Notes from the Field: New Orleans

Posted on: December 21st, 2007 by Walter Gallas

I wanted to take a moment to share the comments I made before the City Council yesterday, which reflect both my and the National Trust for Historic Preservation's position on the planned demolitions in New Orleans.

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A few years ago Bill Borah, local preservationist and planner, coined the term “planning by surprise.” It referred to the practice in New Orleans of keeping plans out of the public eye until they are revealed full-blown in the local paper, where citizens learn about the plans for the first time.

Today, I would like to add a new term to the local dialogue in post-Katrina New Orleans—“planning by demolition.”

  • We see “planning by demolition” in the city’s response to homeowners whose buildings are cited as imminent health threats. Buildings, many of which are structurally sound, are threatened with demolition.
  • We see “planning by demolition” in the state’s and Veterans Administration’s plans to build a new medical complex in a National Register historic district that has been repopulated by homeowners and local institutions like Deutsches Haus.
  • We see it in the Recovery School District’s application to demolish Lockett elementary school in the Upper 9th Ward, a community anchor which local neighborhood association members desperately want to retain.
  • And now, of course, we see “planning by demolition” in the plans which bring us here again today—the redevelopment of the B. W. Cooper, Lafitte, C. J. Peete, and St. Bernard housing developments.

We were encouraged when it became clear that the City Code did in fact require the City Council at least to consider and act on demolition applications for public housing developments. And we are encouraged to see that there are some council members who are interested in waiting until today’s hearing before they publicly deliberate on this important matter.

The Trust’s position is consistent with the message our president Richard Moe brought with him when he came to New Orleans only weeks after the storm—old buildings are more resilient than most new construction; old buildings can be re-adapted for modern uses; preservation-based planning should be the norm, not the exception.
I fear we are back to the old days of urban renewal.

Normally, when a developer comes to town to develop a subdivision, we put him through all kinds of city planning review.

The decision to redevelop huge swaths of land in the hearts of our neighborhoods is too important to hand over to the federal government and its hand-picked developers.
We urge two things of the Council:

  • The Council should demand that the City Planning Commission step up to the plate in keeping with its mandate in the City Charter to prepare and recommend to the council plans for public housing developments, and the rehabilitation or redevelopment of blighted areas.
  • The Council should find a middle ground that incorporates retention, remediation, rehabilitation, and re-use of the old, with the best of the new. It has been done not far from here in eleven months with five buildings retained from the St. Thomas housing development.

Perhaps then we will finally begin to get off the path of “planning by demolition.”

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