Progress For New Orleans

Putting the NEW back in New Orleans

Browsing Posts published in March, 2010

We could have used this whole experience to fundamentally remake the city into one that provides opportunity for its citizens and perhaps create a new prosperous city. We could have used this to create a new New Orleans based upon economic opportunity but instead we are continuing to pursue the same methods that have led to our stagnation and decline.

Economic development sections put low wage tourism first and follows it with the dubious concept of the “cultural economy”. The rest of the chapter seems to be focused almost exclusively on the ‘public private” partnership. It almost ignores our place in the global economy and the benefits that has brought us over the course of our existence.

And all of this is premised upon a dubious new theory that contradicts millennia of observation on the growth and prosperity of cities. The planners brought to the table the idea that a diverse and cosmopolitan population will drive economic development instead of what has actually been the case since the dawn of civilization, that economic development will bring a diverse and cosmopolitan population. We didn’t get built on this swamp because our forefathers came for the culture, they were the culture, they came for the economic opportunity and that’s how real, vibrant cities maintain themselves.  We can’t pretend we can pay people to BE the culture, we have to recognize that we have a culture because people got paid doing other, more productive things.

The one thing this master plan desperately needed to do was to sweep away the 70s CZO that zoned our neighborhood businesses out of existence. The empty storefronts that dot our city are the legacy of a previous plan, more suited to Slidell, that painted on zoning with a paint roller rather than recognizing the diverse land-use mosaic that is our streetscape. This plan pays lip service to opening up these locations to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit of the city but it should be boldly declaring that these storefronts can be a force in our economic renaissance.

But of course they are being cautious, lest they upset the forces of NO, that are holding this city back economically because it may, possibly, make their lives the slightest bit less comfortable or not cater exclusively to their needs. Well, we have a whole passel of city ordinances to deal with any disturbances and better we use them than foreswearing commercial uses and leaving our city filled with vacant buildings.

In a city that is going broke, the Planning Commission gave themselves another 14 or so district planners. Instead of eliminating the need to “kiss rings”, the so-called Citizen Participation Plan adds another layer of rings to kiss as they empower the most obstructionist elements of our city to stand in the way of new development or request kickbacks from projects.

We have already seen this play out as a neighborhood association already requested a cut of the operating funds of the ill-conceived “Re-inventing the crescent”. Not only unhappy with getting a park that will further erode New Orleans’ raison d’etre they wanted to be paid. And this is a public project. How many developers looking to bring jobs and sales tax revenue will be similarly held up?

The plan is overly protective of the housing for 650,000 plus people that we don’t need and hostile towards the commercial property that we desperately need for the jobs and the sales tax revenue they produce. It has removed most commercial zoning west of the industrial canal unless it is adjacent to a housing project.

There seems to be notion in this town that we can complain about section 8 housing and property taxes and in the same breath stop the businesses that bring jobs and sales tax revenue as if these two aren’t linked. That we can call for more police and better schools without understanding how more and better employment opportunities help both these situations.

At a time when we are struggling to maintain and grow our population we should be making it EASIER for people to rebuild and businesses to open. But instead of a growth plan, this thing focuses on a preservation plan.  But here is the bottom line, without a robust economy there are no resources to preserve anything and without a prosperous population there is no reason to preserve anything.

Throughout the process there have been calls for “input” but when it comes to the actual plan it seems to stick pretty closely to the desire of special interest groups with their obstructionist agenda. So much so, that the Fairgrounds Racetrack isn’t mapped to be commercial, like it should be, but is mapped for doubles, like we need

yet more housing without jobs.

Additionally, have we told the people of Lakeview that a new massive interstate interchange is coming to their

neighborhood or the people of New Orleans East that we don’t really care if they can get to work downtown or the people of the Treme that Claiborne is probably going to be 8 lanes of traffic at highway speeds, if we keep the destruction of I-10 in the plan. The only thing that works in the plan is the new hospitals, which it gives rather tepid support to.

My wish? Send it back to the City Planning Commission with the notation to make the entire plan advisory only. Take the destruction of the I-10 out of the plan. Open up the “Citizens Participation” Groups to all comers and not just members of unelected neighborhood associations. Short of going back to the drawing board to build a plan that embraces progress and puts economic development first, without the fantasy that either preservation or culture is economic development, a plan that opens up the city for development and redevelopment rather than giving into the forces of NO and their desire to hold the city back. We needed to start with the idea that everything not explicitly forbidden is allowed,

rather than the other way around. We need to find ways to say YES. It is the only way for New Orleans to survive and thrive.  Thank you.

