Gulf Coast Watch
The New York Times, April 7, 2007 -- Louisiana homeowners may get faster access to rebuilding grants after a federal decision in late March that is forcing the state to change its slow-moving $7.5 billion “Road Home” program to repair houses damaged or destroyed by the hurricanes of 2005. The program has been criticized around the state for its slow pace in handing out the money, which was provided by the federal government. As of April 3, more than 121,000 families had applied to Road Home, but roughly half had still not had been told how much money they could receive.
HUD’s decision will affect the second phase of Mississippi’s program, which is supposed to help low-income homeowners rebuild even if they were not sufficiently insured. This phase of the program had originally required bank involvement in disbursing money, in part because of concerns about predatory lenders and predatory contractors. Instead, Mississippi will emphasize providing financial counseling and information to those who qualify for the grants. About 7,300 families have applied so far. The state has already handed out $845 million to more than 12,000 families who applied for the first round of grants, which went to those outside the flood zone whose houses were damaged.
The changes have raised concerns that some homeowners will not use their grants of up to $150,000 for repairs or could lose them to fraud or debt, potentially leading to increased blight in hard-hit areas.
USA TODAY, April 9, 2007 -- New Orleans and Louisiana have demanded the federal government pay a damage bill that is more than double the entire cost of the massive Gulf Coast rebuilding effort. So many claims have been filed against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the agency needs at least another month even to tally the floor-to-ceiling stacks, spokesman Vic Harris said. Among the more than 70,000 damage claims filed is one for $200 billion by Louisiana’s attorney general and another by New Orleans for $77 billion. Those two alone are more than double the $110 billion Congress approved for Florida and the Gulf Coast after Katrina and two other hurricanes struck in 2005.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 9, 2007 -- The next time a hurricane floods New Orleans, whole neighborhoods might just bob up like corks as the water rises. Under a proposal by Louisiana State University engineering students, traditional shotgun houses would be attached to “buoyant foundations” -- essentially big blocks of plastic foam -- and “telescoped” pilings that grow longer as the water gets deeper. Once in wide-scale production, it would cost $20,000 to $30,000 to change an existing frame house into a floatable one. Buoyant houses already have been built in the Netherlands, and hunting and fishing lodges that float when rivers rise already are occupied in the bayous of Louisiana itself.
New House News Service, April 2, 2007 -- During the past month and a half, the Democratic-led Congress has been moving recovery-aid legislation at a hurricane-force clip. The House or Senate has passed six major bills with money to rebuild New Orleans levees, renovate public housing, forgive disaster recovery loans, let hurricane-battered states off the hook for paying recovery expenses, help minority-run businesses, overhaul the contracting process, rebuild the fishing industry and provide incentives to attract teachers to the city and developers to build affordable apartments.
Six other measures -- including those authorizing hurricane- and flood-protection projects, expediting small-business disaster loans and pumping $500 million into affordable housing -- have cleared key committees. The catch, for now, is that none of the bills has yet cleared both houses and been signed into law.
The Clarion-Ledger, April 9, 2007 -- Mississippi will receive $275,427,730 in support of the state’s “Katrina Cottages” initiative, U.S. Sen. Trent Lott announced today. FEMA made the award to Mississippi’s Alternative Housing Pilot Program official this afternoon. The “Katrina Cottages” initiative seeks to replace temporary FEMA trailers with more permanent, safer structures better resembling traditional homes.
On April 3 the City Council voted unanimously to start the process of creating a historic district for the Bay St. Louis downtown area. Both Bay St. Louis and Hancock County are continuing with a comprehensive planning process.
Mississippi Sun Herald, April 7, 2007 -- With the exception of slightly wider traffic lanes and a limited stretch of improved parking, the new version of Beach Boulevard won’t differ greatly in appearance from the old. Running south from U.S. 90 past Washington Street, the popular and historic thoroughfare will look pretty much as it did before Hurricane Katrina’s winds and surge reduced it to rubble in 2005. MDOT engineers said the new version will have mostly 12-foot driving lanes, where the old road had some lanes as narrow as 10½ feet before the hurricane. There will be some green space designed between curbs and sidewalks. The road will have parallel parking along most of its route, with limited angle parking between Main and Court Streets. That falls short of a version envisioned by Mayor Eddie Favre, which would have been built with jogging and bicycle paths on both sides of the road, improved green space and other new features. Officials hope for the new road to be completed and opened by July 2008.
