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Rebuilding New Orleans

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Launch Slideshow
Photo: Julian Broad

The hurricane left its own vocabulary. People talk of houses getting "blue-roofed." They recount being "domed" (sent to the Superdome); of being "Tex-iled"; and of finally being "de-vacked" and allowed to return home. All this new shorthand can be jarring, as when a shopkeeper told me her sales were half what they’d been "pre-K." Katrina is also part of the visitor’s agenda. Tour buses now make stops in the obliterated Lower Ninth Ward. Souvenir shops are jammed with hurricane kitsch and glib T-shirts (FEMA: Fix everything my ass; or I stayed in New Orleans for Katrina and all I got was this lousy t-shirt, a cadillac, and a plasma tv). The storm has even given rise to a satirical monthly paper called The Levee (motto: We don’t hold anything back), full of fake stories mocking the fitful recovery effort. From a recent issue: " ’We need time to start planning how to deal with all these plans,’ [Mayor] Nagin said, deflecting critics who say the Office of Plan Planning is redundant."

For all the frustration with "plan-planning," there are signs of progress. Though overall visitor numbers dropped to 3.7 million last year (from a record 10.1 million in 2004), this year’s Jazz Fest drew its largest crowds since 2003, and Mardi Gras attendance was up to 800,000 (the pre-storm average was 1 million). New Orleans casinos are positively booming (that’s more depressing than encouraging, really, but there you go); the massive Harrah’s downtown is having its best year ever. Meanwhile, developers have begun to remake the city: the hulking, sixties-era World Trade Center is being transformed by developer Carlton Brown into a hotel and cultural center that will include a Johnson & Wales cooking school. Pritzker Prize–winner Thom Mayne has been enlisted to design a national jazz museum as the centerpiece of a new, 20-acre performing arts district.

The most dramatic changes, however, are set to happen along the river—which is certainly due for them. For a town that once drew its entire livelihood from the Mississippi, New Orleans has an oddly stilted relationship with its waterfront: the city basically spent its first two centuries forging connections with the river, then much of the last one blocking it off. Safety concerns were one reason, but there was more to it than that. For the average citizen not employed at the port, the river ceased to have much value except as a breezy thing to jog along—and in most places you can’t even do that. Whole stretches of it are hidden behind concrete barriers, dilapidated wharves, power plants, and no trespassing signs. "We need to reconnect New Orleans to its riverfront, which has been literally walled off for so long," says native son Sean Cummings, a hotelier and developer who is spearheading a sweeping revitalization plan. The targeted area: a six-mile-long strip of city-owned land on the river, running from the Lower Garden District to Bywater.

"The other goal," Cummings explains, "is to bring something new to New Orleans, an eye-opening statement, that will take the city into the 21st century." For that, Cummings recruited an all-star team led by Enrique Norten (currently designing the new Guggenheim museum in Guadalajara); Alex Krieger, chair of Harvard’s Urban Planning & Design department; New Orleans–based architect Allen Eskew; and George Hargreaves, another Harvard professor and a leading landscape architect. Their plan, Reinventing the Crescent, is indeed a full-scale reinvention. Cummings brazenly predicts it will be "the most significant addition to the city since the French Quarter." The final draft was unveiled at a public forum this summer, where a standing-room crowd of 300 received the proposals with a mix of excitement and anxiety.

Krieger took pains to reassure the audience that this was primarily an open-space plan: "Out of 174 acres, only about 20 percent can be built upon, and we’re doing even less than that." The proposal does make room for provocative new buildings, including an ecumenical chapel, a hotel, and several mid-rise condo towers. But between these "architectural moments" would be playgrounds, flower gardens, sculpture installations, cafés, performance spaces, and farmers’ markets. An outdoor wetlands exhibit would be installed outside the popular Aquarium of the Americas. Along the underwhelming Moonwalk promenade in the French Quarter, parking lots and concrete stairs would give way to sloping lawns and landscaped terraces. At Bywater Point, where now sits an obsolete naval base, the designers envision breezy parkland, with ball fields, community gardens, and a waterfront amphitheater. Wind turbines installed throughout the site will power lighting and may keep the entire project off the grid.

Throughout the presentation, images of other urban waterfronts flashed on the overhead screen, not just of in major cities like Sydney and Chicago but in Providence, Milwaukee, and Chattanooga. (Chattanooga?) "As you can see, other cities have converted their waterfronts into remarkable public spaces," Krieger told the crowd. "Montreal relocated its port downriver and converted its functional backyard into a new front door for the city—their own version of the French Quarter." Nor are the upsides merely cosmetic: according to Krieger, the RTC plan would create 4,500 permanent jobs; add $40 million to the tax base; and bring a projected $3 billion in new investment to the city.

After the presentation, people inspected a 3-D model of the proposed plan as they would a UFO that had landed on the town green. "It looks so small," said one woman. "Look, there’s my house!" said another. Reaction was mixed. Some praised the RTC designs as a long-overdue step forward, with economic benefits that could assist the city’s recovery. Others dismissed the plan as a "quick-fix silver bullet," emphasizing condos and luxury hotels at the expense of modest, traditional, low-rise neighborhoods. Still, with Mayor Nagin and other leaders on board, the RTC plan is sure to go forward; the goal is completion by the city’s tricentennial in 2018.

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