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Prior to Katrina New Orleans had a housing crisis.

It may not have seemed like a housing crisis but it was. And it all related to our population numbers and our economy.

At the peak of our population we were close to 650,000 people. This was prior to most of New Orleans East being developed. Since those times in the early 1960s we have continually lost population and in the meantime we built probably a third more houses and apartments in the 1970s and 80s.

Add to this a form of housing, the shotgun, that dominates many older neighborhoods, that has proven itself extremely unpopular with a modern American family that wants bedroom doors that close. Finally moving out of a shotgun house was for many lower middle class New Orleans families proof that you could sustain yourself in some fairly comfortable manner.

The rents, pre-Katrina, were fairly cheap and based upon two things:  An owner who didn’t need to pay off a mortgage but didn’t really spend that much on upkeep and tenants who couldn’t afford much working in the low wage, tourism based economy.

The storm, and the subsequent housing shortage in the immediate aftermath, drove up rents, but we also saw wages rise to meet the new financial reality.

Now both wages and rents are falling.

More and more apartment complexes are coming online, many of them financed by disaster recovery funds.  This in turn is driving down rents for the small landlord.

The small landlord, in contrast, has new debt and new and prohibitively expensive insurance. If the rents reach pre-Katrina levels, and in many places they are approaching that, there will be no incentive to maintain these houses.

Meanwhile, the population has not kept pace with the growth in housing and the economy  is failing to produce the jobs for the citizens so that they can afford rent.

The growth in new housing development undercuts the need to save any marginal old houses that dot our city streets with blight.

But, even now we have two city agencies fighting over whether we keep blighted houses or remove them.  The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) has been continually stymied by the Neighborhood Conservation District Committee (NCDC) in demolishing houses.

So, here’s the question? Just when can we get rid of houses that no one wants to live in, that have been empty for years, when it is likely we won’t have a population to fill all of the houses we have unless we significantly remake our economy into one where people have the resources to take on expensive projects like renovations of blighted property?

It’s clear to me that we are going to have to reimagine a New Orleans that perhaps doesn’t have the street density it once had. Or one that mixes new construction and design in with older buildings. But we can look at a block that in the future has 10 stellar houses with side yards rather than 15  half fixed/half blighted houses.

We have to adjust our thinking. Vibrant cities change constantly. But unless we attract more people on the basis of economic development, there will be little reason and fewer resources to address blight by any other mechanism except demolition.

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Dear New New Orleans Resident,

We need to talk.

I am often treated by folks who just moved here about how New Orleans is so unique. I get to hear all about how New Orleans is the most European or the most Caribbean city. Some folks from elsewhere in America will exclaim to me, breathlessly, that “it’s not like being in America at all.”

But see, here’s the thing. It is like being in America. Our America. Our America is like most of the country in many ways and different in many ways. But this is the thing, it is still our America. Of course we have a lot of people who think there is some sort of homogeneous “American” experience, but of course that is a very narrow appreciation of the country and it’s basic diversity. The farm life in Kansas is very different than life in a New York City borough. There is a world of difference between the daily experience of someone in the Florida Panhandle and  streets of Chicago.  There are many Americas in this country. And even if there are things that are common to most of us it is very superficial to look at this as one culture.

And so we need to talk to you  about our America because there are things you need to know.

The big differences are the easiest. Mardi Gras is a given but everyone in New Orleans has their own Mardi Gras. It might be old line krewe, or masking Indian, or truck float riding, or French Quarter rambling, or escaping to the ski slopes. Every family has at least one local culinary specialty that they take some sort of pride in: red beans and rice, crawfish boil, gumbo, jambalaya, etouffee. In addition to that they have one family food specialty that reflects their own personal history; lasagna or meatballs, stuffed cabbage, mole.

We are not hung up on drinking. We are gamblers, as you would expect folks who lived in such a precarious place would be. We like our bargains. Before the collapse of our retail sector we shopped at both local and national chains. We have things that we will only buy from one specific store but for most purchases the bargain trumps any notions of loyalty.

We have watched for a long time the decline of our city as places like Houston took our jobs and Atlanta took our people. We recognize the folks in Metairie and St. Bernard and on the Westbank as our folks, even if we wonder why anyone would move to the country, by which we mean, the Northshore.

We are social people. As evidenced by the story a fire chief in Maryland who worked after the storm told me about people he came to rescue inviting him in for a drink.

