Will 'Green' Building Be the Future of New Orleans?

This article is reprinted from the American Prospect.

Back in November 2005, barely three months after Hurricane Katrina, the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute presented its recommendations for rebuilding a post-apocalyptic New Orleans. One recommendation called for shrinking the city footprint, envisioning new, protected green space in areas deemed unsuitable for rebuilding. With emotions still raw, a city wracked by poverty and racism lashed out at what it perceived as another slap in the face. The public soundly rejected the idea, and so ultimately did Mayor Ray Nagin, who was re-elected a few months later.

"They presented to the public the plan, with giant green dots that said future park land," says Jennifer Zell, a graduate student in landscape architecture at Louisiana State University. "People thought, 'They are going to bulldoze this whole place and turn it into swampland.' People wanted to rebuild." But despite this setback, Zell believes that a strategy for sustainable development is one of the things that will save the city.

There's a green cast to virtually every plan to rebuild New Orleans, and an army of planners, affordable housing groups, environmentalists, and government officials hopes to make it happen. Several of these organizations, including Enterprise and Global Green USA, have partnered on various efforts.

But given the political infighting between the state of Louisiana and city of New Orleans, the slow pace of federal housing assistance and insurance settlements, and overall planning fatigue, the rallying cry for green is a little hard to hear -- even for those who are otherwise receptive. Says John Knott, a sustainable developer and president of the Noisette Co. in South Carolina, of rebuilding in New Orleans, "If people can't meet basic needs of housing and jobs, it's hard to get them to think about tomorrow."

Quite so. It's more than a little ironic that a diffuse army of planners is seeing New Orleans as an opportunity to promote sustainable development, at a time when more than two-thirds of the city's onetime residents are more concerned about having an affordable roof over their heads -- one that will not blow away in the next big storm. To most locals, "sustainable" has more to do with making sure the levees hold than with energy-efficient buildings or a new urbanism.

Affordable New Orleans

Pre-Katrina New Orleans was already a kind of new urbanist city for the working poor. It had relatively high density, affordable prices, one of the nation's best ratios of income to housing costs, and an above-average rate of homeownership among African Americans, as well as fine parks and a decent system of public transportation -- the key elements of the new-urban formula.

Indeed, as the nation witnessed the tragedy of people trapped in the flooding city, one big reason why more residents could not get out was that nearly 35 percent of black households owned no cars, and relied instead on buses and trolleys.

Post-Katrina, tens of thousands of residents want to rebuild flood-damaged homes that are not fit for habitation but that could be reclaimed. The federal government has allocated $10.4 billion in block grants to Louisiana but the money has been slow getting to people because of red tape and control over purse strings.

At every level, the government has been bogged down in its own bureaucracy, while mold slowly ruins tens of thousands of homes that might be saved, and homeowners live in government-provided trailers parked in the front yards of their rotting houses. Only a fraction of flood-damaged homes have been repaired and re-occupied, fully a year and a half after Katrina hit.

So while New Orleans could be a model of green redevelopment, it remains a swamp of mold and frustrated hopes.

Small Successes

Still, the small successes suggest what might be achieved at a larger scale. Among the groups that are working to produce affordable green housing for the New Orleans area are Habitat for Humanity International, Enterprise, and Global Green USA, the latter being a combination advocacy group and green developer.

Habitat launched Operation Home Delivery on the Gulf Coast after the hurricane hit, and it has steadily delivered. It plans to have 1,000 homes rebuilt by mid-summer 2007, with more than 500 now under construction.

The group has teamed up with Enterprise and others on Gulf Coast reconstruction, adding more money and manpower to what's slowly trickling down the government pipeline. The amount of federal funds allocated just for rebuilding housing in the entire region is staggering -- nearly $17 billion, with Louisiana receiving the lion's share. And most of that money will go to homeowners.

Meanwhile, Global Green USA, the California-based nonprofit, has promoted the virtues of green building, but there's not much to show for it yet. Last summer, actor Brad Pitt chaired the organization's sustainable design competition for New Orleans. Global Green plans to break ground early in 2007 in the Holy Cross neighborhood of the Lower Ninth Ward, where a developer will build a mix of about 15 homes and a community center using the winning design from the Pitt-led contest.

The buildings in the community will contain solar panels, geothermal heating, and there are plans for a cooling river turbine. The organization is also writing green guidelines for New Orleans schools that the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) plans to incorporate.

