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Fields Flashback: The Burrow President

We let the blog idle for a few months, but now that the State Senate race is starting to heat up, we'll cover that ... and we'll occasionally throw in some older pieces we missed or left out, in the form of Fields Flashbacks.

burroIn November, while New Orleans was still numb from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, The New Orleans Times Picayune, in discussing "bold ideas" from a panel of so-called specialists, described Virginia Fields as the Manhattan Burrow President.

While we know how Clara Virginia Fields has been destructive to the Island of Manhattan, we can't imagine what sort of peyote led anyone to believe she was either an expert, or somehow capable of helping the residents of New Orleans.

But the description of Fields as Burrow President is right on so many levels.

See the Times-Picayune after the jump.

Rebuilding should begin on high ground, group says
Begin with high ground, group says
Saturday, November 19, 2005
New Orleans Times-Picayune
By Martha Carr
Staff writer

In the most comprehensive recovery plan proposed to date, a panel of more than 50 specialists in urban and post-disaster planning said New Orleans should concentrate its rebuilding efforts on the sections of the city that occupy the high ground, while securing lower-lying areas for potential long-term rebirth.

Tackling what is certain to be the most controversial aspect of any rebuilding plan, the contingent from the Urban Land Institute said Friday that the city should use its original footprint, as well as lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, as a guide in determining what areas are most logical for redevelopment.

Firing off a collection of bold ideas, the group also proposed creating a public development corporation that would buy and sell property to speed the city's redevelopment; establishing an oversight board with broad powers over the city's finances; and engineering a secondary flood-control network inside the city that would use natural ridges, levees, water reservoirs, and green space to stop widespread flooding.

The panelists, many of whom helped rebuild cities like New York after the Sept. 11 attacks and Los Angeles after the Northridge earthquake in 1994, said it's not practical to redevelop every acre of New Orleans in the short term, considering that 300,000 residents and 160,000 jobs have been lost. It's also not socially equitable to allow residents back into neighborhoods that do not have adequate levee protection and may be toxic.

"These areas are going to take more data gathering and more time," said Joseph Brown, president of EDAW, a San Francisco-based architecture and environment consulting company. "Some collective action may be needed here."

The group went so far as to draft a color-coded map of the city showing three "investment zones" the city may want to follow. The first zone included the high parts of the city, like Uptown and the French Quarter, which panelists say is ready for rehabilitation immediately. The second zone highlighted the mid-ground, which the panel suggested is also ready for individual rehabilitation, with some opportunities to put together parcels of land for green space or redevelopment.

The last zone, which included some of the city's hardest hit neighborhoods, needs additional study, but could have the potential for mass buyouts and future green space, the panel said. Those areas include most of eastern New Orleans east and Gentilly; the northern part of Lakeview; and parts of the Lower 9th Ward, Broadmoor, Mid-City and Hollygrove.

In those neighborhoods, the panel emphasized that all homeowners should be compensated for their property at pre-Katrina values. They also stressed that if scattershot redevelopment is allowed in the worst-hit areas, homeowners will begin to rehab houses on partially abandoned streets, creating shanty towns with little to no property value.

The panel's map also included green areas running along natural ridges and between neighborhoods, where members suggest creating a network of flood-protection measures, including inner-city levees and new parks, to reduce the risk of flooding and stop waters from blanketing the city.

While the proposal was immediately questioned by New Orleans City Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, who represents eastern New Orleans and the Lower 9th Ward, others attending the panel's presentation were more receptive to the idea, but questioned whether the political will exists to make it happen.

"This is going to take tremendous will on our part," said New Orleans resident Jean Nathan. "I think we are going to need help on a sustained basis."

Central authority

The map wasn't the panel's only daring concept.

The group called for the creation of the Crescent City Rebuilding Corporation, a nonprofit development corporation that would be in charge of all funds funneled into the city for the rebuilding effort.

The corporation, to be created by the state legislature, would have the power to do land banking, buy homes and property, purchase and restructure mortgages, finance redevelopment projects, issue bonds, assist with neighborhood planning, and foster the creation of community development corporations.

While the city already has a redevelopment authority, NORA, the panelists said the agency is weak and not suitable for the monumental task of assembling land and orchestrating mass rebuilding efforts.

Panelists also said their concept differs from the Louisiana Recovery Authority currently proposed by U.S. Rep. Richard Baker, R-Baton Rouge. That agency would be totally controlled by the federal government. The Crescent City Rebuilding Corporation board, on the other hand, would have appointees named by the president, governor, mayor and City Council. Both entities may be able to work in concert if the concepts are tweaked, panelists said.

Carl Weisbrod, president of Trinity Church Real Estate, one of New York City's biggest commercial property owners, said that it only took 10 weeks after Sept. 11 for that city's leadership to band together and create the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, signaling to the federal government that everyone was on the same page. That group has served as the city's central rebuilding agency.