But still, this is our America. It may have been different than the America you grew up in but it is still America. And as it is America, it still has all the need for things that the rest of America needs: good jobs, a stable population that can support themselves economically, a desire to progress and grow so that their people can maintain themselves. Well, the basic things that every thriving city all around the world needs.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that New Orleans is so “unique” that we can afford to ignore the basics of modern life, to do so suggests that it’s best days are in the past and it has no future outside that of a museum and a playground. New Orleans is better than that.

Our America depends on being able to grow and have a future.

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In the days following Hurricane Katrina, the levee failures and the subsequent flooding there was lots of talk amoungst the uneducated about abandoning New Orleans and not rebuilding. Unfortunately for the city one of these fools was the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert.

Smarter people prevailed, but the persistent notion of not rebuilding found its way into conversations that continued into 2006. The Bring New Orleans Back Committee (BNOB) in conjunction with the Urban Land Institute floated this idea and it proved to be some of the most contentious meetings in the post-Katrina landscape. 2006 was simply too early to discuss the viability of neighborhoods.  This conversation needs to happen now, but that is a whole ‘nother topic.

I feel that the infamous “Green Dot” debate stalled the impetus towards recovery in many of our neighborhoods. And it also gave rise to the premise of New Orleans as a “boutique city”.

Green Dots over our neighborhoods

The “Boutique City” was the idea that New Orleans was going to have fewer people and be happy about it. That those fewer people would be richer, probably, and therefore, theoretically shop at boutiques.

The concept of the “boutique city” and the fight against the concept, probably led in part to Ray Nagin’s infamous and divisive  “Chocolate City” remarks. Ironic, since it was his BNOB committee that pushed the concept forward and gave it its audience.

Well, the “boutique city” is a mistake.

It ignores the geographic strength of our location and exchanges it for the concept that we can live on our “charm”.  It is a concept that says not only will New Orleans not work to it’s potential but will deliberately short circuit progress to ensure that it is unable to thrive.

It is a failed vision, and unfortunately it is something we have been heading towards with each development that puts parks over productivity, quaintness over commerce, preservation over progress.

We should aim for a city that has a million hard working people all with good jobs. A city that attracts people on the basis of economic opportunity and holds onto its college graduates. A city that uses it’s geographic advantage astride the Mississippi River to create the growth necessary to sustain the city and its institutions.

Cause here’s the story. The investments necessary to protect New Orleans from the hazards of water are so costly that they will only be feasible if there are good financial reasons to do it. Being a major port with a population that has great jobs that is a vital player in the national and global economy is a good financial reason. Spending that money to protect a bunch of old buildings and unproductive folks either living on government assistance or on the money of their great-grandfather’s labor, is not a good financial reason.

Put simply: The “Boutique City”, in addition to being an enourmous waste of our city’s potential, will surely fail to be able to protect itself because the resources will not be allocated simply because we are striving to make ourselves “quaint” and “charming”.

The “Boutique City” pretty much guarantees we end up the next Atlantis. Growth and demonstrated financial strength and a critical and vital population means that we can live on perpetually.

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The small airport satisfaction  rankings are out and it is no surprise that Louis Armstrong New Orleans International is near the bottom of the list.  You can check them out here. ( http://www.jdpower.com/travel/ratings/airport-ratings/small/sortcolumn-1/ascending/page-#page-anchor ) The only airport with lower ratings is San Jose (SJC), which lacks jetways for half its concourses and reminded me of a used plane sales lot the last time I flew through it.

The issues with Armstrong are fairly evident to anyone who has ever flown through it. It is inconsistent across the concourses with some very modern and well designed (C & D) and others horribly dated (B). The baggage claim for the majority of carriers is in need of significant updating. The passenger pickup area is a dirty and dank cave. The food is generally bad and the kiosks providing most food and drink have inconsistent quality and service and hours that don’t meet the needs of all the travelers particularly those leaving very early or arriving late.

The current Louis Armstrong International Airport (MSY) is an outdated airport. It needs to be updated to remain viable. Expansion would be difficult due to jurisdictional conflicts between the City of New Orleans, City of Kenner, Jefferson Parish and St. Charles Parish.

There has been talk for decades about building a new airport to either compliment or supplant MSY, in New Orleans East or between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

I’d like to take this opportunity to suggest another option.

Revamp Lakefront Airport as a new international airport.

