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New Orleans' Master Plan 

The New Orleans City Council will decide this week whether to adopt the latest draft of the proposed master plan for the city — or send it back to the City Planning Commission for more tweaking. The proposed "Plan for the 21st Century: New Orleans 2030" is nearly two years and $2 million in the making. Literally thousands of New Orleanians have weighed in on the document (www.nolamasterplan.org). The good news is that much progress has been made toward writing a plan that will guide the city's physical development for the next 20 years. The not-so-good news is that significant work remains to be done. The council therefore should send the plan back to the planning board with specific instructions for improving it. The council appears poised to do just that.

  The most important element of the plan is already in place: Once adopted, the master plan will have the force of law. That aspect will not change because voters embedded it in the City Charter. That does not guarantee, however, that the plan will be comprehensive, workable, coherent, properly prioritized, internally consistent, user friendly and sufficiently protective of the city's historic character and uniqueness. The plan must be broad enough in scope to provide a long-term vision, yet focused enough to articulate specific goals, policies and actions to make that vision a reality. Above all, it must be realistic. The proposed plan needs improvement across all those areas.

  The Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR), a local nonprofit think tank, has followed the planning process since its inception and released several reports assessing various drafts of the plan. BGR's latest report, "A Need for Clarity," concludes that the most recent draft "still falls short of the requirements for a good master plan." (The entire report is available online at www.bgr.org.) BGR notes that the latest draft is better than the one put forth last September, but it still "does not provide sufficient guidance on the physical development of the city" for the next two decades. BGR adds that it "strays from its mission by covering an array of issues unrelated to physical growth and development." Examples of "inappropriate topics" include recommendations for improving police-community relations and hiring practices for firefighters. "While important, such topics are not appropriate for a master plan," BGR states. We agree.

  Once adopted, the document can be amended only once a year, so it's important to get it right. Council members, some of whom leave office May 3, plan to send the document back to the commission this week with a set of specific recommendations. We agree with most of BGR's suggested revisions, particularly those calling for a map that clearly delineates which parts of the city are planned for growth and change and which areas should be preserved as they are; deleting extraneous topics; organizing the document better so it's easier to use; and creating "a sensible set of priorities" for the plan as a whole and for each section of the plan — rather than the current hodge-podge list of priorities.

  Looking ahead, BGR also suggests some long-term revisions that could be considered in the first annual review of the plan. They include better guidance on the city's physical growth, particularly in the areas of housing and historic preservation; a comprehensive treatment of urban design issues; weaving "overarching areas of concern" such as flood protection, blight remediation and land use throughout the text; and others.

  Some who read the BGR critique may conclude that the plan has a long, long way to go. We think the better way to view the master plan is to consider it a living document that will evolve — and hopefully improve — over time, but not change radically in any given year.

  Ironically, BGR's many criticisms underscore the sentiments that made some call for letting voters have the final say on the master plan. That idea became a hot-button issue in last year's legislative session. Promoters of the master plan successfully argued that voters would surely kill any plan. We have always supported the master plan concept, but we disagree with the notion that voters would kill a good plan. We hope the planning commission will spend the next few months improving the final draft.

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