New Orleans ignores cost, plans big for rebuild effort

By Cain Burdeau The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS – This city is dreaming big as it puts together a blueprint for its rebirth in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, considering such audacious ideas as re-creating a long-gone jazz district, building a network of bike paths and commuter rail lines, and establishing a top-flight school system.

In the coming days, beginning tomorrow, a commission appointed by Mayor Ray Nagin will unveil a grab bag of ideas that could become part of the master plan for rebuilding this devastated city, a task unparalleled in American history.

Committees and subcommittees of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission were invited to think big, with little regard for the price tag. That will be dealt with later, when New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast divvy up the $29 billion in federal aid designated for hurricane recovery and reconstruction.

“This isn’t about us asking for $1 billion to build three more Superdomes and five more airports,” said Michael Arata, chairman of a subcommittee that looked at rebuilding the city’s film and music industries. “These are projects by real New Orleanians that will have real benefit and affect the lives of the people of New Orleans.”

He added: “This process allowed people to kind of speak their dreams, give words to their greatest concepts and greatest hopes for this city.”

At the heart of the proposals is one critical, and controversial, recommendation: All parts of the city – even the devastated Lower Ninth Ward and other neighborhoods that were submerged to their rooftops – should be given a chance to rebuild.

The Urban Land Institute caused a stir late last year when it issued a report urging the city to put its resources into rebuilding areas that were not flooded. The institute warned that if New Orleans tried to rebuild everything, the city would be condemned to a slow, patchwork recovery.

Foremost will be proposals to fix and improve the city’s defenses against floods and restore environmental features like barrier islands and wetlands that act as buffers against the Gulf of Mexico, said Doug Meffert, a Tulane University coastal researcher who worked on the recommendations.

Also, there will be recommendations for how to make New Orleans more green and modern. Meffert said some of those ideas include building commuter rail lines to nearby cities and across the Mississippi River, encouraging the use of energy-efficient building practices, creating more parks and building more bike paths.

Recommendations will also call for tax incentives to lure new businesses and to keep those already here.

Another idea is to use tax credits to re-create Storyville, the city-backed red-light district that operated for 20 years until it was shut down in 1917.

The idea, of course, is not to bring back the sex trade, but rather reclaim its musical legacy. Many jazz pioneers – Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Manuel Perez among them – played in the district’s bordellos. Storyville, which was next to the French Quarter, was razed after it fell into disrepair.

Arata, the music and film subcommittee chairman, said the idea is to make the area into a musical district with recording studios, perhaps a jazz museum and live music venues.

Also, the commission is expected to say that city government should be streamlined so that city clerks, law enforcement agencies and tax assessors are not duplicating duties – recommendations that are sure to result in opposition.

“It only makes sense, given the new size of New Orleans. Consolidation needs to take place,” said Sean Reilly, a member of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, a state board overseeing reconstruction.

Another key component will be a proposal to revamp the city’s troubled public school system. New Orleans has been plagued by low-performing schools, broken facilities, high turnover and corruption.

Recommendations call for giving schools more autonomy, cutting the bureaucracy, creating more charter schools and giving parents more choice on where to send their children, said Scott Cowen, a commission member involved in crafting the idea.

“There’s nothing in common about this model and what was in existence pre-Katrina,” Cowen said.

What the resulting master plan will look like is far from clear. The mayor can accept or reject any of the recommendations, a process that could take weeks. Of course, the plan’s final shape will be determined to a large degree by Congress and President Bush, because they hold the purse strings.

And there are more hurdles, many of them right here in New Orleans. From the outset, the commission was attacked because it was seen as an instrument for a land grab by developers, and critics said it was weighted too heavily in favor of business interests.

“I don’t trust the people making the decisions because they’re not from down there – the Lower Ninth Ward,” said Ruston Henry, president of the Lower Ninth Ward Economic Development Association. The Lower Ninth Ward, a predominantly black area, was the worst-hit section of the city.

Another problem is that state, city and national organizations and grass-roots groups have their own ideas for how to rebuild the city.

“What you have is all these various compartments, but there’s no umbrella, and that’s the dilemma that’s emerging,” said Gary Clark, a political science professor at New Orleans’ Dillard University. “You have to have a voice that can look at the big picture.”