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Conservatively liberal, moderately well-educated, and highly opinionated...

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Monday, February 06, 2006

Tell me the plan again, please

Since late last week, Polimom’s been wandering in and out of the office… staring at the computer monitor… drafting and discarding one thing after another… trying to respond to Donald Powell’s explanation of why the White House is holding up rebuilding funds for Louisiana (and thus, New Orleans).

The rejection of the Baker Bill - a whole separate kettle of fish - was only part of what Powell wrote in the Washington Post [my emphasis]:

Last week we announced that Louisiana will receive $6.2 billion through the well-tested Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. This will be available once the state submits a detailed plan to the federal government on how it plans to use the funds.

There it is - that "plan" thing. Apparently, it isn't just the Baker Bill that won't go anywhere; the CDBG is likewise stalled.

The pat answer from nearly everyone has been, “But there IS a plan!”. Is that really true?

It wasn't until I found myself in a (slightly heated) debate, attempting to defend "the plan", that I uncovered my own faith-based assumptions - and discovered that I still don't know the answers to these key questions:

Does the city plan to support the entire former footprint? If it does, by when? Immediately? Or are neighborhoods at risk of being bought out and massively redeveloped? Or would a "non-viable" neighborhood become a park/flood-plain?

At the moment, it looks like New Orleans is going with the entire footprint – but only as a “non-plan”. Adam Nossiter of the NYTimes writes:

House by house, in devastated neighborhoods across the city, homeowners are bringing back their new-minted building permits and rebuilding New Orleans. As many as 500 such permits are issued every day, said Greg Meffert, the city official in charge of the rebuilding process.

And there is no particular rhyme or reason to who gets a permit, or consideration of whether their neighborhoods can really support its previous residents. One city building inspector, Devra Goldstein, called the proceedings on the eighth floor "really fly-by-night, chaotic, Wild West, get-what-you-want."

The floor, she said, represents "a plan by default."

Is this the missing plan to which Powell and Bush have alluded?

Unfortunately, the federal authorities don’t seem to understand that New Orleans officials are politically hamstrung. They cannot simply say, “These neighborhoods will not be rebuilt and those will”. Even if someone dared make such decisions, it will all be up for grabs again in April.

Somebody must uncouple the question of funding (the "how") from neighborhood planning (the "what") and unequivocally define the neighborhoods of tomorrow, of 2010, and 2020 - without dream-like embellishments of light rails and Storyvilles. Lovely as those visions are, they've obfuscated the most important issues.

Of course, such an uncoupled plan was presented to the city months ago, and it was blown away by emotion and politics. (Remember the ULI plan?) Has enough time passed for reason to enter the equation?

Meanwhile, Crosby said he felt it time "to grab the city by the lapels and say, we know people are hurting, we know people are suspicious, but we must come to the table and set aside mistrust to have a conversation about our future."

If local officials can’t do this (and Polimom believes they can’t), then someone else must – because a default plan is no plan at all.