Mississippi Sun Herald, April 10, 2007 -- Officials have approved ambitious plans for a live/work complex along the Jourdan River in north Bay St. Louis, signaling continued recovery from Hurricane Katrina and the largest multi-story residential development in city history. Partners of River Walk Inc. gained city approval last week of its master plan for a 1,650-unit development on 183 acres of pastureland in north Bay St. Louis, where Washington Street meets the river. Plans call for River Walk to have townhouses, condominiums, retail spaces and live-work units.
The complex is expected to have 9.5 units per acre. Although they will vary in size, the tallest buildings will be 8 to 10 stories high, according to the development plan. The complex will also have extensive green space, a 50-slip marina and clubhouse, restaurant, ship’s store and 28 boathouses situated along a canal. Waterways will have deep-water access to the Jourdan River, canals, a lagoon and a pond.
The development, to be situated on land known as Old Cazaubon Farm, is being designed by local architect Allison Anderson. Partners in River Walk are Kenny Allison, James Stockstill and David Allison.
Mississippi Sun Herald, April 9, 2007 -- Planning Commissioners searched for any special circumstance or technicality in city ordinances that would allow them to grant approval to a couple to build a Katrina cottage this week, but to no avail. Eventually they voted to recommend denial of a request by Robert Gautier Jr. and Sandra M. DeHoyos for a variance to build the cottage on land they will purchase. The cottages offered by Lowe’s Home Improvement in Gautier do not meet minimum square footage requirements for construction of a new home. The largest of the alternative houses measures 1,172 square feet.
The couple had asked for a 153-square-foot variance on the city’s 1,325-square-foot requirement. DeHoyos said they could add the remaining footage to the home in about a year. She and Gautier are living in a FEMA trailer because Hurricane Katrina destroyed their housing at another location. Commissioner Nick Richards had hoped the cottage was replacing their home at the present location, which might have served as a reason to grant the variance. Several Commission members said they would be glad to see the Council override their recommendation to deny the variance.
HDR Town Planning has been retained to prepare a comprehensive plan for the city of Gulfport. Robert Alminana of HDR’s San Francisco office is the project manager.
Gulfport also has started developing SmartCode regulating maps for the city. A draft map has been created for the city’s downtown area and a regulating map for the community of Mississippi City is under development.
WLOX.com, April 4, 2007 -- During an April 3 Council meeting, a design team from the Wallace, Roberts and Todd consulting firm publicly unveiled its vision for Jones park. This particular vision, which is suburban in feel, includes a waterfront parking lot, a ballpark, a playground, and event space in the form of an amphitheater. City Council members say if they adopt the master plan, there will be public meetings to discuss possible changes or additions.
WLOX.com, March 30, 2007 -- Ocean Springs has received a $225,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce to craft a waterfront master plan, starting from the bridge around the harbor, and linking the waterfront to downtown. The funds will be used to hire an engineer, landscape architect, and other experts to address issues ranging from beach erosion to traffic.
“There’s never really been a plan, so to speak. There are traffic issues, congestion, parking in particular. There’s a question of whether we should separate boat trailer traffic from the regular traffic on the beach, or re-route our one-way so boat trailers don’t go through downtown,” Mayor Connie Moran said.
As soon as the consultants are hired, the city will schedule meetings with interested property owners and residents.
A group of five hurricane relief organizations have partnered to rebuild and build 100 homes in 100 days. The project will be the first of its kind and will include rebuilding of an entire neighborhood in Pascagoula. It started March 26, with completion projected for July 4. The partnership of relief organizations is composed of the Salvation Army, American Red Cross, Mississippi Home Again, Hope Has a Face Foundation, and the Jackson County Community Services Coalition. The American Red Cross and the Salvation Army have pledged to fund up to $1 million each in support of the project, which is currently ahead of schedule. Volunteers continue to come from all over the country to help with this effort.
