Wednesday, December 12, 2007

[Re]Building Communities

Re-Planning the St. Bernard Project

This is an old post resurrected from the crypt. Some of threads may have been lost. I apologize and ask for understanding. I thought it appropriate in the context of the current housing discussion to revisit some of these thoughts.


Puddinhead posed this query in response to one of my previous comments over at Maitri's incorporated into this post;

... I don’t know which side of the Great New Urbanism Divide you come down on as an architect, but much of what you’ve said in your last comment here mirrors what Andres Duany said about the St. Bernard Development at the Gentilly Charette. He, too, pointed to the inherent problems created when everything outside your actual doorway is “public space”. With such a situation residents have much less control over who is right outside their apartment, and hence what is going on there. As he said, when you have a yard outside your door that is at least nominally “yours” (if you’re living in a rental, for example, you still have a sort of “territorial claim” over the landlord’s property when it comes to uninvited interlopers) you become more protective of your home and can demand that loiterers be removed from areas that currently they at least theoretically have a “right” to be in.

Duany’s team’s plan for the St. Bernard did not envision demolition of the entire project; his opinion was that the central core of buildings, which were the earliest phase of the development, were structurally sound even if some of the later “add ons” like porch roofing and such weren’t particularly architecturally pleasing. These buildings would be saved and reworked where possible such that individual residences could be entered from the outside rather than from common hallways and lobbies; each residence would have a fenced yard area outside their doorway. The street grid would be cut back through the parcel of land where it has been truncated, putting access to public thoroughfares (and the rest of the world) right outside each building and knitting the development back into the surrounding neighborhoods. The remainder of the project (that surrounding the oldest central core, which was built later and according to Duany was less-desirable due to both design and materials) would be razed and replaced with just the type of development you’re speaking of–perhaps some type of townhome style housing for mostly the elderly nearest the renovated buildings, with a blend going outward toward the surrounding neighborhood of “affordable” housing mixed in with market-rate housing.


I think Duany is a talented Designer. I take issue with his work being called Planning which, at least in my education, operated at a higher level of abstraction and allowed for many different physical outcomes. It is Urban Design which deals largely with the economic forces operating within the Urban Environment. At most it is Urban Design Duany practices, not planning. As for any planning divide, I favor what works and can be accomplished. Unbuilt plans aren't helping anyone. "New Urbanism" is, in my opinion, basically a life style choice like "Gated Community", "Golf Community", "Lofts" or "High Rise Condominium".

Mark Folse published a piece where he said that in project management you needed to "get ugly early". The Neighborhood Planning Process completely failed to follow that advice, and ignored the hard issues with predictable results. Including, I think, the continuation of our current administration.

Virtually everything Duany said about St. Bernard was said long ago by Oscar Newman and others about other projects. It could work and perhaps should be tried. The one thing we shouldn't try is reconstituting HANO.

Newman actually renovated a number of housing projects and brought about some remarkable changes based on Architecture and listening to residents. How much was the result of physical changes and how much the result of a process which built community has been the subject of some speculation. It would be interesting to revisit those projects today, thirty years later and see how they held up.

Mark Folse over at Wetbank Guide weighed in and took issue with some of my comments; (edited for length)
... demolishing much of the existing public housing infrastructure is a bad idea. As far as physical structures go, there is no upside to demolishing most of the half-century old brick construction buildings to replace them with "stick-built" modern housing that can't be insured.

While the building are older and will need remediation and renovation, and may harbor asbestos or lead paint that will need to go, the problems with "the bricks" . Some local advocates for preservation agree. In a long article in Gambit Weekly:

Longtime local urban planner Bob Tannen says that the Lafitte is worth saving for several reasons: the buildings were nicely designed, modeled after the much-prized Pontalba apartments that line Jackson Square, and they were built using excellent materials -- good bricks and tile roofs.

