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Fields Flashback: Overestimating

In this report from the Times of Acadiana, perhaps they were being kind, especially when the lead came from the Urban Land Institute, a think tank dedicated to real estate interests (and a natural fit for C. Virginia Fields). As reported here, the ULI has been extremely controversial in its proposals for New Orleans.

Away from the spotlight of NYC press, Carl Weisbrod (now president of the Alliance for Downtown New York and a board member of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation) and Virginia Fields made some pretty incredulous claims:

Weisbrod held up New York City as a model of political unity for disaster recovery, citing that it took only 10 weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks for the city to establish its Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, on which Weisbrod served as a board member. Both he and Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields advocated a dismantling of political turfdom to present a united front to the federal government for monetary assistance.
"When your mayor, your governor, your senators, your congressmen are speaking with one voice, it's a lot harder for Washington to ignore or not respond to," Fields said.

While we can't imagine the specifics of how they intend to "dismantle political turfdom," perhaps the notion was just being rhetorical, otherwise known as a time-honored New York City method of pandering.

But thank God she didn't include the Burrow President in that fishbowl. Fields has been described by many as absent and slow-to-act in NYC's rebuilding process.

In 2006, The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) continues to be mired in controversy and inaction. The site of the World Trade Center remains a giant hole five years after the 9-11 attacks.

If there's any lesson to be learned, it is do not overestimate the federal government, and do not overestimate local governments' ability to be incompetent. Virginia Fields is sufficient proof of that.

See the Times of Acadiana article after the jump.

Should New Orleans Follow New York's Lead?
Conference looks at the reality of rebuilding.
by Molly Reid
The Times of Acadiana
Contributing Writer

Just as speakers and attendees of Gov. Kathleen Blanco's commissioned Louisiana Recovery and Rebuilding Conference were leaving New Orleans the weekend of Nov. 12, a new batch of master planners were on their way to the Crescent City for a conference held by Mayor Ray Nagin and his Bring New Orleans Back Commission.

The five-day planning event drew more than 50 leading urban planners and disaster recovery specialists, all members of the Urban Land Institute. The panel's visit was preceded by more than a month of research by ULI, which had made several reconnaissance trips to New Orleans in October. Throughout the week of Nov. 14-18, ULI panel members toured the city, broke by topic into discussion and planning groups, held a town hall-style meeting allowing more than 70 of the 250 attendees to voice their opinions and interviewed more than 300 citizens in the fields of health care, education, business, cultural industries and community welfare.

Panel chairman Smedes York, president of the Raleigh, N.C.-based York Properties, Inc., expressed his sympathy for the people of New Orleans and hope that ULI's presence would help everyone move forward.

"We were not here for the storm and the floods," York said. "You were. Only you can understand the devastation -- both physical and spiritual. Our role is to help with the physical and economic rebuilding of the city, to help you to look to the future."

The panel's week of research and debate culminated in a Nov. 18 public presentation at the Sheraton on Canal Street. The presentation, titled A Rebuilding Strategy, echoed the previous week's Recovery & Rebuilding Conference principles of cultural preservation, fair and equitable return rights for all displaced residents and political unity and transparency. Against the backdrop of those principles, the ULI panel made several recommendations to the public and Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission.

The panel's foremost proposal to begin redevelopment equitably and without delay presented legitimate strategies laden with political viscosity. Panel speaker Carl Weisbrod, president of Trinity Church's real estate division in New York City, referred to his experience in post-Sept. 11 reconstruction to highlight the degree of difficulty New Orleans' rebuilding poses.

"I thought I had seen unbelievable devastation on Sept. 11 -- I was there when the planes went into the World Trade Center -- and it was extraordinary devastation," Weisbrod said. "But I think nothing prepared me, and I dare say for any of my fellow panelists, for what we've seen here in New Orleans and the challenges you face in addressing this catastrophe."

With those sobering reflections in hand, Weisbrod stressed the importance of acting quickly and cohesively. To do so, Weisbrod introduced the panel's recommendation of a central implementation authority called the Crescent City Rebuilding Corporation. In theory, the legislation would hand over its disaster-recovery jurisdiction to the corporation in the name of speedy progress. In contrast to the governor's proposed Louisiana Recovery Authority, which would have complete federal oversight, the corporation would consist of a seven- to 15-member board with different slots appointed by the president, governor, mayor and city council.

The functions of the CCRC would include: buying homes and property from those unwilling or unable, because of excessive structural damage, to rebuild; preventing price gouging by freezing pre-Katrina property values and mortgages and offering comparable rents for renters; extending the mortgage forbearance period and offering homeowners a second mortgage loan with zero percent interest; issuing bonds and funding developments; and fostering smaller community development groups.

"It's going to operate under the fundamental belief that all residents will be treated fairly and equitably," said panelist Tony Salazar, president of McCormack Baron Salazar in Los Angeles. "Every safeguard will be established to prevent economic windfall."

The ULI panel also proposed the creation of a Temporary Financial Oversight Board to work with the CCRC in stabilizing the state economy. Established by the state legislature and appointed in the same fashion as the CCRC, the seven-member TFOB would operate on a five-year term to oversee and endorse a new city budget, approve major rebuilding contracts and handle all recovery funds to "restore and maintain a decent quality of life and to avoid municipal bankruptcy."

