Thursday, March 29, 2007

Ed Blakely: "...[A]nd by September, we hope to have cranes on the skyline."

N.O. post-K blueprint unveiled

Plan puts most cash in east, Lower 9th

Thursday, March 29, 2007
By Michelle Krupaand Gordon Russell, Staff writers, Times-Picayune

In the first decisive plan from City Hall that identifies which neighborhoods will benefit first from public investment, city officials today are expected to unveil a comprehensive blueprint pegged on 17 redevelopment zones -- the bulk of them west of the Industrial Canal -- as the anchors of a $1.1 billion effort to spark an economic resurgence.

The plan seeks to strategically invest public dollars to fuel investment from entrepreneurs and developers to anchor key business corridors, and will direct 90 percent of available money toward loans, grants and other incentives, said New Orleans recovery czar Ed Blakely, who detailed the plan to The Times-Picayune on Wednesday.

The city would spend the remaining money on such public assets as libraries, police stations or health clinics, Blakely said. The city intends to direct its money at luring much larger -- and permanent -- investment from entrepreneurs who, like many homeowners, have been lingering on the sidelines waiting for City Hall to provide guidance.

Despite its broad scope, Blakely described the plan, to be announced during a 9:30 a.m. news conference today at City Hall, as achievable, given the city's limited financial and administrative resources. He said the goal is not "pie in the sky" and that one of his main objectives was to produce a realistic plan.

"It is not big, and I hope you guys put that message in the paper: that we don't have a rich history of completing projects," he said. "It's very important for this to be a small-type program."

Though 15 of the targeted zones include places already experiencing some revival, a big chunk of the money -- $145 million over five years -- is slated to be spent in two of the worst-ravaged areas: the Lower 9th Ward and a swath of eastern New Orleans centered around the former Lake Forest Plaza shopping center, now a pile of rubble.

Some of the others, such as Broad Street near the Lafitte public housing complex, were in need of redevelopment before Hurricane Katrina. The rest are places such as Broadmoor and the downtown stretch of Canal Street, which have enjoyed quick post-flood investment but still need help.

Blakely also stressed that there's no room for adding more neighborhoods to the first round of target zones. If a community wants to be added to the initial phase, another has to come off, he said.

"If we get in a catfight with some of these communities and it doesn't look like it's going to go, they're going to come off the list," Blakely said. "If we spend a little bit here, a little bit there, it's going to look junky. We should do a few things in a classy way."

Old West model

He said the zones were drawn directly from resident-driven planning efforts, including a City Council-sponsored process directed by consultant Paul Lambert and the Unified New Orleans Plan, which favored clustering public assets in an effort to stave off pockets of blight that depress property values and breed crime.

Blakely said areas were chosen based on science, not politics, and that he and his staff examined a variety of resettlement data to determine where public investment has the best chance of attracting private dollars.

Unlike previous plans, the target areas aim to encourage commercial investment -- and with it stabilize neighborhoods -- rather than defining areas that are off-limits to rebuilding. One such previous plan, advanced in early 2006 by Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission and backed by the widely respected Urban Land Institute, drew howls from residents who found their neighborhoods represented on maps by green dots that denoted redevelopment as perpetual green space.

The new plan instead emphasizes where a boost may help more viable areas take off. Blakely stressed that basic services, such as water and sewer lines, roads, schools and police stations, will continue to be rebuilt in every section of town. But he said the target zones will mimic the design of pioneer towns in the Old West, which spurred the settlement of half the country.

"Almost every city was built that way," Blakely said. "You put some stakes down, and people build around it."

A typically confident Blakely, who said Nagin supports the plan, predicted smooth sailing through the City Planning Commission and the City Council, which both must approve it. He said his recovery team has gotten a favorable reception in shopping the plan to all seven City Council members and to several community groups.

"Nobody's complained about the strategy," he said.

But Blakely also acknowledged that criticism could come from those left out of the anointed recovery zones.