[Lafitte project neighbor Shirley] Simmons remembers her relatives, legendary Seventh Ward craftsmen, coming home and talking about their work on the bricks hat day. "So I know that Lafitte was built by the very best roofers, cement finishers, and carpenters," she says.

The buildings are attractive. The garden layout ought to be not a hidden drug market but a haven for children and other residents just as the lanes and parkways of Lake Vista were for its upscale residents.
I don't think we disagree here. If the buildings can be saved they should be. The social reality is the nature of the community that inhabits these 'public spaces'. The real issue is what use do you put them to?

Mark Folse Continues.
Lake Vista was designed to be a working-class community, with narrow lots designed for affordable homes. You can still find modest "Levee Board houses" there what would not look out of place anywhere in Gentilly Good intentions gone, well, somewhere.
While what you state was the New Deal idea of Lake Vista, which was probably never realistic and something of a smoke screen, the war intervened and the actualization was quite different, even in the initial stages.

Mark then veers off into social policy;
One thing was clear from all the discussions I facilitated as part of the Housing Committee of the Mid-City Neighborhood Recovery Meeting: All assisted housing should be for people who are coming home to work for the rebirth of New Orleans. If you're not retired or on disability, don't come home and look for housing assistance. Sorry, but there isn't enough to go around, and we need housing for people who are ready to contribute.

I would take it a step further: If you're retired or on disability, I think some sort of community service compatible with your age or disability is a reasonable expectation. We have always had a city full of kids being raised by grandma and not enough formal childcare to go around. I don't see why every development couldn't have resident-staffed child care relying in large part on retirees.

If you're living in assisted housing and can't find a job, the city should find one for you at minimum wage plus your apartment. There are parks and streets and so much more that weren't much to look at before the storm, and are worse off now. I don't see why public housing can't be leveraged as part of a Works Progress Administration-style rebuilding effort. (For the kiddies, the WPA was a Great Depression era federal program of public works. Look closely at those curvaceous bridges in City Park and you'll notice signage that they were largely WPA projects).
This part of Mark's proposal is in stark contrast to the intention of the housing activists who organized the demonstrations and "occupation" of the St. Bernard Project. They seek nothing less than an unconditional Palestinian style "Right of Return". These are the same kinds of groups who oppose eviction of "bad actors" as "inhumane".
How are we going to rehabilitate these buildings when the federal government wants to get out of the clustered public housing business? First, we need to examine the heady rush into distributed, mixed-income development. It's a wonderful idea, but how well has it worked. Instead of trying to lure yuppies into former projects, we need to look at how to grow a more prosperous middle class out of the people who live there now. Perhaps we should hire the residents to remediate their own apartments and rehabilitate their own buildings as a first step, including trades training in the process. These buildings could probably last another half-century, and add to both the housing stock and character of the city if properly rebuilt.

We should also provide housing free or cheep to NOPD officers, firefighters, EMS, etc. These folks will add stability and security to the neighborhoods, and we don't want them living in tin boxes or having to commute from across the lake every day. I don't think this will displace many residents. If you've followed the Katrina story as closely as I have, you've heard the tales of people from the bricks who've landed in suburban garden apartments with new furniture and clothes and jobs. The recurring story line is so many of these tales is: these people have landed better off than they were before, and they're not coming back.

Finally, we need to have some rules, people. Go to work or go to school , or find someplace else to live: no exceptions. No drugs or guns: no exceptions. No stayin' by grandmas unless you meet the first two and don't exceed the leased number of residents: no exceptions. If you are going to stay in assisted housing, own the place: require residents to perform community service to keep the grounds up, etc.: no exceptions. Those of us lucky enough to make the rent or the note on our own all live with these rules. We should expect people who are getting a hand up to do the same, and to contribute something extra (as we do in taxes to pay for it) toward making the system work.