With the airport designation NEW, New Orleans Lakefront Airport is an overlooked asset for the city. And since the creation of a new airport is a time consuming and arduous process, we should focus on revamping Lakefront and expanding it to handle international service.   Give incentives to international carriers to come into the market by giving them breaks on landing fees.

An aerial view of NEW, Lakefront Aiport

It’s location on a man-made peninsula on Lake Pontchartrain means that it could be expanded without using  already occupied land. With a new connector road in the corridor between Downman road and the Industrial Canal the airport would be minutes from downtown. It’s position next to the Industrial Canal and with a major rail link backing up to the property makes it a natural for inter-modal transportation opportunities.

Then we could move most of the national carriers that also handle international flights (Continental, Delta, American, United, etc) to the new airport, leaving MSY to handle carriers that don’t have international flights (Southwest, JetBlue, etc)   This is a model used successfully by cities like Houston (Hobby and IAH), Washington (DCA and IAD), Dallas (Love and DFW) and the Bay Area (SFO and Oakland) to grow their airlinks.  Build the New Airport with expanded cargo facilities and make a significant attempt to lure cargo flights from Miami, Memphis, Atlanta and Dallas. It’s position next to the Industrial Canal and with a major rail link backing up to the property makes it a natural for inter-modal transportation opportunities. Connect the new airport to rail lines that run directly to the port facilities.

This new airport and an expanded list of direct air connections are essential for the goal of being involved with the business of international trade and would also enhance our ability to attract both visitors and new businesses.

Revamping Lakefront Airport (NEW) as the new New Orleans International Airport positions our city to truly take advantage of our geographic location and enhance our position as Gateway to the Americas.  And the world.

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This is just a set, in concise form, of many of the themes, backgrounds, motifs and issues that are going to be central to this forum going forward. I expect that these will change over the course of writing in more detail. And who knows, my mind may change on some of these in the future. But now, just now, these are some of the more important points I’ll be working on with posts here.

- The River. The reason New Orleans is here, the reason our city was built here, and the reason we are still important to the rest of the country is due, primarily, to the river. Forget this and you will suffer for it.

- International Trade. We built a lot of things and grew when trade was central to our life in New Orleans. We began to ignore it and we began our decline.

- Tradition may or may not be a problem. Insularity almost always is.

- Romanticizing New Orleans and thinking that it is so “unique” that it doesn’t need to participate in the U.S. or world economy is one of the most damaging things you can do to the city. The people of New Orleans make it unique and if the people can’t sustain themselves then New Orleans dies as they leave for economic opportunity elsewhere.

- If you think national retail chains and large scale business are somehow incompatible with New Orleans, you haven’t been here long enough.

- Those who complain that they don’t want New Orleans to be like “Houston or Atlanta”  don’t seem to realize 1) Both those cities started out trying to be like New Orleans (in terms of economic primacy) and 2) that a lack of opportunity for our citizens will have them moving to places like Houston or Atlanta.

- Historic preservation is fine in small doses and when completely voluntary. When it becomes compulsory and preservationists become strident it becomes stifling.

- The combination of strident preservationists and an insular ruling class combine to be like a bad jealous lover for the city of New Orleans. They don’t want you to change and they don’t want you to meet anyone new.

- I will struggle to remember that you can get into a lot of trouble speaking in metaphors and similes in New Orleans.

- Neighborhood Organizations can be a double edged sword in a community, providing a method for disseminating crucial information and being a catalyst for positive neighborhood projects but oftentimes being resistant to change, a self appointed cadre of the NIMBY-minded with a reflexive NO towards most new development.

- Basic code enforcement, or rather the lack of it, is impacting economic development.

- In New Orleans, oftentimes, something is restricted so that you can have the privilege of paying to do it or have it done. More regulations generally just mean more opportunity for corruption.

- Almost every new development that has been built in the city in the past 50 years has had a positive impact on the areas around them. In the cases where you think they haven’t you need to perhaps look closer at what is causing the decline.

- Concentrating poverty has failed miserably.

- And to paraphrase Ernie K-Doe. “When you got your money in your pocket, that’s your money.”  That pretty well underscores how important individual economic opportunity is and why we should do the things we need to do to make sure that we build a prosperous city.

So… these are it… mostly, in a couple of bullet points what we will be talking about here.

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Use the area under the overpass at Canal and Claiborne to build a bus
transfer station.

Currently: The vast majority of RTA bus routes terminate at the corner
of Canal and Basin/Rampart/Loyola. There are no amenities for riders
to keep them from having to wait for buses in the sun and rain. Other
buses that serve riders in the city terminate on the corner of Loyola
and Tulane. The area of the bus stops is run down.