The city of Pascagoula will receive assistance from the Urban Land Institute (ULI) about the highest and best use for a 26-acre parcel of land being purchased by the city. The site was formerly the old Live Oak Apartments in Pascagoula and best known as Carver Village. It had been a haven for criminal activity in the past. The city has demolished all of the structures on the property; it is now ready for redevelopment. The ULI will provide professional planning recommendations for a parcel of land that has great potential to revitalize the area.
Pascagoula’s mayor, City Council Members, and city staff recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with the Congressional delegation and present requests for funding of very important projects for the city of Pascagoula. City leaders met with Senator Trent Lott, Congressman Gene Taylor, the staff of Senator Thad Cochran, Congressman Roger Wicker, and Congressman Chip Pickering. The Mayor and City Council have been very successful in securing several million dollars in funds for important projects over the last few years as a result of these trips to D.C. Since Hurricane Katrina, the support of the congressional delegation has been integral in the city’s recovery and rebuilding efforts.
After more than a year of discussion, Pass Christian’s Board of Aldermen voted 4-0 during an April 3 meeting to officially adopt a calibrated SmartCode for the city. One resident at the meeting called it a historic vote and Mayor Chipper McDermott agreed, saying the plan wouldn’t have been possible without the extensive help provided by consultant Jeff Bounds and residents who sat through the meetings and offered their opinions.
In other news, HDR Town Planning has been retained to prepare a comprehensive plan for Pass Christian. Robert Alminana of HDR’s San Francisco office is the project manager.
Mississippi Sun Herald, April 1, 2007 -- If there were doubts Pass Christian is climbing toward normalcy 19 months after Hurricane Katrina all but leveled it, they were likely erased by mid-afternoon Saturday as thousands came into the city for two festivals that are old favorites. Residents from along the Coast and elsewhere came out for Barbecue Under the Oaks and Art in the Pass, held on opposite ends of town in ideal weather, as the wind blew up from the Gulf and through the oaks, while children played and their parents purchased art and dined on barbecue and Cajun fare. For most, Saturday’s festivities were proof the town is making significant strides in recovery because both events drew such large crowds.
In March, Harrison County adopted the Community Plans for Henderson Point-Pass Christian Isles and Pineville. The county is preparing to begin planning efforts for two more communities in the county starting this summer. During the next year, the county will prepare a new comprehensive plan and rewrite the zoning and subdivision regulations.
The Town Center Plan for Saucier won a 2007 CNU Award and the Community Plan for Pineville won an award from the Small Town and Rural Planning Division of the American Planning Association.
The Times-Picayune, March 27, 2007 -- The shrunken population in eastern New Orleans and uncertainty about the extent of the area’s eventual recovery has caused retailers to deliberate carefully about whether to reopen. Some have taken the plunge, including The Home Depot and Lowe’s.
By the city’s official count, 218 businesses were operating in eastern New Orleans at the end of February 2007. But for some retailers, the uncertainty has been too much to overcome.
It’s a classic Catch-22. In each of the city’s neighborhoods, reopened businesses are a closely watched barometer of the area’s post-Katrina recovery. The resumption of commerce offers a sense of optimism to homeowners as they make their own decisions about coming back. Reopened businesses are a promise of sorts that a neighborhood has a certain base level of services.
But businesses need reassurances, too. They want to be certain there will be enough customers to sustain their operations once they reopen. The commercial corridor along Bullard south of Interstate 10 is dominated by national chain stores, few of which have reopened. Some, such as the International House of Pancakes, Shoney’s and Pep Boys, say they plan to reopen in the coming months. Others, including Circuit City, Toys R Us and Sav-A-Center, say they haven’t yet made decisions about their stores on Bullard.
The Times-Picayune, March 27, 2007 -- Yesterday, a collection of residents from more than 15 neighborhood associations in eastern New Orleans created a commission designed to give them and other neighborhood groups east of the Industrial Canal a greater voice in the post-Katrina redevelopment of eastern New Orleans. First on its agenda of quality-of-life issues will be to request a review of more than a dozen proposed projects to build government-subsidized multifamily housing in eastern New Orleans.
Since Katrina, at least 14 multi-family housing developments in eastern New Orleans have been authorized to receive federal tax credits. Each project must set aside at least 20 percent of the apartments for low-income residents. The renovations and new-construction projects represent 1,915 apartments and a total investment of more than $200 million.
