Group Tackles Strategy for New Orleans Rebuilding

A group charged with devising a plan to rebuild New Orleans by year's end is touring the city this week. City leaders asked the Urban Land Institute to make recommendations, and the group's goal is to provide the city with a strategic framework for proceeding by Friday.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

New Orleans is trying to come up with a plan for rebuilding the city. Because of the size and complexity of the task, Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission has asked a non-profit group for help. It's called the Urban Land Institute, and this week a ULI panel of architects, planners and real estate developers is touring New Orleans. Their goal: to provide the city with a comprehensive rebuilding plan by Friday. NPR's John Ydstie reports.

JOHN YDSTIE reporting:

There's really only one way to get a sense of the scale of the damage in New Orleans as well as the city's potential. That's to take a long drive through it. The ULI panel did that yesterday. They climbed on a tour bus and wound through neighborhoods of spreading oaks and grand homes, past lavender and pink shotgun houses in modest neighborhoods.

(Soundbite of tour guide)

Unidentified Woman: We're about to enter at La Crosse, Claiborne, the Fontainebleau neighborhood. This neighborhood did not fare well in the floods.

YDSTIE: They navigated 30-foot piles of trash and drove through devastated areas like Lakeview, then across the London Avenue Canal.

Unidentified Man #1: The breach is right there. You can see it, Tony.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

(Soundbite of tour guide)

Unidentified Woman: We have just crossed into Gentilly. The income levels drop off in this area.

YDSTIE: They drove through miles of nearly empty neighborhoods and into the wreckage in the Lower Ninth Ward. At the end of the tour, Charles Kendrick, a financier from Boston, and Tony Salazar, a real estate developer from Los Angeles, had these impressions.

Mr. CHARLES KENDRICK (Financier): I've been doing these panels for 15 years and I've never seen anything of this scale.

Mr. TONY SALAZAR (Real Estate Developer): It is much, much larger than I ever even imagined. It is so huge, so colossal it's hard to even explain to people that have not seen it with their own eyes the amount of devastation, the amount of cleanup, the amount of abandonment. And the task before us is--where do you start and how do you start? What are the first few steps so that you get off on the right foot?

YDSTIE: Later the ULI panel gathered in a hotel ballroom where New Orleans residents shared their visions for the future. Many residents praised the walkable human scale of New Orleans' traditional neighborhoods and urged that be a model for the rebuilding. And there were other ideas.

Ms. DEWANNA TOWNSEND(ph) (New Orleans Resident): Hi, I'm Dewanna Townsend. My idea is called a city within a city. The concept is modeled after Williamsburg, but on a much grander scale. It really encompasses every business, every industry, every culture.

Mr. ROBERT BELL(ph) (Broadmoor Resident): Hi, my name is Robert Bell. I'm from Broadmoor. I would like to avoid a Williamsburgation or Disneyfication of the city. Williamsburg is a dead community. People pretend while they are there.

Mr. BILLY RAFFOLD(ph) (New Orleans Resident): My name is Billy Raffold. I'm a resident of New Orleans. My people have been here since 1847. It's important that as we move forward we not leave the poor blacks and the poor whites who are way all over this country left out of our development.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. SANDRA WILLIAMS (New Orleans East Resident): My name is Sandra Williams, and I'm a homeowner in New Orleans East. And it's literally a ghost town in New Orleans East.

YDSTIE: There were also calls for stronger flood protection and a light-rail system to connect the metro area. Today the ULI panel is doing more interviews and then will hammer out its plan behind closed doors before making it public on Friday. The group's leader, Smedes York, a developer and former mayor of Raleigh, North Carolina, says he hopes the document can help the city move forward.

Former Mayor SMEDES YORK (Raleigh, North Carolina; Developer): We want to talk about strategy, next steps. What would you do Monday morning? Where do you go from here? What are the priorities? One that we hope would be followed, but at the same time it is up to the commission.

YDSTIE: The Bring Back New Orleans Commission hopes to have a final plan in place by year's end. John Ydstie, NPR News, New Orleans.

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