Proposal- Use the area under the overpass at Canal and Claiborne to
consolidate the bus stops into a bus transfer station.

Elements:

-         Fence the area for security with limited access points on
the ends of the station.

-         Provide Security for the area with both cameras and guards.

-         Install two small kiosks, about the size of a news stand to
sell cold drinks, newspapers and magazines. Use the rents from these
kiosks to defray the costs of security. On special event days local
merchants can be brought in, market style, to provide goods for the
bus passengers.

-         Install a Public Address system to announce the arrival and
departure of the buses.

-         Create a driver’s breakroom with a functioning restroom.

-         Provide ample trash receptacles.

-         Install adequate lighting for security.

-         Install a light colored fabric cover under the overpass to
keep debris off of the passengers and provide a canvas for a series of
decorative color changing LED light fixtures that can be programmed to
respond to special events. (Purple, Green and Gold for Mardi gras, Red
and green for Christmas, Team colors for a superbowl, etc.

Benefits

-         Would get public transit customers out of the elements while
waiting for their bus.

-         Would encourage reinvestment in both the corners of Canal
and Basin/Rampart and the corner of Canal and Claiborne.

-         Would consolidate the bus waiting areas to facilitate transfers.

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The proposal- Turn the old New Orleans Charity Hospital into a
biomedical business incubator.

The background – For a decade New Orleans has been looking to promote
the biomedical industry as a growth sector for its economy. As new
facilities for medical services are planned and come online there are
concerns about the disposition of legacy buildings. Amongst these is
the old New Orleans Charity Hospital. Concern about the fate of the
building is affecting discussions about the new modern,
state-of-the-art hospital facilities that are more suitable to the
practice of modern medicine than the Depression era, WPA inspired old
Hospital. This proposal seeks to, at once, provide and answer to that
question AND attract jobs and investment that are sorely needed in an
economically depressed and hurricane recovering New Orleans.

The plan – Use Old Charity Hospitals square footage as research space
for biomedical startups. Give over entire floors or wings to research
on a per square footage basis that starts at a very low cost and over
the course of a set term increases to market rate.

The mechanisms – A possible way this can be approached.

1 – An authority is set up to handle the building and research space
applications.  For sake of this exercise it is called the Old Charity
Biomedical Incubator Authority. (OCBIA)
OCBIA would be responsible for:
-       Basic building maintenance.
-       Processing applications for space
-       Tenant management
-       Building management.
This can be a city-state partnership, a private-state partnership, a
city-private partnership. But whomever the partners were they would be
responsible for restoring basic systems to the Old Charity Building.
The composition of the OCBIA board should be from the research and
financial sectors with a couple seats to represent city and state
interests.

2 – A biomedical start up would apply for space. – There would be a
form that would ask several questions to see if qualifying criteria
were met.
-       Type of research.
-       Committed funding sources. Grants, venture capitalist, private sources,
-       Projected square footage needed both at the beginning and at height
of research. To plan for future expansion of the research project.
-       Demonstration of ability to handle build out expenses and first
years lease payments.

A committee of researchers and financial administrators either would
evaluate the proposal on several criteria.
-       Long term prospects of success.
-       Added value to local economy of successful research.
-       Ability of the management team to see research through to conclusion.
-       Long term viability of the company.

3- Once chosen the start up would be responsible for:
-       The build out of their raw space
-       Lease payments
-       An annual report on progress of their research

The organization handling the process would be responsible for:
-       Providing a basic electric, water and sewerage service as well as
maintaining elevators and common areas.
-       Overseeing the build out of each research space to ensure there
weren’t permanent alterations to the building, or that any permanent
alterations didn’t undermine the building.
-       Managing tenants, contracting for shared services, like waste disposal.
-       Handling disputes between tenants.

4 – The start ups would be housed in the incubator for a set period of time.

After a suitable time, businesses would “graduate” from the incubator
to the local real estate market. This period can be 5 to 10 years.

A condition of participation in the incubator is that upon
graduation they would commit to continue to locate their business in
New Orleans.

The benefits-

New Orleans can be expected to reap several benefits from this proposal
-       Biomedical research jobs at good wages for an educated workforce.
-       The ability to attract and retain a college educated information workers.
-       A revitalized local real estate market for both research space and
market rate housing.
-       Enhanced economic positioning and increased economic diversity.
-       An adaptive reuse project for an outdated building.
-       A new industry built on a foundation of innovation.

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