The commission immediately will begin gathering information about the projects so they can be reviewed by the commission, which could recommend changes.
The Times-Picayune, March 29, 2007 -- In the first decisive plan from City Hall that identifies which neighborhoods will benefit first from public investment, city officials have unveiled a comprehensive blueprint pegged on 17 redevelopment zones -- the bulk of them west of the Industrial Canal -- as the anchors of a $1.1 billion effort to spark an economic resurgence.
The plan seeks to strategically invest public dollars to fuel investment from entrepreneurs and developers to anchor key business corridors, and will direct 90 percent of available money toward loans, grants and other incentives, said New Orleans recovery czar Ed Blakely.
The city would spend the remaining money on such public assets as libraries, police stations or health clinics, Blakely said. The city intends to direct its money at luring much larger -- and permanent -- investment from entrepreneurs who, like many homeowners, have been lingering on the sidelines waiting for City Hall to provide guidance. Despite its broad scope, Blakely described the plan as achievable, given the city’s limited financial and administrative resources.
Though 15 of the targeted zones include places already experiencing some revival, a big chunk of the money -- $145 million over five years -- is slated to be spent in two of the worst-ravaged areas: the Lower 9th Ward and a swath of eastern New Orleans centered around the former Lake Forest Plaza shopping center, now a pile of rubble.
Some of the others, such as Broad Street near the Lafitte public housing complex, were in need of redevelopment before Hurricane Katrina. The rest are places such as Broadmoor and the downtown stretch of Canal Street, which have enjoyed quick post-flood investment but still need help.
Michael Mehaffey, coordinator for the New Orleans Neighborhood Renaissance Centers Advisory Group, reports:
The Blakely plans implement many of the elements of the DPZ charrettes, including the Gentilly Town Center project. A key element of the DPZ plan for Gentilly was a targeted redevelopment of the shopping center at Gentilly Boulevard and Elysian Fields Boulevard. In addition, the concept of “clustering” was a key element of our proposal -- the recognition that many homes will inevitably remain vacant, and the best way to consolidate is to provide incentives for people to cluster around new amenities, rather than designating “no-build” zones. (This was a disastrous element of a previous proposal.) To do this, they can voluntarily trade out their existing homes.
This is the core concept of the current Blakely plan, which creates a series of new amenities in targeted locations. In the plan, these targeted areas are expected to regenerate areas of about ¼-mile square. In addition, Blakely has informed us that he will implement a form of the proposal for Neighborhood Rebuilding Centers. He is planning on a mobile resource that will distribute coordinated information, much as our plan proposed.
Meanwhile, we are continuing to develop our original proposal, with partners including the Preservation Resource Center, the Neighborhoods Partnership Network, Dartmouth University, the University of North Carolina, the University of New Orleans and others. We will feed this to Blakely’s office and to other independent volunteer efforts already under way. For more information, go to www.tectics.com/NRCs.htm.
Also, there will be a session at CNU XV on the work in New Orleans, to which Blakely has tentatively accepted an invitation. Other participants include Andrés Duany, Ray Gindroz and [Michael Mehaffey].
The Times-Picayune, March 31, 2007 -- A Georgia development company has been quietly working to assemble a vast swath of Mid-City, including the Lindy Boggs Medical Center, to create a nearly contiguous 20-acre site for 1.2 million square feet of retail space for national chains that until now have been unable to find a home inside the city.
The site being assembled by Victory Real Estate Investments LLC is huge, covering more than half a square mile from Jefferson Davis Parkway to Carrollton Avenue and from Toulouse to Bienville streets. A second phase being discussed would involve an additional 9 acres on the lake side of North Carrollton, across the street from Sav-A-Center.
The project has been well below the radar, with few city officials aware of it aside from Councilwoman Shelley Midura. Midura has been briefed on the project and is working closely with the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, which has been playing a behind-the-scenes watchdog role on the development.
“We don’t want a suburban-style development plopped in the middle of an urban area,” association member Janet Ward Pease said.
