Wednesday, September 14, 2005

How to Revive NOLA's Distinctive Urbanism?

Urban planners are contemplating how to handle the rebuilding of New Orleans. In this morning's NY Times, the inherent creative tensions between preservation and new architectural and urban designs are already thrumming:

"Any city that only tries to preserve itself is already dead. The great tragedy would be to embalm New Orleans by simply rebuilding it the way it was."
Venice was cited as a city that's only about preservation, and was described as being "on life support."

But most of the planners seem to think that some kind or degree of preservation will be essential to New Orleans' revival.

"There was a very unique vernacular," said Angela O'Byrne, president of the New Orleans chapter of the American Institute of Architects. She pointed to the city's mix of Greek Revival, Italianate and Creole styles, and to its cottages and bungalows with porches suited to the climate, adding, "As much as possible, all of it needs to come back."
But not in "Disneyfied" form. Nobody wants NOLA to be a theme park.

Once they decide on a plan, the question becomes: how to get from A to B? Pete Wilson, Republican former governor of California and a current fellow of the conservative Hoover Institution, had some ideas in yesterday's Wall Street Journal.

He recommended giving incentives to contractors, using tax-increment financing for rebuilding levees and the blighted areas around them, and having the city form and finance a non-profit corporation to direct the real estate end of the rebuilding. He said he did so when he was mayor of San Diego:
The result was that the pace of redevelopment of downtown San Diego remarkably accelerated. And the quality was so enhanced that our relatively modest public effort continues 30 years later to spur far greater private redevelopment. It has transformed a decaying core with a declining tax and job base into one of America's most vibrant and thriving urban environments.
(I always love it when other conservative Republicans praise thriving urban environments: it makes me feel less lonely.)

There are lessons here for Greensboro, too. Just direct your gaze to South Elm St., the victim of many years of economic devastation. It has great architectural bones -- a lot of really good, old buildings ready to be re-used (I'll bet you didn't know they were there: maybe I'll take some pictures soon).

It's almost certainly eligible for tax-increment financing. And forming a non-profit corporation answerable to the City Council to direct its redevelopment sounds like a pretty good idea.

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