New Orleans Master Plan Stalled

Remember the pledge that New Orleans would develop a master plan to rebuild as soon as a mayor was elected and flood maps were reviewed? So far, there has been little public action.

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What's the plan? In post-Katrina New Orleans, that's still a question without an answer. It's been 14 months since the storm, and six months since city elections. But the local government has yet to commit to a blueprint for rebuilding the city, and the lack of a plan has left hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians in limbo. NPR's Martin Kaste reports from New Orleans.

MARTIN KASTE: Meet Caroline Parker. She's a big reason New Orleans doesn't yet have a recovery plan.

Ms. CAROLINE PARKER (New Orleans Resident): Well, they had a plan for us not to return. They said that they was going to take all of this land and they wanted it to be a green space?

KASTE: Sitting on the front stoop of her house in the Lower Ninth Ward, Park recalls the infamous night last January when the mayor's blue ribbon commission suggested turning neighborhoods like hers into green spaces, to shrink the city to a more manageable size.

Ms. PARKER: Yeah, I was the one they was quoting. Over my dead body. Mm-hmm, at the Sheraton Hotel.

KASTE: Parker's over my dead body quote made the papers, and NPR, and city leaders quickly backed off the idea of shrinking the city. The very phrase green spaces has become political poison in New Orleans. The idea now is to let all neighborhoods come back.

(Soundbite of power company crew)

It's a policy that leads to strange scenes, such as this one: a lone power company crew slowly setting up new utility poles along a street of crushed and collapsed houses. There's no way anybody could live in this neighborhood anytime soon, but it is well on its way to having power. At the same time, populated parts of the city are still waiting for traffic lights at some key intersections.

There may be no plan, but there is a planning process. On a recent Saturday, a few hundred residents gathered at the Convention Center for a kind of large-scale focus group.

You can use the keypads to indicate your choice, your - which of the answers most applies to you. You just press the button of your choice. You'll see a green-yellow light...

KASTE: This is what's called the Unified New Orleans Plan, an effort run by consultants and funded by private foundations. It started this summer, after it became clear the city would need some kind of plan in order to capture more federal grants. The planning process, known as UNOP, is fed by enumerable surveys and local meetings. And the idea is to roll all of this grassroots input into one citywide plan by January.

It's all very democratic, but Bill Borah has his doubts.

Mr. BILL BORAH (Unified New Orleans Plan): We're like lemmings going off a cliff.

KASTE: Borah is a veteran of many city planning fights over the years. He once helped to stop an elevated highway plan for the French Quarter. He's taking part in UNOP, but he's worried that it could turn out to be a waste of time. He points to the way Mayor Nagin and the city council have shot down other attempts at recovery plans.

Mr. BORAH: You can argue there is no responsible leadership, political leadership, in the area of land use planning in this city. Period.

KASTE: Many here expected the mayor to announce a comprehensive plan once he was safely reelected last May. But that didn't happen. He hasn't pledged to adopt the Unified New Orleans Plan either, and by itself the plan would have no legal teeth. It could very easily end up on the shelf alongside its predecessors, especially if it proposes a change to the city's footprint.

Ms. DONNA ADDKISON (Development Director): Is the question of the footprint shrinking a realistic question? Probably not.

KASTE: Donna Addkison is Mayor Nagin's new development director. She says the mayor appreciates the information that UNOP is gathering about the city. But she says he's not likely to let any plan dictate where people should rebuild.

Ms. ADDKISON: He is a strong believer in the power of the market. When we provide our residents and our business owners with accurate information, they will make well-informed decisions.

KASTE: And New Orleanians are making those decisions, one by one. With the courage of 19th century homesteaders, a few have moved back into the gloomy Lower Ninth Ward. Others have sold out and moved to the suburbs. Still others are restoring homes in Broadmoor, a central neighborhood so flood-prone, it used to be a favorite fishing hole.

So while the city closes in on its final recovery plan, residents are operating under the assumption that it will have little effect on the plans they're already making for themselves.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, New Orleans.

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