Published January 13, 2015
Every part of this devastated city, from neighborhoods below sea level to mainstays of its storied culture, could have a chance to rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
As officials put together a blueprint for New Orleans' rebirth, a commission appointed by Mayor Ray Nagin was expected to recommend on Wednesday that residents be given the power to decide what shape their neighborhoods should take.
The Bring New Orleans Back Commission hopes to form a clearer picture of what areas would be rebuilt by the end of the year.
Its recommendations, which could become part of the master rebuilding plan, will likely draw fire from urban planners, who say many sections of the city are not safe from future flooding.
Building levees capable of withstanding a Category 3 storm and creating a government-funded reconstruction corporation to buy out land and properties are pivotal to the commission's rebuilding plans, according to members of the urban planning committee.
Doug Meffert, co-chairman of the sustainability subcommittee, said it also will be essential that homeowners can be bought out at fair market value. The subcommittee will recommend that the corporation buy out properties at full value minus what insurance pays out.
"If we are not able to buy out people, it will be difficult to redesign the city," Meffert said.
He said New Orleans would end up with "spotty development and angry residents" if the future of the city's devastated areas are left up to market forces.
Commission members were invited to think big when dreaming up ideas, with little regard for the price tag. That will be dealt with later, when New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast divvy up the $29 billion in federal aid designated for hurricane recovery and reconstruction.
Some audacious ideas being considered are re-creating a long-gone jazz district, building a network of bike paths and commuter rail lines, and establishing a top-flight school system.
Recommendations will also call for tax incentives to lure new businesses and to keep those already here.
Another idea is to use tax credits to re-create Storyville, the city-backed red-light district that operated for 20 years until it was shut down in 1917. It was later razed.
The idea is not to bring back the sex trade, but rather reclaim the district's musical legacy. Many jazz pioneers — Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Manuel Perez among them — played in the district's bordellos.
The commission is expected to propose revamping the city's public school system, which has been plagued by low-performing schools, broken facilities, high turnover and corruption.
Recommendations call for giving schools more autonomy, cutting the bureaucracy, creating more charter schools and giving parents more choice on where to send their children, said commission member Scott Cowen.
But a recommendation that all parts of the city — even the predominantly black Lower Ninth Ward, the worst-hit section — should be given a chance to rebuild is likely to be among the most controversial.
The Urban Land Institute caused a stir late last year when it issued a report urging the city to put its resources into rebuilding areas that were not flooded. The institute warned that if New Orleans tried to rebuild everything, the city would be condemned to a slow, patchwork recovery.
The recommendation sparked outrage among many New Orleans residents, including former Mayor Marc Morial, who is president of the National Urban League.
He said the civil rights group would oppose any rebuilding plan that would wipe out neighborhoods where generations of families have lived. The group was also concerned about suggestions that some devastated areas could be turned into marshland or open space.
The commission's seven committees will each issue a report and turn them over to Nagin by Jan. 20. The mayor can accept or reject any of the recommendations, a process that could take weeks. The plan's final shape will be determined to a large degree by Congress and President Bush, who hold the purse strings.