I returned to New Orleans recently, for only the second time since leaving my post as the director of the National Trust's New Orleans Field Office, to participate in the National Planning Conference. I was on the local host committee when the American Planning Association last held its annual conference in New Orleans in 2001. When they told us back then that the conference would return again in 2010, it seemed so far away, and everyone I worked with figured they didn't even know where they would be in ten years.
It turns out that many of my colleagues are still working hard in New Orleans and were able to help pull together an important meeting. The timing—which no one could have foreseen—couldn't have been better for the city, because New Orleans is poised to move ahead under a new mayor beginning May 3; the new administration in Washington seems eager to show that New Orleans is still on its radar screen; and the topics of climate change, sustainable development, housing and good planning practice are hot topics around the country. Just as important, it also happened to be the weekend of the premiere of Treme, the new HBO series about post-Katrina New Orleans. More about that later.
It was good to be able to participate at the conference on a panel on historic preservation, disaster preparedness, and recovery in New Orleans and helping our audience look at the situation in each of their communities. I brought up the challenges we had in convincing FEMA to allow demolition materials to be recycled. While we didn't achieve full deconstruction of FEMA-funded demolition of residential properties in New Orleans, we at least got selective salvage. At this workshop, we might have made a break-through in the area of federal policy regarding deconstruction or salvage. One of the audience participants told us he would take this matter to the federal inter-agency disaster working group on which he sits. They are looking at inter-agency and public policy changes related to disaster response.
The federal government was highly visible at the conference. HUD secretary Shaun Donovan, who delivered the opening remarks, spoke admiringly about the beauty of the Iberville housing development in New Orleans—the last remaining complete development built in the low-rise style of the late 1930s and early 1940s. He also spoke about the failures of past urban renewal models.
It looks like Iberville might actually be rehabilitated and continue to be used. What a contrast, I thought, with the position of President Bush's HUD secretary Alphonso Jackson who ordered the complete demolition of the four largest developments and new construction. No one at HUD was talking then about the beauty of the buildings' design. Nevertheless, Donovan subsequently appeared at the ribbon-cutting for Columbia Parc at the Bayou District, the new mixed-income housing development which is rising on the site of the former St. Bernard housing development. It's too late to save the former St. Bernard, Lafitte, and C.J. Peete developments. But at least 300 units of B.W. Cooper are still standing and in use, and finally we will get to see what redevelopment of existing public housing buildings can look like at Iberville.
Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA, was also at the conference, urging New Orleans to re-grow green, to include the citizens in the planning process, and to look at innovation. As someone who grew up in New Orleans' Upper Ninth Ward, Jackson has a good sense of the city, I think. During the question-answer portion of the session, I jumped to the microphone to point out that any discussion of growing green had to take into account old buildings and their continued use. She loved the phrase "Old is the new green," when I used it.
I mentioned Secretary Donavan's remarks about the end of urban renewal, and asked her to explain this in light of the proposed demolition of Lower Mid-City for the construction of the new LSU and VA hospitals. Jackson replied that hospitals need to be state-of-the-art. She didn't seem to believe or understand that state-of-the-art can happen in a historic shell.
At the conclusion of this session Paul Farmer, APA's leader, recognized the organization's partnership with the National Trust and our work on the hospital planning. Farmer said that APA endorses good planning practices, and that you cannot have a sound planning process in New Orleans, if you rule major issues like the hospital plans off-limits for discussion. He called for inclusion of all development projects in the city's master planning process. This is a big deal for Farmer to publicly reiterate this position. APA has supported our contention that the master planning process which attorney Bill Borah fought so hard to achieve in New Orleans, was undermined by the determination of city planners and the Nagin administration to keep the LSU-VA hospital planning away from the public.
It was totally fitting that Bill Borah received the National Planning Leadership Award at the conference. The award focused chiefly on his successful efforts to amend the New Orleans City Charter to give the city's master plan the force of law, but it also gave a nod to his on-going work on the LSU-VA hospital planning. Borah is also credited with helping defeat the plans forty years ago to build a federal expressway along the French Quarter riverfront.
The hospitals came up again in a planning law session looking at the U. S. Supreme Court Kelo case challenging eminent domain. A presenter seemed to think that in New Orleans, the chief local opposition to the hospitals was based on eminent domain challenges. We do think the seizure of the property of Mid-City owners is unfair and highly suspect, but our particular legal challenge was based on the contention that the environmental reviews for the proposed hospitals violated the National Environmental Policy Act. The Federal District Court didn't agree with us, but it wasn't for our lack of trying. The struggles continue, and it's really not over yet, in my view.
In talking about New Orleans at the conference, no one was looking back. No one mentioned the out-going Nagin administration. Everyone was focused on the future. All the public officials who spoke promised new days ahead, new visions, pages turning, and all the usual expressions of hope. In fact, mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu, in closing the APA conference, said "New Orleans is the place where hope will hit the street."
I joined a group of friends at an apartment on Esplanade Avenue just across the street from the French Quarter to watch the opening episode of Treme, a highly anticipated event in the city. All over town groups of all sizes gathered in various places. Some of my friends watched the program at the Charbonnet Funeral Home in Treme with about a hundred others—watching Treme in Treme, indeed. Art imitating life imitating art.
That's a pretty good way to look at the program—and to look at New Orleans sometimes. It's a place of the imagination for many people, those who have visited and those who may never have even been there. For many of those who live there, living is an art in itself. The show had all kinds of positive buzz before even the first episode was aired. That Sunday it seemed to draw a respectable viewership, and it already has a guaranteed second season. I, along with my fellow viewers, hung on every word of dialogue and every local reference. And there was no shortage of admiration for the beauty of the production, the loving use of local music, and the life-like edginess of the characterizations. Kermit Ruffins' set in Vaughan's took me back to the times I was there on some hot and humid nights in Bywater.
It was a good visit. With the mayor-elect saying, "We like ourselves; we don't want to be like other cities," maybe hope is indeed ready to hit New Orleans' streets once again.
Walter W. Gallas, AICP, is the director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Northeast Field Office.