Derailing Planning in New Orleans

New Orleans        Talking about “planning” in New Orleans after the storm has become an oxymoron.   We are now 13 1/2 months after the storm and there is still nothing that anyone would concede is a plan for rebuilding the city that has everyone’s agreement. 

Mayor Nagin’s Cannizaro committee in the beginning turned the job of planning over to the Urban Land Institute, where Cannizaro was on the board and had been a former president.  Their big idea was to “shrink the footprint” of the city, which meant not allow many people, especially lower income families and African-Americans to return period.  This elite driven plan was DOA when delivered.  The second shot was driven by the City Council who paid Lambert Associates to move a process and there were lots and lots of meetings, but all of it was under a cloud of disagreement.  The third effort was driven by foundation dollars.  The Rockefeller Foundation put a $3.5 million carrot along with a $1 M match from the Greater New Orleans Foundation to fund a comprehensive planning process if everyone could agree.  This led to a truce between the various forces to take the Lambert product as a starting point and try to do it up right. 

There was a competitive process with 65 applicants from all over the countries with some of the great names of in architectural and planning circles.  ACORN had been in a pushing and pulling dispute with the New Orleans Community Support Foundation about a seat on their board for community organizations.  We had pushed for more than one seat so that all major networks could be represented.  They were pulling the other way.  Finally, fearing that the process was being subverted again, the ACORN Planning Team responded to the RFP in virtually 72 hour push with the help of all of our student interns led by ACORN Housing Corporation, Cornell, Pratt, and other partners.  Somewhat to our surprise not only did we win becoming one of the five district planners, but were told by members of the selection committee that our proposal ranked at the very top and that we received more votes from community residents for our selection than any other bidder.  Our planning district was the upper and lower 9th wards essentially which have also become ground zero in the struggle to rebuild New Orleans.

Despite the need to finish the process by mid-January, there were the usual delays with the foundation bureaucracy, but regardless the work and meetings had to begin immediately.  Though no one had a fully executed contract and with money bleeding everywhere from our pockets and that of our partners, especially our friends at Cornell, we moved in good faith with the authorizations to spend and be reimbursed subsequently. 

Somewhere along the line in recent weeks the process was derailed and we were bushwhacked by special interests, insider politics, and the weak kneed and unprincipled management of the overall process by Steve Bingler and Concordia.  The neighborhood divisions in the lower and upper 9th ward have always been real.  In the lower 9th, many in the Holy Cross area which is slightly more moderate income and slightly more racially mixed would just as soon that the rest of the lower 9th north of St. Claude be green space.  In the upper 9th the Bywater Neighborhood Association and the Fauborg Marigny Neighborhood Association are both real estate agent dominated civics with predominant white membership and leadership and it’s “all about them.”  In a deeply flawed structural design Bingler and the GNO Foundation designed the process so that the sub-planners under the district planner were picked independently and although the district planner (the ACORN Team) was responsible for their work and deliverables; they had separate accounts and accountability — in short a mess ready for the making. 

Ripples started to surface that there were problems coming from this devil’s brew as Bingler and Ben Johnson, the head of the GNO Foundation, were aggressively being lobbied by the groups who wanted to thwart the community majority in their own political and self-interest.  For their own reasons along the way they seem to have simply caved and run.

First they raised an issue about whether or not the fact that ACORN Housing was in line to receive 150 adjudicated houses which would need to be developed over 2007 was a “conflict” between development and planning.  Since the properties are not in AHC’s hands and everyone is begging for housing in the lower 9th where the adjudicated houses (mainly tax delinquent properties and other long abandoned sites held for years by the city) no one has been able to figure out the so-called conflict.  Nonetheless, AHC offered to either create a separate corporation to handle the contract or even to let Cornell become the lead on the district planning, if this resolved the matter. 

Bingler and Johnson never moved on this, but instead alleged that these unnamed groups were the issue.  They would not divulge the names of the groups in full and in some cases groups on their so-called list had clearly indicated their support for ACORN as the district planner. 

We may never know what really happened.  We hired a lawyer, Charles Rice, former City Attorney and acting Chief Administrative Officer under Mayor Nagin, and forced a meeting with the board of the NO Community Support Foundation, but nothing happened and nothing was resolved.  There seems little doubt that we have a valid contract, but finally we received a letter indicating that the “selection had been rescinded.”  Pathetic!

Headlines in the New Orleans Times Picayune yesterday in a story by Coleman Warner that seemed written by Ben Johnson made it seem like we had “divulged” the “appearance” of a “conflict,” but this was just more posturing and prevaricating.   Courts will determine whether or not we had a contract and in the end we will get paid.  The more unsettling conclusion is that clearly there is no intention or commitment form Bingler, Johnson, or the board of this outfit, chaired by Wayne Lee, to assure that there will in fact be a real participatory planning process.  The overwhelming majority will of the community seems to mean little or nothing against one or two loud voices with some small political connections who can undercut the process and the weak leadership of the overall effort.

For ACORN and its partners it simply means we will now have to work harder to force the process to bend to the will of the majority, which will be more time consuming, more expensive and more highly charged.  It was an interesting revelation to read in the “rescinding” letter that they hoped we would still be active in the lower 9th ward, which I assumes means that they are hoping we will abandon our members and the communities in the upper 9th ward to the real estate civics and their few allies? 

If this is how so-called professional planning works in America these days, it’s no wonder there is so little of it!

Perhaps it is just as well that the venality and corruption of another propped up planning process has been exposed early, but somehow it still seems mainly very, very sad to find yet more obstacles to rebuilding New Orleans as the days, weeks, and months go by that people are still not being allowed the ways and means to return home.   That struggle goes one and our commitment to it is permanent. 

October 20, 2006

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