"We put our differences aside for a short period of time to address the immediate challenges," said Weisbrod, who served on the LMDC's board. "Because of that, we were able to get immediate federal aid."

'Part of a team'

It's likely too late for the Crescent City Rebuilding Corporation idea to be taken up in the current legislative session, which ends Tuesday. But legislators could consider the idea in January, when they are expected to convene a second special session. Weisbrod said ULI has not lobbied for the idea at the state level. Members of Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission on Friday said they were hearing the proposal for the first time.

The Urban Land Institute was paired with Nagin's commission shortly after Hurricane Katrina by local developer Joe Cannizaro, who serves on the commission and is also former chairman of the Washington -based think tank.

The group has spent the past several weeks working pro-bono to advise the 17-member commission as it attempts to develop a comprehensive rebuilding strategy by year's end. All of the experts who participated on the weeklong panel, most of whom run major corporations or municipalities, such as Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy and Manhattan burrow president C. Virginia Fields, volunteered their time to serve. The group has also committed to long-term assistance in New Orleans, as well as in Baton Rouge and Washington.

Their final report is due next month.

"All of us who went through this process are hooked because you all became part of our team," said ULI president Marilyn Taylor. "If you will have us, we will be with you continuing to help."

Ten members of the mayor's commission were present for the report at the Sheraton Hotel downtown. Nagin, however, was in Washington meeting with federal lawmakers.

Financial oversight

Other recommendations of the panel included creating a temporary financial oversight board to help the city avoid bankruptcy; reforming the city's tax code; creating an internal system of levees and canals that would serve as secondary protection and enhance green space; and consolidating fragmented agencies to take a regional approach to levee protection, transit services, emergency response and economic development.

Murphy said the financial oversight board, which would be created by the Legislature and run by appointees from all levels of government, would oversee and approve the city's budget, approve major contracts, and recommend financing options for redevelopment.

In the end, it would create a layer of accountability that could alleviate the concerns of federal lawmakers that money will be misspent. The panel also recommended that the city create an inspector general and board of ethics as authorized in the City Charter.

"There are interests here who want the rules to stay as they are," he said. "It won't be pretty. You have to be willing for some conflict."

Economic development

Murphy also said the tax structure, which was cobbled together over 200 years, must be changed to deal with the absence of tax revenue in post-Katrina reality: especially when it comes to the city's practice of under-assessing property.

"Your tax structure stinks, and you need to change it," said Pittsburgh Mayor Murphy. "We are making recommendations for tough love here."

On the economic development front, the panel recommended focusing on the city's traditional economic sectors, like tourism and shipping, but placing new emphasis on the music business and the health care and biosciences sector. Key to the city's growth is bringing back musicians, finding them work and getting them equipment. The same is true with the city's key medical researchers and institutions, they said.

As for the cityscape, the panel embraced the ideas set forth by the Louisiana Recovery and Rebuilding Conference last week, mainly the use of smart-growth principals, including advocating for levee and wetland improvements, developing local and regional transportation systems that connect neighborhoods, and building in areas that are safe and nontoxic. The panel advocated rehabilitating historic properties, building infill housing in existing neighborhoods and increasing green space by building corridors, bike paths and parks that connect areas.

Setting goals

Throughout their presentation, the experts emphasized the need to set short-term benchmarks for success and to break the planning into three phases: the recovery stage, which should last through Aug. 2006; the rebuilding stage, which should go from 2006 to 2010; and the growth stage, which would end in 2018, when the city celebrates its 300th anniversary.

Among the goals the panel set for the next few months is restoring electrical service to all neighborhoods by January, creating benchmarks for toxicity levels by March, rebuilding levees to pre-Katrina levels and building a protection system for pumps and water treatment facilities by June, and stabilizing port and water management facilities by August.

The group also advised urgent housing actions, including getting trailers to the area, repopulating suitable public housing, adopting a building code, asking financial institutions to extend mortgage forbearance periods, and creating centers where residents can get help rehabbing their homes.

"Your housing is now a public resource," said Tony Salazar, a developer with McCormack, Baron and Salazar in Los Angeles. "You can't think of it as private property any more."

When the panel concluded its hourlong presentation, members of Nagin's commission said they were extremely impressed by the detail of the draft report and the panel's wealth of ideas. Although the ULI panel stopped short of advocating a merger of Nagin's commission and Gov. Blanco's Louisiana Recovery Authority, it did stress that city and state leaders must craft a single vision -- and move more quickly in their rebuilding efforts.

"I appreciate your bluntness," said commission co-chair Barbara Major. "You have challenged us to make more difficult and controversial choices. As my aunt used to say, 'God can put a ram in a bush.' There has to be some behavioral changes across the board. I think we just have to kick a little butt and do what we have to do."

Before the panel submits a final report, it will hold town-hall meetings in Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Houston, Dallas and Memphis. For more information, go to www.uli.org.