New Orleans redevelopment plan = another naked land grab

C.C. Campbell-Rock
Date Published: 
March 1, 2006

New report offers candid look at numbers

Adorning the Krewe of Chaos Mardi Gras float in New Orleans are FEMA head Michael Brown, left, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin watching Black people cook in their gumbo pot.
Photo: Lucas Jackson, Reuters

“There is not a sign outside of New Orleans saying if you’re poor, sick, elderly, disabled, a child or African American, you cannot return. But there might as well be,” said attorney Bill Quigley, a Loyola Law School professor and Katrina evacuee who has since returned to New Orleans.

The noted civil rights lawyer’s comments appear in “The Mardi Gras Index: The State of New Orleans by the Numbers, Six Months After Katrina,” a special report by Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch.

The 36-page index released Tuesday, Feb. 28, Mardi Gras Day 2006, by the Institute for Southern Studies, contains more than 130 fact-based indicators which outline the stark realities confronting those who portend to rebuild New Orleans.

“In spite of a few hopeful signs, progress has largely stalled on the key issues that will shape the city’s future,” the attorney said.

For example: a lack of housing is keeping many from returning to New Orleans. No action is being taken to help renters, two thirds of those displaced by the storm; many homeowners remain in limbo; and 11,000 FEMA trailers stand idle in Hope, Arkansas.

“Health and safety concerns are keeping residents away — from rampant mold to pollution ‘hot spots,’ such as four city neighborhoods with 100 times accepted safe levels of arsenic. Regulators have offered no clean-up plan — creating a public health threat compounded by the city’s gutted health care system.

“Only 17 percent of the city’s public schools have re-opened — a fact that will prevent many families from returning. The absence of progress in hurricane preparedness will cause many to think twice about coming back. With just three months remaining until the 2006 hurricane season, there is no funding for full-scale wetland restoration or levees that could survive a hurricane the strength of Katrina (Category 3) or more,” according to the index.

The report also finds that those hurt most by the nation’s lack of commitment to rebuilding are those who suffered most from the catastrophic storms of 2005.

Bring New Orleans Back Plan is developer’s dream

The plan proffered by the Bring New Orleans Back Commission’s Urban Planning Committee offered far fewer statistics than the Institute.

However, plans for private-public development partnerships, target development areas, eminent domain and immediate opportunity areas belie the fact that the plan, which will be reviewed on March 8, 2006, at 6 p.m., in the Sheraton Hotel in New Orleans, boils down to a naked land grab.

Also, given the fact that Wallace Roberts & Todd, LLC, designed the master plan for the redevelopment of New Orleans and that the company has offices in San Francisco, among its office locations in six cities nationwide, some aspects of the plan sound eerily similar to the proposed Bayview Hunters Point Redevelopment Plan Amendment.

The notice of the public hearing on that plan reads like the redevelopment plan for New Orleans.

Whereas, under the San Francisco plan, 137 acres in Hunters Point (Project Area A) has been developed over the past several decades, the announced amendment adds approximately 1,361 acres of new land (Project Area B), which encompasses all of the Bayview Hunters Point community, with the exception of a few streets.

According to the Commission of the Redevelopment Agency of the City and County of San Francisco, the purpose of the redevelopment plan amendment is to “assist in the revitalization of those portions of the Bayview Hunters Point community affected by physical and economic blight conditions.”

The plan would provide for the “development of extremely low, very-low, and moderate income affordable homeownership and rental housing units and assist with the preservation and rehabilitation of existing home units, improve the existing public infrastructure, including streetscapes and other public space, create a more vibrant and balanced mixed-use commercial district, and balanced transportation and parking options, including improved access for transit, pedestrians, and bicycles.”

While couched in socially redemptive language, many in the Bayview Hunters Point community aren’t buying it and are calling Mayor Gavin Newsom’s redevelopment plans a “racist redevelopment” plan, and the mayor’s Redevelopment Agency, the “Removal & Relocation Agency.”

