO hopes to appeal that decision.

MCNO also conducted an ambitious house-by-house survey of Mid-City. To accomplish this, a team of volunteers divided Mid-City into three areas and canvassed the entire area. The survey revealed that as the level of damage from flooding increased, the rate of home rehabilitation decreased. Another contributing factor for a low return rate among area residents was the number of investment properties in a given area -- the more rental units, the fewer returning residents.

Everson says any plan the group devises will have to deal with the issue of absentee landlords. He feels the plan also must answer residents' questions, and first on his list is, "How do we get people back and provide a path to homeownership?"

ULTIMATELY, ANY NEIGHBORHOOD PLAN- ning process has to involve the City Council, the mayor and the LRA. The neighborhood plans represent the first step. The plans ultimately will become part of each planning district's redevelopment plan (all 13 of the city's districts, not just the 10 damaged districts), which in turn will form the basis for a citywide plan -- along with larger issues such as infrastructure and economic development. A citywide plan then must be approved by the City Planning Commission, the council and the mayor. From there, it will go to LRA.

LRA member Voelker admits he isn't sure of the LRA's authority to approve or reject a plan, but he notes that without the LRA's approval, it's doubtful a New Orleans plan would be funded.

Still, 10 months after the storm, everyone in New Orleans awaits a definitive planning process. Oliver Thomas, president of the City Council, say cooperation is absolutely necessary.

"The Rockefeller Foundation and the LRA are looking at national planners for a citywide plan, but they should take all the work that's already going on -- Lambert and their team, St. Martin and Brown in the East, Eskew, Dumez and Ripple, and Harvard in Broadmoor -- and plug it in," says Thomas. "Why change horses in the middle of the stream?"

Considering the NOCSF's answer to the parallel planning process and Voelker's comments, a compromise should come soon. Meanwhile, people are either leaving town or not returning because they cannot get answers to basic questions:

• Should I rebuild now?

• Can I get insurance?

• Will my kids have a school in the neighborhood?

• Is the garbage going to get picked up?

• Will the police protect me?

While those questions and others persist, the cool air of winter and spring has given way to the hot, humid days of summer -- and hurricane season has just begun.

While politicians squabble, Pam Mercadel isn't waiting. She works night and day hoping to get back into her Colapissa house sometime in July. She's tired of living in a trailer. Mercadel says she'll finish rebuilding her home by herself if she has to, or perhaps she'll get help from a few friends.

In many ways, she symbolizes what individuals and neighborhoods all over town are doing -- taking their futures into their own hands and not waiting for politicians, bureaucrats and political appointees to decide their fates. Ultimately, Mercadel and others like her can only go so far -- they can't fix the roads, pick up all the trash, or rebuild the public schools on their own. They need someone, a leader, to make a decision. Until that happens, Mercadel keeps moving forward. That may not sound like much of a plan, but so far, it's what passes for progress in New Orleans.

click to enlarge There are signs of hope and progress in Lakeview, like - these inhabited houses on Canal Boulevard. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • There are signs of hope and progress in Lakeview, like these inhabited houses on Canal Boulevard.
click to enlarge Pam Mercadel has lived on Colapissa Street all her life and - says she will repair her flood-damaged home in Hollygrove, - along with most of her neighbors. What's missing, she says, - is a neighborhood rebuilding plan. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • Pam Mercadel has lived on Colapissa Street all her life and says she will repair her flood-damaged home in Hollygrove, along with most of her neighbors. What's missing, she says, is a neighborhood rebuilding plan.
click to enlarge A FEMA trailer and a large pile of debris and trash are all - too common sights in Lakeview. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • A FEMA trailer and a large pile of debris and trash are all too common sights in Lakeview.
click to enlarge Janice Mcacy plays with her godchild, Kayden Benoit, on the - porch of her Mid-City home on Carrollton Avenue. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • Janice Mcacy plays with her godchild, Kayden Benoit, on the porch of her Mid-City home on Carrollton Avenue.
click to enlarge Gentilly rsidents show a sense of humor with a mailbox - post fashioned to indicate floodwater depths. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • Gentilly rsidents show a sense of humor with a mailbox post fashioned to indicate floodwater depths.
click to enlarge Some parts of Gentilly are coming back as residents clean - up and try to get back to normal. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • Some parts of Gentilly are coming back as residents clean up and try to get back to normal.
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