Global Green also created a walk-in resource center to educate the public about green building practices and the cost benefits associated with energy efficiency. The center is open three days a week and features displays of 60 different green building materials.

Enterprise has partnered with HUD and Providence Community Housing, an umbrella group comprising Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans and other local organizations, to redevelop the Lafitte housing project in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans into a mixed-income community.

The development will have 900 units -- there were 865 before the storm, all of which are now vacant. Stockton Williams of Enterprise notes it's too early to say whether all units will receive the official LEED certification, but the development team will use those standards -- as well as new benchmarks from the national Green Communities initiative, as a "framework to inform our planning and design in partnership with the community." All 865 households who want to return to the Lafitte community will have the opportunity to do so, he adds.

Skeptical Residents

Green building costs are heading south as the practice becomes more commonplace, but it still takes time for a homeowner to see the long-term savings. With federal housing assistance grants trickling to homeowners, and most rebuilding barely off the ground, installing solar panels is probably not high on the average resident's to-do list. But it can be easier and less expensive for developers to outfit a high-density, multi-family dwelling with energy-efficient features than a stand-alone home.

The Louisiana Housing Finance Agency, which administers the state's affordable housing tax credits, is awarding up to 25 bonus "points" to developers for proposed green buildings. And the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the government body handling hurricane rebuilding in the state, has shown a commitment to green building by enlisting the aid and tapping the knowledge (and checkbooks) of nonprofit groups, foundations, and designers -- all of whom are pushing for smarter development.

However, the LRA isn't an effective or clear public voice when it comes to endorsing sustainability. That, coupled with its fractious relationship with the local New Orleans government, has stymied the rebuilding process -- green or otherwise -- in the city.

Public-housing residents are justifiably suspicious. Previous revitalization efforts in the city, such as River Garden, formerly the St. Thomas housing project, were stymied by delays. St. Thomas, originally built for about 1,500 families, was demolished in 2001, and replaced by 296 apartments to date, only 122 for low-income residents. Eventually, the total development is supposed to have some 1,100 units, but far fewer will be low-income than the old St. Thomas project.

All told, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development is pressing forward with plans to demolish more than 4,500 units of public housing, some of it storm-damaged but arguably much of it capable of being repaired, and still occupied by some 1,100 families. This adds to the perception that the city elite is using the aftermath of Katrina to create a whiter city, with fewer places for the poor to live.

Given this backdrop, it can be difficult for the public to appreciate the virtues of green. "In New Orleans, there is this long history of populations getting screwed -- poor, black, and public housing projects," says Jennifer Zell, who is working on a main street recovery project for the St. Claude Avenue district, a historically rich and vibrant area not far from the Lower Ninth Ward.

A Sustainable Future

"Truly green buildings are more durable," says Williams of Enterprise, which is working on sustainable redevelopment in the city. "And legitimately green communities blend environmental protection and environmental justice. New Orleans has an opportunity to be a stronger city for all its residents by rebuilding green."

At the national level, former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, through the Bush/Clinton Katrina Fund, have raised $130 million for projects targeted at improving the quality of life of Gulf Coast residents and strengthening the region's economy.

Rebuilding a sustainable New Orleans and Gulf Coast is a priority of the fund, which neatly squares with the goals of the Clinton Global Initiative.

Organizations receive grants from the fund; $35 million has been earmarked for projects focused on health, housing, education, community, and infrastructure needs. For example, Global Green recently received a grant to rehab schools in the Orleans School District according to LEED standards. The fund also has awarded money to the Unified New Orleans Plan and the National Housing Partnership Foundation, among others, for housing efforts.

Hurricane Katrina displaced more than 200,000 people. In American history, the opportunity to rebuild vast swaths of New Orleans compares only with the great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 -- both of which were much further along in their rebuilding 18 months after tragedy struck than New Orleans is today.

Congress has now approved a complex web of grants, public assistance, tax credits, and other forms of aid for Gulf Coast reconstruction for the five states, including Louisiana, affected by 2005 hurricanes. The funding is administered by several federal agencies with varying timetables, making accountability difficult even under the best of circumstances.

A recent audit by the Government Accountability Office estimated that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has already lost $1 billion to fraud alone, though as of November, FEMA said it had reclaimed $7 million of that money.

If advocates of green and affordable rebuilding hope to realize their goals in New Orleans, they first need to secure more resources and better coordination so that low-income residents can retain some hope that their community will be rebuilt at all.

This article is available on The American Prospect website.
© 2007 by The American Prospect, Inc.


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