In a call to action, opponents of the plan are calling for solidarity. “Join us March 7, 3 p.m., outside on the steps of our city hall. While inside the relocation and gentrification agency continues its plans to evict and dispossess the community and residents of Bayview Hunters Point to provide more unaffordable housing and condos, to further enrich a few at the expense of many, now is the time for all good people to come to the aid of their brothers and sisters. Save Bayview Hunters Point. Say no to New Orleans in San Francisco.”

New Orleans plan skips San Francisco’s altruistic guise

Interestingly, while San Francisco’s commission unabashedly decided to grab the whole pie, instead of a piece, and said so in no uncertain terms, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission’s housing redevelopment plan doesn’t bother with altruistic motives or the fact that the levee breaches damaged 92 percent of homes in New Orleans.

In fact, the New Orleans commission plan targets the least damaged areas for redevelopment first, those that had little or no damage, in the affluent areas of the city, while leaving the most damaged areas last on the list of redevelopment priorities.

Worse, in listing out what the project will cost, of the approximate $17.5 billion in redevelopment funds the group hopes to get its hands on, only $10 million will come from a source listed as “other.” The rest will come from various federal agencies like FEMA, CDBG funds, DOT, FTA etc. In short, developers, such as Joseph Canizaro, the chair of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, plan to pony up $10 million from private sources and use federal disaster relief money for the rest. Not a bad return on investment.

Like San Francisco’s Bayview Hunters Point, a key factor in the New Orleans redevelopment plan is the building of a light rail transit system and parks and green spaces. The maps accompanying the New Orleans commission report indicate that large tracts of the Lower Ninth Ward will be converted into recreational parks and green spaces.

The plan also suggests that the city administration “aggressively support a modified Baker bill to accommodate buy-out of homeowners in heavily flooded areas.” Although Louisiana Congressman Richard Baker’s H.R. 4100 failed to win President Bush’s support or get the necessary votes for passage, Baker’s initial comments still reverberate like a stink bomb: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” God did what? Read: Get rid of Blacks.

The plan’s designers also “advise the city to not issue any permits to build or rebuild in heavily flooded and damaged areas until FEMA issues its base flood elevations, neighborhood planning teams have completed their plans and made recommendations to the city, and adequate and efficiently delivered utilities and city services are available.”

Those heavily flooded areas just happen to be situated in predominately African American neighborhoods like Bayview Hunters Point.

Translation? Don’t let homeowners rebuild until we determine if the neighborhoods are going to be rebuilt.

After calling for the “immediate” formation of the Crescent City Recovery Corp. (CCRC), which can only be done by amending the City Charter, amending the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority governance, policies and procedures to accommodate the CCRC formation, and making modifications to the Baker bill to establish a subsidiary entity, the plan’s developers called for a state legislated commission through which to delegate authority.

Voila! We now have the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which was created during the recent special session of the Louisiana Legislature. Before the ink was dry on most of the bills that came out of the session, the Louisiana Recovery Authority had produced a “‘draft concept’ for addressing the challenges of recovery and rebuilding from hurricanes Katrina and Rita.”

Both N.O. and S.F. would use eminent domain to grab Black land

However, the most telling aspect of the true motive behind the plan – the naked land grab – was hidden in plain view within the description of the CCRC’s powers: Receive and expend redevelopment funds, implement redevelopment plan, buy and sell property for redevelopment, including use of eminent domain as a last resort, issue bonds, coordinate with and enhance City Planning Commission capacity.

Somehow, there was no mention of rebuilding, repairing and replacing homes, as allowed in the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief Act. In fact, the only time homeowners were mentioned was in relation to being bought out.

Additionally, if homeowners and those who wish to return are depending on the Blacks on the Bring New Orleans Back Commission’s Urban Planning Committee to look out for their interests, they should think again. Those on that body have a track record of working with the establishment, of being the tokens, of being sell-outs.

And while New Orleans Mayor Nagin vowed not to buy into the “shrinking the footprint of the city” language that was floated out initially by the developer-led commission, it remains to be seen if he will have the courage to prevent the wholesale gentrification of the city of New Orleans.

CC Campbell-Rock, a native New Orleanian, veteran journalist and Katrina evacuee, is now the editor of the Bay View. Email her at campbellrock [at] sfbayview [dot] com.