The Way(s) Forward for Urbanism, Part II

In this second installment of the series, we move to New Orleans with an article published earlier this year by my favorite critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff.

The piece is particularly relevant now as the article was published as Washington rushed to avert a federal shutdown, and currently Washington (or at least the sane part of it) is rushing to avert a federal default. The point is that seemingly faraway government issues actually affect millions of people on a very immediate level.

Plus, it brings forward some very interesting ideas about urbanism. Read past the break for the article.

To Renovate, and Surpass, City’s Legacy

by Nicolai Ouroussoff

Published in The New York Times on April 6, 2011 (also available here)

NEW ORLEANS — As Democrats and Republicans continue to feud over the budget, and the federal government prepares to shut down, the effect of the budget war on the fate of a single proposal for the renovation of a dilapidated public housing project in New Orleans may seem inconsequential.

The New Orleans plan to renovate the Iberville housing project aims to reintegrate the poor into their city and to foster economic opportunity. The entire project could cost $500 million.

The proposal, which calls for transforming the 1940s Iberville complex in downtown New Orleans into a denser mixed-income neighborhood, with town houses and new low-rise buildings interspersed among the existing three-story apartment blocks, would result in a total of more than 2,400 units of housing on and around the site.

It is one of several finalists vying for a share of $61 million in grants from the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which House Republicans are trying to cut. The federal money would be only a small portion of the roughly $500 million needed to complete the project, but it is the crucial first step in the city’s public-private financing plan to remake Iberville.

If the money doesn’t come through, it will not only be a significant backward step in the rebuilding of New Orleans, it will also short-circuit a promising new model for housing the poor in cities across the country.

The most ambitious and far-reaching example of HUD’s approach to public housing promoted under President Obama, the project is a comprehensive effort to link housing to jobs and transportation. In doing so, it could begin to undo a pattern of racial discrimination that extends back decades.

Built in the early 1940s, during the era of segregation, Iberville began as a whites-only housing project midway between the raucous bars of the French Quarter and Claiborne Avenue, a broad tree-lined boulevard that was then a bustling African-American commercial strip.

A reflection of early tabula rasa planning strategies, the complex was made up of identical brick buildings organized around a series of shaded lawns. Unlike the oppressive tower-in-the-park projects of the postwar era, these buildings had a modest, human scale, with quaint wrought-iron balconies and terra cotta roofs. And they were supported by a wide range of federally financed social services, from clinics to garden clubs.

By the mid-60s the exodus of middle-class whites to the suburbs was transforming many American cities, and New Orleans was no exception. North Claiborne Avenue was bulldozed to make room for an elevated expressway. Maintenance and public services at the city’s housing projects were cut back. Within a decade Iberville, like urban housing projects across the country, had become a warehouse for its city’s poorest African-Americans.

This picture of racial inequity was only reinforced in the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Many of those returning to the city’s housing projects after the storm found that HUD had boarded up their apartments even, as was sometimes the case, when there was little damage from the storm. The department treated Katrina as a chance to remake New Orleans’s public housing. Within a few years three of the biggest projects had been demolished to make room for suburban-style mixed-income developments.

In the view of several local housing advocates Iberville, which sustained only minor damage in the hurricane and its aftermath, survived because dozens of families managed to move back in before housing officials could lock them out. The Iberville proposal, which was submitted by the Housing Authority of New Orleans and the City of New Orleans, following guidelines set by HUD, is a chance to undo a legacy of injustice.

To ensure that the city doesn’t lose units of public housing, as cities across the country have since the 1990s, the plan calls for increasing the number of units on and around the site. Fifty of Iberville’s 74 existing buildings would be demolished to make room for a richer variety of midrise apartment buildings and town houses. The 24 that would remain would be renovated in an effort to maintain some of the site’s historic texture.

Yet the key to the proposed plan is its provisions for breaking down the physical and economic barriers that have long separated Iberville from the surrounding city. The plan calls for demolishing the elevated expressway and replacing it with a new ground-level boulevard, an idea first proposed by the nonprofit Congress for the New Urbanism that is not only sound urban planning but would redress a wrong that is now nearly 50 years old. (HUD and the Transportation Department have already provided money to study this component of the plan; the federal government would eventually have to foot the bill for most or all of it.)

The smaller streets that once crisscrossed the site — and were blocked off when the housing project went up 70 years ago — would be rebuilt. And last year the Transportation Department awarded a grant to help build a new tram line serving Iberville that would run parallel to the site’s southern edge, linking it to the business district at one end and Armstrong Park at the other.

This effort to reintegrate the poor into the city around them is coupled with a recognition that any sane public housing policy has to be tied to economic opportunity. The new tram line is not a tourist attraction; it would connect to another federal project, an $800 million Veterans Affairs hospital now under construction a few blocks away that government officials say could provide hundreds of low- to mid-level jobs, some of them for people who would be living in Iberville housing. City planners also hope to use federal funds to transform a series of derelict lots along the site’s southwest border into a mix of shops and housing, linking it to a cluster of theaters across the street and the jobs that neighborhood, too, could provide.

There are those in New Orleans, of course, who will remain understandably suspicious of any large-scale government planning effort, especially given the tragic story of government ineptitude that followed the storm. And from an urban planning standpoint many questions remain unanswered.

Given the high quality of the existing buildings’ construction, it is unclear that so many of them need to be demolished. And there are more inventive ways to think about the design of the new buildings than the ersatz French Quarter style that the current plan seems to call for. (Why not explore architectural precedents from other periods in the city’s history? Or create a housing model that is in tune with how people live today?)

Still, the plan represents the most promising take on public housing in America that we’ve seen in decades. Seventy-five years after the creation of the first housing authority, this proposal recognizes that sound urban planning, aggressive social policy and an awareness of history are inseparably intertwined. And in doing so, it promises to repair some of the physical and social wounds that endure from the era of segregation. Its premature death would signal how far we are from escaping that legacy.

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4 thoughts on “The Way(s) Forward for Urbanism, Part II

  1. […] future of urban design. The first part took us to Paris with ideas from Christian de Portzamparc; the second to New Orleans with a review of a new development by Nicolai Ouroussoff. This third one will be a […]

  2. […] to round four! You can find part one here, part two here and part three […]

  3. […] is, of course, not the case at all. Time for round five! You can find the first four parts here, here, here and here. The new West Hollywood Library. Photo courtesy LA […]

  4. […] can find the first five parts here, here, here, here and here. Photo courtesy […]

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