By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 12, 2006
NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 11 -- Angry homeowners screamed and City Council members seethed Wednesday as this city's recovery commission recommended imposing a four-month building moratorium on most of New Orleans and creating a powerful new authority that could use eminent domain to seize homes in neighborhoods that will not be rebuilt.
Hundreds of residents packed into a hotel ballroom interrupted the presentation of the long-awaited proposal with shouts and taunts, booed its main architect and unrolled a litany of complaints. One by one, homeowners stepped to a microphone to lampoon the plan -- which contemplates a much smaller city and relies on persuading the federal government to spend billions on new housing and a light-rail system -- as "audacious," "an academic exercise," "garbage," "a no-good, rotten scheme."
"You missed the boat," homeowner Fred Yoder, who lived in heavily flooded Lakeview, told committee members. "Give me a break: We don't need a light-rail system. We're in the mud."
The plan released Wednesday is the first stage of what is sure to be a multi-layered, multi-level effort to resuscitate New Orleans. Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who can accept or alter the proposal, will have to present the plan to a state commission that will control allocation of billions of federal dollars, as well as to Donald E. Powell, President Bush's hurricane recovery coordinator, and the White House. The commission's recommendations are heavily dependent on federal money, counting on $12 billion to buy storm-damaged homes and $4.8 billion for infrastructure improvements, including an ambitious light-rail proposal to connect downtown New Orleans with the city's airport, Baton Rouge and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The furious reaction to the plan is the latest agonizing episode in this city's troubled campaign to reinvigorate itself after the devastating floods caused by Hurricane Katrina last August. Nagin, already politically weakened by widespread criticism of his response to the flooding, now faces the difficult challenge of guiding decisions about whether some parts of the city will cease to exist.
Some activists have long accused the commission -- which was appointed by Nagin -- of trying to find ways to abandon predominantly black neighborhoods, such as the Lower Ninth Ward. Wednesday's unveiling did nothing to assuage their fears, even though commission members promised to give all neighborhoods an opportunity to prove that they should be rebuilt by convening planning groups in coming months. The proposed moratorium would be in the city's most damaged neighborhoods, and officials would use the four-month period to gauge whether enough residents will come back to make the areas viable.
"If this plan goes forward as it is, many people's worst fears about our African American heritage and population will come true," said Sue Sperry of the New Orleans Preservation Resource Center. "It's almost like it will be extinguished from this earth."
Within minutes of the plan's unveiling, Nagin was already showing signs that he might back away from the commission's most controversial proposal. He told WWL-AM that he had some "hesitancy" about the building moratorium. He promised to seek more public input before making a final decision.
At least two of the commission's proposals -- the creation of the Crescent City Rebuilding Authority to buy flood-damaged homes and the implementation of a master redevelopment plan -- will require changes to the city charter, a prospect sure to be contentious because of the mayor's long-standing animosities with the New Orleans City Council. The city is also waiting on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to determine base elevation levels required before flood insurance can be issued. The commission is hoping that Congress will approve a quasi-public recovery authority proposed by U.S. Rep. Richard H. Baker (R-La.) that would sell bonds to buy flood-damaged homes, then work with private developers to rebuild neighborhoods.
Despite the hurdles ahead, the commission urged fast action on a broad set of recommendations, including stronger levees and a restructured school system. John Beckham, a consultant who helped devise the plan, urged residents to "imagine the best city in the world."
Beckham -- who declined repeated requests Wednesday to identify the private foundation that hired him to draw up the plan for the commission -- told the audience that New Orleans could have "a park in every neighborhood," "a bustling downtown" and a city connected by bike paths and public transportation systems.
Beckham was introduced by the commission's urban planning chairman, Joseph C. Canizaro, a real estate developer and major fundraiser for Bush, who chuckled when he was booed by some in attendance. "This is just a beginning," Canizaro told the audience.
Mindful that Bush will have a tremendous influence on how much money finds its way to Louisiana, Beckham displayed some of the president's pledges on large screens. He reminded the crowd that Bush said Sept. 15 that "we will do what it takes" to rebuild New Orleans and of his promise in December to build levees that are better and stronger than before. On Thursday, Bush will visit the city for the first time in three months.
The commission's recovery plan anticipates a city that will be only a fraction of its pre-Katrina size of nearly half a million residents. Beckham said the city now has about 144,000 residents and is projected to grow to 181,000 by September and 247,000 by September 2008.
The shrunken city will need a restructured and more efficient local government, Beckham said, drawing smirks from City Council members seated behind the committee. The City Council, which has clashed with Nagin repeatedly -- most recently trying to use zoning laws to block sites he selected for temporary housing trailers -- has effectively been cut out of the power loop in the recovery process and does not have authority over the recovery plan. Before the commission's report had even been announced, five City Council members -- responding to leaks of the plan's main components to the city's influential newspaper, the Times-Picayune -- held a news conference to condemn the committee in the same hotel where the recovery plan was to be unveiled.
Council member Jackie Brechtel Clarkson called the proposal "a blatant violation of property rights."
"I think it's unprecedented in America," said Clarkson, who is also a real estate agent.
The council members were flanked by leaders of the large Vietnamese community that flocked after the Vietnam War to New Orleans East, one of the areas that would be affected by the moratorium. "It just hurt us -- again," said the Rev. Luke Nguyen of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. "We have 700, 800 families already returned, ready to gut and fix their houses."
Nguyen streamed into the reception hall, shouldering past activists and homeowners bristling with anger. On a table nearby, the commission had placed placards, declaring, "We're Home." Nguyen did not bother to pick one up.