New Orleans has never been known for its strong environmental conscience. Until five years ago, the city measured the success of each Mardi Gras by the number of tons of trash generated, and for many, recycling meant reusing the plastic cups caught at parades. In some neighborhoods, curbside recycling programs struggled due to lack of participation. Today, two and a half years after Katrina, residents and social and environmental activists are sweeping away old notions, but some say too much is being lost in the process.
Seeds of Change—and Dissent
Actor Brad Pitt and his Make It Right project have snagged media attention recently, debuting plans to replace 150 Lower Ninth Ward houses with sustainable, eco-friendly dwellings. The project has generated a positive buzz, in part because the targeted area is a Katrina-created wasteland with little, if any, remaining historic character. Other projects around the city are sowing seeds of green hope in some cases, but red-faced anger in others.
In Bywater, a 200-year-old, National Register and local historic district with very little Katrina flooding, a mixed-use loft project is digging a deep rift. New Orleanian Cam Mangham and her partner, Shea Embry, are developing ICInola, which Mangham says will be the city's first LEED-certified, mixed-use development. Plans for the development, anticipated to open in spring 2009, involve partially deconstructing, renovating, and rebuilding a historic manufacturing plant and recycling much of its materials. The plant and a second, new building will be developed with eco-friendly features like roof gardens and solar panels. Two more structures will come later; a total of 105 lofts and 50,000 square feet of commercial space on 2.76 acres.
Neighbors opposed to the project have formed the Bywater Civic Association to fight it. "The project is completely out of scale and context, and the design is too modern for such a historic neighborhood," says BCA organizing committee member Blake Vonderhaar. Vonderhaar says that hundreds of people have committed to boycott any store that leases space there. "They keep saying we can't have replica buildings because they don't want to turn New Orleans into Disneyland. But there has to be a reasonable solution that is appropriate to an historic neighborhood," Vonderhaar says.
The Bywater Neighborhood Association supported the ICInola project after Mangham and Embry agreed to reduce the number of condos. Proponents argue that such developments are a critical component in Bywater's continued revitalization and its ability to attract needed commercial services. (Since the 1960s, Bywater had become increasingly blighted until urban renewal began several years ago.) The project was approved by the City Council, the City Planning Commission, and the Historic District Landmarks Commission (HDLC), which reviews and approves for appropriateness all exterior construction and design changes within local historic districts.
The Greenest Home: Already Built
Similar conflicts have simmered throughout New Orleans' historic neighborhoods. Citizens eager to increase energy efficiency in a cost-effective manner have replaced old windows and doors with vinyl ones, much to the dismay of preservationists, and the city continues to target for demolition flooded, historic homes that preservationists say can be spared. (Currently, the City Council is considering an ordinance that will rewrite the demolition approval process for homes in National Register districts not monitored by the HDLC, but there remains no process in these areas to evaluate and control renovation plans.)
"As someone before me has pointed out, the greenest home is the one already built," says Walter Gallas, head of the National Trust's New Orleans field office. He points to studies that indicate the amount of energy expended to build a new home far exceeds the energy loss in a properly renovated older one. Furthermore, minimizing demolition and the use of new building materials reduces the area's stupendous debris burden (per the Federal Emergency Management Agency one New Orleans home demolition, on average, generates 350 cubic yards of debris, enough to fill 70 single-axle dump trucks). "We have gained a new appreciation for the value and resilience of traditional building materials and methods in New Orleans," says Gallas. "We have a lot to learn from these older technologies."
Seeing Green, Not Red
Not all green projects in the city have generated conflict. New Orleanian Andi Hoffman's Green Light New Orleans, which installs free compact fluorescent bulbs in the homes of low- to middle-income residents, has been a resounding success. Rebuilding Community International (RCI)'s pilot program to help 30 low-income homeowners cut their energy and water use by 25 percent has been equally productive. The project, a partnership with Global Green USA and Mercy Corps, focused on historically compatible, low-tech, and low-cost updates such as caulking the building shell and sealing the ductwork.
RCI CEO Jan Woodruff says the project produced "amazing" results. "Early modeling shows these 30 homeowners collectively will reduce carbon emissions by 100 tons over five years. Furthermore, 76% of survey participants have improved indoor air quality, 36 percent have improved health, and 71 percent are experiencing better quality of life." Eventually, Woodruff hopes to expand the project to larger-scale, but still historically compatible, efforts.
In the Lower Ninth Ward's Holy Cross neighborhood, a partly flooded National Register and local historic district, the environmental nonprofit Global Green USA is constructing an eco-friendly, sustainable development with sponsorship from Pitt, The Home Depot Foundation, and others. The new, 23-unit, low-income residential project incorporates cutting-edge green technology and a design that is contemporary in overall flavor. It sits at the Mississippi River levee a few blocks from the "steamboat houses," a pair of ornately decorated homes built in 1905 by steamboat pilot Milton Doullut for his family.
The HDLC review committee approved the design after winning firm workshop/apd made exterior revisions to "hint at a turn-of-the-century milieu on the exterior facade, respecting the context without replicating it," according to a New Orleans City Planning Commission report.
Pam Dashiell, a neighborhood leader and jurist on the design selection panel, says the neighborhood participated in the planning process and is pleased. "Restored old houses; mid-century houses; it's a dynamic blending of the styles with a focus on sustainability," she says. Dashiell is also deeply involved in the neighborhood's Zero Carbon NOLA project, which hopes to make the Lower Ninth Ward carbon neutral by 2030.
Regarding new projects, Gallas says, "We have to look really carefully at anybody's claims for green buildings and ask, 'In the pursuit of green architecture, what is being lost?' We don't want to lose historic homes in the rush for green building, and we don't want projects that are out of scale or context with the surrounding community. We don't want Disneyland, but there is no reason we cannot have modern, green interpretations of old house forms that you can look at and say, 'That fits.'"
Writer Jennifer Farwell lives in New Orleans and Georgia.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.