Master Planners Being Sought in New Orleans

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission's proposed city master plan, which is being designed by Philadelphia-based architecture and planning firm Wallace, Roberts, Todd, was supposed to be the definitive document for rebuilding. But now there is another major player vying to get involved. The Greater New Orleans Foundation (GNOF), a local public charity, will soon oversee a Request For Qualifications seeking planners for many of the city's neighborhoods. The Foundation's recently established Rebuild New Orleans Fund, along with a $3.5 million grant it was awarded in late April by the Rockefeller Foundation, will help pay for the effort.

Wallace released the initial draft of its plan in January. The report focused on a "neighborhood-center model," an integrated urban plan organizing neighborhoods around central focal points like public squares, main streets, schools, and community centers. The draft also incorporated environmental and economic assessments, and pointed out prime rebuilding zones. The plan recommended some of these zones should not be rebuilt, but after sharp public criticism those suggestions were scrapped. It appears the plans were troubled from then on.

After failing to receive FEMA funding earlier this year, Nagin's BNOB Commission was assured support from the state-run Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) for its planning process. But the LRA now appears to be teaming up with partner organization GNOF to start its new planning process. LRA board member Donna Fraiche says her organization supports the GNOF's efforts, but the choice of the new planners is up to the GNOF Board. The LRA could not be reached for comment on whether it would now fund the Wallace plan. A source close to the LRA did say that some elements of the Wallace plan would likely be incorporated into any future planning proposals.

Like the Wallace plan, the GNOF's plan will center on a neighborhood center model, originally developed by New Orleans-based planners Concordia Architecture & Planning, who are helping develop the Foundation's RFQ and coordinating subsequent planning. Concordia principal Steve Bingler says he informally advised WRT on the concept last year. Ben Johnson, CEO of the GNOF, says an RFQ will likely be released shortly after the New Orleans mayoral runoff, which takes place on May 20.

Meanwhile, lack of funding for the Wallace plan would likely put that proposal in dire straits. Bring New Orleans Back Commission urban planning committee member Reed Kroloff, who is also the Dean of the Tulane School of Architecture, says that “there's no answer” yet and that any major decisions about his team's plan will also be made after the mayoral runoff.

"It's a mess," says Kroloff. "There are too many cooks in the kitchen."

Regardless of what scheme eventually moves forward, the city's leaders will have to coordinate with planning initiatives already underway in several New Orleans neighborhoods working independently with the advice of institutions like MIT and Harvard. What's more, the New Orleans City Council recently hired Miami-based consultants Paul Lambert and Sheila Danzey to help develop neighborhood plans for the 49 neighborhoods in New Orleans that took on two or more feet of water during the Katrina crisis. But Lambert told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that his efforts will not conflict with other schemes, saying "our goal is to respect the planning that has already gone on in the city."

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