The Peoples’ Plan: A Cautionary Tale of Equity Planning in New Orleans’ 9th Ward

By Kenneth M. Reardon

Shortly after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the Gulf Coast , Cornell’s Department of City and Regional Planning received a request for planning assistance from the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). The leaders of ACORN were concerned about the long-term recovery prospects for the city’s eastside neighborhoods, which were devastated by the combined failures of the Industrial Canal , 17 th Street and London Avenue levees. We responded to this request by working with Ron Shiffman, former director of Pratt Institute’s Center for Community and Environmental Development (PICCED), in organizing a Post-Katrina Recovery Planning Session at the 2005 Annual Meeting of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP). We were delighted when representatives from seventeen ACSP schools attended this forum, which began with a brief presentation by Richard Hayes, ACORN’s housing director of special projects, on the planning and design needs of the eastside neighborhoods. This was followed by short reports from each school present about current and planned outreach activities in the Gulf Coast region.

A few weeks following this forum, ACORN, in cooperation with several New Orleans city council members, Louisiana State University (LSU), Cornell and Pratt, hosted the Rebuilding New Orleans Conference. The conference assembled more than 100 New Orleans ACORN members and an equal number of architects, planners and policymakers to discuss strategies for accelerating the recovery process in the hard hit neighborhoods of Gentilly, New Orleans East and the 9 th Ward. The conference concluded with the assignment of planners and designers from a number of universities to support resident-led recovery planning efforts within specific neighborhoods.

Learning about the Crescent City

At Cornell, we initiated our New Orleans efforts in the fall of 2006 by organizing a two-credit course that explored the ecological, planning and development history of New Orleans . Thirty-four students participated in this eight-week course, which allowed students and faculty to enhance their understanding of the unique geological, hydrological, political and legal structures of Orleans Parish. Students organized a series of volunteer work weekends that brought more than forty students and faculty to New Orleans to contribute to ACORN’s residential “house-gutting” initiative. Under the leadership of Andy Rumbach, Shigeru Tanaka, David Lessinger and Kerry McLaughlin, students raised more than $20,000 to support this effort. Building upon the momentum generated by these activities, faculty then organized four studios during the spring of 2006 that focused on the critical planning and design issues facing the 9 th Ward. More than fifty planning and preservation students enrolled in these courses, which examined best practices in stormwater management, affordable housing production, adaptive re-use of historic structures and optimization strategies for integrating paid and volunteer labor in housing rehabilitation projects.

Initial Planning Work

In March of 2006, more than 170 9 th Ward residents attended a day-long charette during which the planning proposals generated by our students were reviewed. Positive community response to the students’ work prompted ACORN to propose a Recovery Summer Project in which twelve students would be offered the opportunity to continue their 9 th Ward activities as paid summer interns. During a ten-week period, these students prepared a GIS analysis of tax delinquent properties in the 9 th Ward, published a booklet on the principles of participatory neighborhood planning, investigated alternative methods for property appraisal and prepared a response to a city-issued Request for Qualifications for neighborhood and district planning services. This last activity required the students to recruit faculty with a diverse set of skills who could oversee the development of a comprehensive recovery plan for one or more of the city’s neighborhoods.

Formalizing our Community/University Partnership

With the help of Cornell faculty, a team of twelve scholars from Cornell, Columbia, LSU, Pratt, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) and City University of New York (CUNY) was recruited to participate in an expanded community/university collaborative called the ACORN Housing/University Partnership (AHUP) that would prepare the recovery plan. This newly-created consortium successfully competed against sixty-eight nationally-recognized design firms and was selected as one of sixteen organizations by the city of New Orleans and the Greater New Orleans Support Foundation to complete comprehensive recovery plans for neighborhoods and larger geographic areas (i.e., districts) as part of the master planning process, referred to as the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP). AHUP was appointed as district planners, and eight faculty members from Cornell, Columbia , LSU and Illinois prepared to work on the plan. In the fall of 2006 these faculty members enrolled ninety planning, preservation and design students in courses developed to complete the data collection, analysis, policymaking, planning and design activities required to produce a professional-quality recovery plan.

In early September we were informed that we would be preparing individual recovery plans for the 7 th and 8 th Districts (an area roughly equivalent to the New Orleans 9 th Ward) with the assistance of two firms: EDAW’s Atlanta office and John C. Williams Architects. Our assignment was the result of a strong preference voiced by 7 th and 8 th District residents, many of whom were ACORN members, who voted in favor of our team’s selection.

After studying UNOP’s initial scope of services, which narrowly focused on land use, zoning, infrastructure and transportation dimensions of the community recovery process, our team decided to expand our research and planning activities to go beyond the physical aspects of community renewal. We did so in response to residents’ desires to remedy both their districts’ immediate storm-related problems as well as their longstanding economic and social issues. Many of the latter issues appeared related to the sluggish performance of the regional economy, the city’s increasingly uneven pattern of development and the rising levels of residential segregation evident across local neighborhoods. These issues rarely received serious attention within traditional comprehensive planning programs, which tended to concentrate on the physical aspects of community renewal while avoiding the equally important economic, social, political and cultural dimensions.