Planning Panel Approves ‘Green’ Low-Income Project Backed by Brad Pitt
The Times-Picayune, April 16, 2007 -- The New Orleans City Planning Commission last week approved a 23-unit “environmentally friendly,” low-income residential development in the Lower 9th Ward being built by Global Green USA with backing from actor Brad Pitt.
The complex is being designed to require 75 percent less energy than typical New Orleans buildings by using solar panels and other “green” technology, said Beth Galante, director of Global Green’s New Orleans office. It will include an 18-unit apartment building, five single-family homes and a community center containing offices, an auditorium, a visitor center, a community kitchen and retail space.
Global Green hopes to break ground in May and complete the first home by Aug. 29, the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Galante said. The rest of the complex should be finished by next summer.
The final cost is not set, but it will be more than $8 million. Galante did not know how much of that Pitt is underwriting, but part of the financing is coming from federal low-income housing tax credits, she said.
The Wall Street Journal, April 11, 2007 -- Developers awarded federal tax credits to build affordable housing in post-Katrina New Orleans are concluding that many of the projects aren’t financially feasible and are unlikely to get built before the government’s 2008 deadline.
After Hurricane Katrina destroyed more than 82,000 low- and moderate-income rental units in 2005, the federal government substantially increased Louisiana’s tax-credit allocation, giving the state $170 million in low-income housing tax credits specifically for hurricane-ravaged areas.
Under the terms of the agreement, the developers must be ready to rent the units by the end of 2008 or lose crucial financial benefits that could help push their projects along. But according to the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency, about 65 percent of the projects that were awarded tax credits are in jeopardy because developers can’t get them off the ground. Some private developers say the number of projects in jeopardy is much higher, perhaps as much as 80 percent.
Developers of affordable housing typically finance construction with a combination of conventional debt, tax-exempt mortgage-revenue bonds and from cash from selling tax credits to investors. But the cost of construction and insurance along the Gulf Coast has risen so high that the traditional forms of financing aren’t sufficient, creating a gap in financing.
The Times-Picayune, March 06, 2007 -- A New Orleans governmental watchdog group has released a scathing critique of the citywide recovery and rebuilding plan unveiled several weeks ago under the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP) process. The Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR) analysis says the multimillion-dollar UNOP process “held great promise” and the document it produced displays “a world of good intentions.”
But the bureau’s report, titled “Not Ready for Prime Time,” says the nearly 600-page UNOP “fails to deliver a cohesive, workable road map for recovery. Instead, it proposes a sweeping list of 91 projects without placing them in a realistic financial context. As for recovery strategy, it offers a continuation of the indecisive and confusing approach that has characterized New Orleans’ recovery for a year and a half.”
As an example, it says, the report seems to come down on both sides of the crucial issue of whether rebuilding should be encouraged in the city’s most flood-prone areas.
Referring to the plan’s prioritized ranking of recovery projects, the BGR report says it is hard to understand many of the results: “According to the priority list, the key projects for recovery are a new Louisiana State University/Veterans Affairs hospital complex and housing for dislocated public housing residents. Yet fundamentals that affect everyone in the city, like improvements to the crumbling streets; antiquated sewer, water and drainage systems; and deteriorated schools, fall somewhere in the middle of the wish list. Repairing and restoring the city’s historic forts ranks on the same level as these essential infrastructure items.”
Despite the bureau’s outspoken criticisms, members of the UNOP team responded to the report in mild terms, saying they never considered their document to be a finished product and welcome comments and criticism.
Follow the ongoing Unified New Orleans Plan effort at www.unop.org.
Brief updates on Mississippi Gulf Coast communities’ progress toward renewal can be e-mailed to Jason Miller at email@example.com.
Bookmark these Web sites to stay on top of rebuilding efforts along the Gulf Coast:
Center for Planning Excellence (La.)
The Clarion-Ledger (Miss.)
Congress for the New Urbanism
Governor’s Office of Recovery and Renewal (Miss.)
Katrina Cottage Housing
Mississippi Governors Commission
Mississippi Renewal Forum
New Urban Guild
New Urban News
NOLA.com (“Everything New Orleans”)
South Mississippi Sun Herald
Times Picayune (New Orleans)
Unified New Orleans Plan
Suggestions for additions to this list may be sent to Jason Miller, New Towns editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.