Land swap proffered

"It's going to be anybody who's not in the circle," he said, adding that he doesn't "have a good answer" for residents who already have invested their savings, at the urging of City Hall, in rebuilding homes and businesses in far-flung or low-lying areas that were not included in the zone plan.

Residents of isolated areas would be eligible to "swap" their property for land closer to one of the rebuilding zones, although he said he could not promise that a homeowner in that situation would recoup his rebuilding costs.

In general, he said a New Orleanian still living in Houston might want to consider the land swap, while one who has already rebuilt might not find it as attractive.

The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority will act as the land bank for much of the abandoned property, he said. However, some parcels in areas showing no hope of recovery will be purchased with money from FEMA's hazard mitigation program, which precludes redeveloping the property in perpetuity.

Blakely said the plan represents only the first phase of what he views as a 15-year recovery. As some zones rebound, he said, other areas will replace them on the list.

The $1.1 billion in city money that Blakely said will be needed would come from five primary sources, none of which are completely in hand yet.

Some of the money is contingent on federal action. The largest segment -- $324 million -- would come from the roughly $775 million that the state of Louisiana has set aside to cover a 10 percent local match on FEMA-financed infrastructure projects.

New Orleans officials are banking on a congressional plan to waive the local match, which would theoretically then prompt state officials to parcel out the cash to the various parishes that received the most storm damage. The White House has threatened to veto such a waiver if one is adopted.

The next largest chunk, $300 million, would come from what Blakely has dubbed "blight bonds": bonds that would use as collateral blighted property owned by the city. It's still unclear how much property will wind up in the city's hands, and what its value will be; Blakely said the bonds may have to be guaranteed in part by taxes levied when properties change hands.
Blakely hopes to generate another $260 million from a bond sale that was approved by voters before Katrina.

Another $117 million would come from community development block grants that the state has indicated it will dole out to individual parishes based on storm damage. And the final allotment of $57.4 million would come from FEMA hazard mitigation money.

Three types of zones

While the majority of the zones targeted for public investment are west of the Industrial Canal, that doesn't mean that's where the bulk of the money is going.

For instance, the two sections slated to become "rebuild" zones -- a portion of the Lower 9th Ward and an area of eastern New Orleans near the old Lake Forest Plaza shopping mall -- would receive $145 million in public investment, nearly as much as the $161 million aimed at the 15 "redevelop" and "renew" zones.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the public investment, about 60 percent of it, would not be specifically aimed at the redevelopment areas in the Blakely plan. Rather, it would be spent on other projects seen as generally beneficial to the city.
The zones are broken down into three types, ranked in order of severity of damage: "Rebuild," "redevelopment" and "renew" areas.

There are two "rebuild" areas, both in devastated sections: a portion of the Lower 9th Ward and an area of eastern New Orleans near the old Lake Forest Plaza. Both stretch roughly four blocks or a quarter-mile in each direction.

The six "redevelopment" areas, all of which are in sections that were bleeding investment and residents before Katrina, are about the same size. Those areas are centered on specific intersections with a history of commerce, and are thought to have a high potential for attracting investment: Carrollton Avenue and Interstate 10; Harrison Avenue from Canal Boulevard to City Park; Gentilly Boulevard and Elysian Fields Avenue; St. Bernard and North Claiborne avenues; the Lafitte corridor between Galvez and North Broad streets; and South Claiborne Avenue and Toledano Street.

The nine "renew" areas are in flooded areas that have rebounded well since the storm but could use government investment. Unlike the other sections, these zones might be specific to a certain site, community project or civic complex.

They are: Canal Street downtown; the Rosa Keller Community Center and Library in Broadmoor; the Comiskey Park community center at Tulane Avenue and Jefferson Davis Parkway; the Oretha Castle Haley corridor; Bayou Road and North Broad Street; the St. Roch Market; the Freret Street Farmers Market; the Lake Terrace Center at Robert E. Lee Boulevard and Paris Avenue; and beautification on the Alcee Fortier corridor in eastern New Orleans.

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