Preparing a Recovery Plan for the 9 th Ward

Sixty students and faculty from Columbia, Cornell and Illinois gathered in late September at Cleveland State University with our ACORN partners to determine how we would: 1) meet the four sets of deliverables required by the UNOP process; 2) collect and analyze the data required to understand the economic and social challenges confronting the distinctive neighborhoods comprising these two historically and culturally significant districts; and 3) produce two professional-quality planning documents that would reflect the aspirations of local residents. Guided by a 2- by 3-foot organizational chart and a twenty-five page workplan, participants left the conference to collect and analyze proposals contained in twenty-nine recently-completed plans for our two districts. They also completed a review of the scholarly and professional literature that discussed current community conditions and future development possibilities from which they prepared an extensive annotated bibliography. Finally, the students prepared an analysis of recent population and housing trends within the two districts using data from the U.S. Census. We completed the tasks required by the first UNOP deliverable on time in late September before holding our first community meeting to elicit resident input on the goals, objectives, methodology and timeline for our proposed planning process. With the encouragement of residents impressed by the quality of our team’s initial archival, bibliographic and demographic research, our students threw themselves into the work required by UNOP’s second deliverable, which focused on the analysis of dozens of GIS coverages available on the UNOP website highlighting historic and existing conditions in the 7 th and 8 th Planning Districts.

Getting Sacked by UNOP

Following a decision to bring more than ninety students and faculty to New Orleans for five days to complete a detailed inspection of 3,500 buildings, 400 former business sites, 30 parks and playgrounds and 15 community facilities, as well as interview 250 heads of households, we were notified via fax that our team had been “re-aligned” due to a perceived conflict of interest involving ACORN, our community partner. The reality appeared to be that we had, in fact, been fired! The author of the fax regretted taking this action but argued that ACORN’s status as a planning and development organization precluded its participation in the UNOP process as district planners. Earlier the previous summer, ACORN, hoping to stimulate redevelopment activity around several strategic nodes, had responded to a city-issued RFP to acquire approximately 150 tax delinquent properties in the 7 th and 8 th District. While ACORN’s proposal had been accepted, the city to-date had still has not transferred the properties to the organization. While the consultants managing the UNOP process voiced concern regarding ACORN’s potential future role as an affordable housing developer within the city, they were not bothered by the many consultants participating in the process who represented clients engaged in major development projects in the city.

The Decision to Continue

Sacked by the “sponsor” that was covering our field research costs, our team faced a serious question: Could we continue to work on the development of a comprehensive recovery plan for the 7 th and 8 th Districts when our client, ACORN, would not be able to cover our project costs and other consultants had been named by UNOP to replace us? The members of our team were confident that no other planning organization was as well-positioned as we were to produce a comprehensive recovery plan for the 7 th and 8 th Districts that would be empirically grounded and reflective of local residents’ desires. ACORN had a significant membership base, a staff presence in the diaspora cities that accepted Katrina evacuees and a post-hurricane record of accomplishment (2,000 units gutted and 10,000 families counseled). After considerable discussion, the participating students and faculty decided to continue working on the plans for the districts, pledging their own personal and institutional resources to the effort.

Creating the Peoples’ Plan

As the end of the fall semester approached, representatives of ACORN Housing traveled to Ithaca , New York , for a presentation of the students’ research findings, planning recommendations and design proposals. ACORN’s senior staff was deeply impressed by the quality and scope of the data collection and analysis. Aware of UNOP’s plans to unveil its neighborhood and district plans on January 20, 2007 , ACORN’s senior staff pressed us to revise, edit and prepare the Peoples’ Plan for public presentation by January 6, 2007 . Student and faculty members worked through the holidays and transformed a data-rich but unpolished document into an attractive and compelling professional planning report. The heart of the Peoples’ Plan is a detailed action strategy featuring twenty-six immediate, short-term and long-term projects designed to: restore the quality of the urban environment; improve housing opportunities; expand employment, entrepreneurial and business access; guarantee high-quality municipal services; ensure public school excellence; and nurture the rich cultural resources of the community.

The Plan Is Adopted

Impressed by the quality of the plan’s content and presentation, four members of the New Orleans City Council, who heard the plan presented by members of the production team, invited the AHUP to formally submit its plan to this legislative body on February 1, 2007 . On that day, two ACORN leaders and two faculty members presented the findings and recommendations. The City Council subsequently voted 7 to 0 to accept the document on behalf of the municipal government; endorse its major goals, objectives and action proposals; and direct the Recovery Planning Committee to work with members of the City Planning Commission staff to incorporate the major elements of the plan into the city’s soon-to-be-adopted master plan.

On February 2, ACORN Housing staff and two faculty members presented the plan to a group of ten local lenders, intermediaries and philanthropic organizations to elicit their support for three of the plan’s immediate-term proposals: the establishment of a community planning, design and law center to assist returning homeowners through the often-challenging rehabilitation process; the construction of 140 new single-family homes on tax delinquent properties soon to be transferred to ACORN Housing; and the planning and design of a 300- to 500-unit mixed-use residential development in the Lower 9 th Ward. The Fannie Mae Foundation pledged more than $11 million to advance the community planning, design and law center and two housing proposals. On March 13, 2007 , members of AHUP presented its recovery plan to the members and staff of the New Orleans Planning Commission, who are expected to formally incorporate the Peoples’ Plan into the recently completed citywide master plan that emerged from the UNOP process.

Time to Pay Up

During repeated visits to New Orleans , we have watched the slow but steady return of people and activities to the downtown, French Quarter and less flood-damaged areas of the city. While sections of the Upper 9 th Ward have witnessed the return of many of its former residents and businesses, this is not the case for large areas of the Lower 9 th Ward. Residents of this portion of our study area waited for months before they were allowed to visit their former homes, have their drinking water declared safe and benefit from the basic city services most Americans take for granted. Without such services, the former residents of the Lower 9 th Ward were unable to secure FEMA trailers, which hampered their efforts to meet with insurance claims adjusters, local utility representatives and building contractors.

Our work preparing the Peoples’ Plan brings to mind the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during his famous March on Washington :

So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent works of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promissory note that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note in so far as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check: a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vault of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

Kenneth M. Reardon is an associate professor in and chair of the Department of City and Regional Planning, Cornell University .

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