Panelist Tom Murphy, mayor of Pittsburgh, bluntly advised the state to reconfigure its tax structure, stating that times of natural upheaval require an appropriate financial response. Murphy was unclear as to what kind of advisory or legislative role the TFOB would play in restructuring state taxes but was clear that an independent financial authority was necessary to handle the growing mountain of state debt and influx of federal funds.

"You need to break the rules," Murphy said. "Your tax structure stinks; you need to change it. Look at this board as a partner, a partner that is going to help to break the rules, change the rules."

Many smaller but important questions of legislative versus CCRC/TFOB authority were left unanswered. Panelists spoke of the importance of quality building and zoning codes but did not specify which governmental entity should write and pass them. Salazar told the audience to get used to seeing trailers around but did not choose either the legislature's or CCRC's side on temporary housing regulation.

The panel alluded to the political power struggles -- at all levels of government -- that could likely ensue from an attempt to consolidate all the existing rebuilding commissions, committees and authorities. But, as Weisbrod and other panelists stressed, the city and Louisiana's only hope for a healthy recovery is unity.

"I just want to underscore ... how important it is to speak with one voice, to speak with one voice soon and in unison," Weisbrod said. "And that's not just one political voice. It's also business, residents, rich, poor, all races."

Weisbrod held up New York City as a model of political unity for disaster recovery, citing that it took only 10 weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks for the city to establish its Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, on which Weisbrod served as a board member. Both he and Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields advocated a dismantling of political turfdom to present a united front to the federal government for monetary assistance.

"When your mayor, your governor, your senators, your congressmen are speaking with one voice, it's a lot harder for Washington to ignore or not respond to," Fields said.

Molly Reid is a writer living in Lafayette. To comment on this article, e-mail timededit@timesofacadiana.com.

Jan. 12, 2006, 1:40PM
New Orleans residents are enraged over recovery plan
They insist that forced buyouts and a freeze on construction are no way to rebuild
Houston Chronicle

NEW ORLEANS - Frustration and anger boiled over for hundreds of New Orleans residents and evacuees Wednesday after hearing officials propose a four-month moratorium on building permits in the neighborhoods with the worst flooding from Hurricane Katrina.

The proposal includes an equally controversial, federally funded forced buyout of homes in neighborhoods deemed unlivable.

"Over my dead body," fumed Carolyn S. Parker of the hard-hit Lower 9th Ward.

Many residents in the audience vowed that the city would not force them out of their homes to create what urbanologists would call a smaller, more manageable city footprint.

"Our neighborhood is ready to come home," Lakeview resident Jeff Bruneau said. "We don't want to wait four months. So don't get in our way."

The building freeze, a recommendation of a city Urban Planning Committee, got its first public airing Wednesday from Mayor C. Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission.

Nagin will hear from a half-dozen other committees in coming weeks on city recovery issues ranging from education to health and medical issues.

The mayor is not bound by any of the recommendations and already has expressed skepticism about the proposed building-permit moratorium.

The population of New Orleans was 462,000 before the tragic flooding. It is estimated to be about 144,000 now and could grow to 247,000 by September 2008, the Rand Corporation estimates.

But many urban planners warn against allowing residents to move back into devastated neighborhoods if they will be isolated by blight and abandoned housing.

A moratorium on building permits effectively would protect homeowners from losing their investment in reconstruction in neighborhoods they might have to later abandon, committee chairman and local developer Joe Canizaro said.

Another voice in the debate, the national nonprofit Urban Land Institute, drew instant controversy in November when it recommended the city actively discourage development in the hardest-hit areas to concentrate the delivery of city services in more viable neighborhoods.

Nagin and the New Orleans City Council members repeatedly have stressed that individual property rights will be their first concern.

Most of the resident speakers at Wednesday's meeting were adamantly opposed to staged redevelopment that might lead to the city using eminent domain to force them from their homes.

But Gabriel Bordenave said it sounded like the proposal might be in the best interest of the city, though he doesn't support a building permit moratorium.

"We can't give the resources for all parts of the city," he said. "There are hard choices to be made. I hope you have the courage to make them."

Already muddied by politics and longstanding racial mistrust, the redevelopment debate is complicated by the fact that yet another government body, the Louisiana Recovery Authority created by Gov. Kathleen Blanco, will be the conduit for all federal storm relief funding into the city.

The Urban Planning Committee calls for pursuing flood and storm water protection, transit and transportation improvements, more parks and open space and the controversial neighborhood rebuilding plan.

It also calls for establishing planning teams, made up of residents in each affected neighborhood, by Feb. 20, and then charging them with investigating whether their areas can be sustainable by guidelines such as these:

Will the neighborhood draw a population of from 5,000 to 10,000 people? Will half the residents commit to returning? Is reasonably efficient delivery of city services, public infrastructure and utilities possible? Will there be schools, retail, worship and health facilities close enough to serve the neighborhoods?

The neighborhood groups would be expected to complete their plans by May 20, ostensibly allowing the building permits to resume for neighborhoods deemed salvageable.

Some members of the audience were visibly angry even before the presentation started. With seats for about 500 people in a downtown hotel room, more than 150 had to stand for almost two hours.

Standing at the microphone after the committee presentation, resident Harvey Bender pointed his finger at developer Canizaro.

"I don't know you, but I hate you. You've been in the background scheming to take our land," he said.

Canizaro spoke with some of his loudest critics in the audience after the meeting. But he didn't make much headway, he conceded.

"There's no question if you have 200,000 less people (in the city) there's going to be shrinkage," he said. "People don't want to hear that."