Monday, June 29, 2009

Moving City Hall - Is there a real plan?

Update: See also this Gambit commentary

I'm not in love with our current City Hall building and it seems clear that it doesn't quite have the capacity we need for all of our departments. However I really question the efficacy of the purchase of the Chevron building for conversion.

I wrote this late last week at about attempts in the legislature to undermine the New Orleans Master Plan:

It has become increasingly clear to us that the Master Plan has been partially undermined by the failure to include the city's major development projects in its scope. Without a substantive evaluation of the impacts of the two competing hospital plans - the LSU-preferred $1.2 billion medical campus or the less expensive and faster alternative to renovate Charity Hospital - the Goody Clancy Master Plan remains insufficiently comprehensive. The failure to critically analyze other large development projects such as the potential abandonment of City Hall in the wake of the proposed purchase of the Chevron building, the Reinventing the Crescent Waterfront riverfront project, and the proposed sports entertainment district around the Superdome.

Taken individually, none of these are necessarily catastrophic proposals. On balance, however, they represent an enormous commitment of recovery dollars to projects not subject to the skeptical analysis of the Goody Clancy planning process.

The failure of City Council and the City Planning Commission to acknowledge and deal with these deficiencies has created a climate that has invited such bold moves which undermine the master plan concept, such as those attempted by Senator Murray and his allies.

Should attempts to undermine the Master Plan ultimately fail, the City Planning Commission and the City Council will be charged with approving or rejecting the version being crafted by Goody Clancy. Yet, the deficiencies in the scope of the plan will still remain and so too will public queries to the CPC and Council about the strength of the document.

Now I didn't support SB 75 because I would like to see New Orleans adopt a comprehensive plan that might help us make smarter development decisions going forward. I do think there are legitimate criticisms of the process that need to be made but those that offered the bill weren't making them.

That the City Planning Commission has given their trademark rubber stamp to this proposal to relocate City Hall is really frustrating and speaks to their overall abdication of responsibility over the last several years.

City Hall wasn't built all that long ago and when we built it, the city razed a whole section of the city to do so. It was planned. The streets were planned that way. That's why when you stand on Rampart you have this site line to the neon sign atop that building.

I'm wary of the casual way in which we're about to entirely abandon all of that. Especially since we don't seem to have a plan for that entire area of downtown we're prepared to leave vacant. Think about it. Between City Hall and the state office building (currently under demolition) and all those nasty parking lots around Loyola Ave., what exactly is planned for that huge swath of real estate?

Surely someone will propose a really neat sounding project - maybe a park. And maybe it will be a good idea in isolation.

But again, what exactly are we doing? How many more critical recovery projects will get pushed off because of some absolutely critical political legacy project like a new downtown park or a new city hall?

Are those really our priorities?

How much longer are we going to have to put off sustainable investment in neighborhood nodes because of the apparently pressing need to move money around in downtown New Orleans?

Making such a big decision to abandon large swaths of the old administrative and downtown medical district (Charity and the VA), will leave a big gaping hole in the middle of the CBD with absolutely no public plan for what we're going to do with that land.

For the City Planning Commission to be so casual about approving the purchase of the Chevron building strikes me as pathetic.

Why are they so eager to undermine the master plan they worked so hard to create?

I really appreciate Arnie Fielkow's stand on this issue. It takes guts even if this statement kind of sounds like a tweet.

"Great city needs such as the reopening and enhancement of playgrounds, police and fire stations, street repairs, etc., certainly should be top priority when competing with limited city funds," Fielkow wrote.

Yes! What exactly is the vision here? Are we in the business of making this city livable for residents or are we just leaving legacies? Let's put the brakes on this train.

This is precisely the type of thing I thought a comprehensive master plan was supposed to address. I'd love for someone to get Dave Dixon of Goody Clancy on the record about some of this stuff.

Look, I think we need better administrative buildings for municipal government. I also think a monorail rising above the Mississippi River from Riverbend to Holy Cross would be awesome.

Just because something is a good idea doesn't mean we should put it at the top of the list.


Anonymous said...

The city and the VA have been plenty quiet about plans for the former VA hospital. Could it be because it may be set aside for an unnamed,but not necessarily biomedical, commercial partner?
Hints of the intent to do just that appeared in the local press since the City and the VA hammered out their MOU in November 2007.

"The city of New Orleans has arranged to buy land for the new VA hospital in exchange for the deed to the closed one, located on Perdido Street not far from City Hall. The city's recovery czar, Ed Blakely, said his office would work to find a private partner that could rehabilitate the hospital into research space, a hotel or a range of other uses."
-"Torn Over Change - A new day is dawning for New Orleans' medical district, but a sea of doubt persists over its move across Claiborne" Times-Picayune, November 23, 2008

Also see Times-Picayune article from almost exactly one year before:
"N.O. seals deal to assemble property for veterans hospital - City, in exchange, may get old VA site" (November 29, 2007)

Anonymous said...

So much crazy faith in urban planning via town hall meetings organized by people miles removed from NOLA (check out the Seattle-like renderings of a redeveloped NOLA on some of the early master plan docs online), so much faith in taking politics out of administration. You need rules and regulations, yes, but politics manages to sneak back in anyway. What New Orleans needs most is political organization, coalition building, in addition to basic, smarter planning rules.

E said...

What New Orleans needs most is political organization, coalition building, in addition to basic, smarter planning rules.

I totally agree. That's what's so exciting about working on the Charity Hospital issue.

Puddinhead said...

"Well, sir, there's nothing on Earth like a genuine, bona fide, electrified, six-car monorail!"

Interesting...word verification was "abrat".

Puddinhead said...

Seriously speaking, this is another topic that can shake out the two camps in post-K New Orleans--those who want to put everything back exactly the way it's always been, and those who want something better than the dying city they lived in (for some of us, for our entire lives).

E said...

That is such a disingenuous argument.

I would argue that "putting it back exactly the way it's been" would mean continuing the cycle of buying suburban sprawl, political legacy, my-penis-is-bigger-than-yours snake oil from every salesman that comes down the pike at the expense of sustainable investments that might raise the quality of life of actual New Orleans residents in actual New Orleans neighborhoods. I would argue that to "want something better than the dying city" would be to actually strive to stop the things that are actually causing excess deaths of the actual human population that lives here. I don't think having a not-so-pretty City Hall qualifies as a major priority.

If you want to prioritize spending our scarce rebuilding resources gilding the city's toilets, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree.

Puddinhead said...

Well, you should recognize "disingenuous argument" when you see it. For the record, I didn't state that I was in favor of purchase of the Chevron building; I don't know enough about that building itself to have an informed opinion. I've spent enough time over the years at the current City Hall to know the physical building is crap, so entertaining the idea of a move when a possible "deal" presents itself isn't out of line.

I sure wish you'd have been around years ago to lead the charge against the Superdome and the Convention Center projects. Friggin' suburban sprawl that they are...

Anonymous said...

Puddinhead recalls correctly. The 60s and 70s were an era of epic development and equally epic controversy and failure. Remember Orlandia? Better yet, remember the Disney deal?

If Nagin is claiming storm damage and asbestos contamination, can we presume an envrionmental study has been done? If so, which firm did it and what other contracts have they been awarded?

Why is FEMA expected to pay for a neglected municipal building?
This is not the intended use of disaster recovery funds. The idea is to be made whole, not to upgrade at public expense in order to be the envy of the neighborhood.

What will the DDD do if the new City Hall has no greenspace for date palms?