Some people are going to hate these ideas, but I don't much care. Anyone who claims to advocate for public housing and doesn't advocate to keep out idlers and thugs isn't much of an advocate for the residents. I'm not ready to give up the idea that this catastrophe presents the opportunity to do things right, and how to handle these buildings is the next, best opportunity to get the recovery right.

If if you don't like those ideas then don't move to a disaster area, which sadly we remain over 500 days after the Federal Flood.
I have no doubt that many of the people who have been displaced from New Orleans have found themselves better off elsewhere. I know of several people, not from the projects, who feel that way. One is a long time employee of mine who asked to stay in Atlanta after relocating there after the flood. I know several others.

As a minor point "clustered public housing" is not what St. Bernard and the other projects are. generally "clustered housing" is used to describe smaller scale distributed public housing developments. It was the pre-cursor of "mixed income", which seeks to use private money and other incentives to provide "affordable housing" with limited public investment.

Citizen proposals seem to me to have the split personality of first not allowing people who don't work and also not displacing any of the current residents.

Many of the former residents were either retired or unable to work. Much of the crime problem came from teenage children or grandchildren of residents, who should be going to school and under most proposals would still be allowed to live in public housing.

You can't have both ways I think. The two populations are largely incompatible.

I don't think the residency rule for Fire and Police is ultimately enforceable in the current economic environment. If you offer free or very low cost housing to Police and Fire Fighters, it will ultimately facilitate non-resident occupants. I understand that many long time Police and Firefighters used to maintain an official residence and a second residence where their family actually lived. With free or low cost housing the situation will continue.

Redeveloping any existing buildings is a worthy idea, as long as you somehow get a population with enough stable families to be strong enough to form a community able to sustain and defend itself.


There is little difference in the basic quality of construction between Pruitt-Igoe and the high rise condo towers along Lakeshore Drive in Chicago. The difference was in the occupants, some amenities and administration. There is also the ability for residents to move if they don't like it. Mobility is one attribute public housing residents lack.

Housing policy is serious business and needs to be discussed in the context of the effect of the housing on people, however it got that way.

Alexander von Hoffman of Harvard wrote a paper on public housing I especially thought this part was on target.
"The fundamental dilemma facing public housing was the changing character of its tenants. ... After the war, the clientèle became lower-class rural migrants ... many of whom had little experience with the city and its institutions. ... To make matters worse, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the federal public housing agency insisted that local authorities enforce income limits, expelling many stable and upwardly mobile tenants ...

"warehouse the poor" seems an apt paraphrase of "limit[ing] the program to low-income people", something included in the 1949 housing bill.

It seems that the paper in general supports the idea of mixed income developments, something advocated by every current proposal.

There has also always been a paternalistic bent in social programs designed to help the poor, often to keep them from misusing the assistance. You can see this in almost every assistance program ever conceived. The paper also mentions that "social work" receded. I think people should be "empowered" to make their own choices.

In New Orleans (and other places) we also have the history of a failed Housing Agency which mismanaged the resources it was allocated and created a grossly ineffective and expensive drain on other city resources. Public administration of housing has failed miserably here and pretty much everywhere. The repeated attempts to fix HANO all failed. It is an intractable problem and there is no known way to fix it.

HANO was as big a disaster as the New Orleans Public schools. They were corrupt, wasteful and inefficient. They were so bad that even HUD realized it an took them over some years ago.

I think the thing that finally broke them was a deadly fire.
Washington Monthly, Jan, 1989 by Katherine Boo

On January 14, 1988, Johnnie Smith, his wife, and four children burned to death in a fire at the Desire housing project in New Orleans. Just two weeks earlier, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) had forfeited $106,000 of a federal grant to install smoke detectors in the high-rise building. Although the money had been awarded a year earlier and there were smoke detectors gathering dust in a downtown warebouse, HANO had failed to find anyone in or out of the authority qualited to screw them in.

When HANO was questioned about the failure by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, then director Jesse Smallwood explained, "I don't want to belabor that we could've or should've. . . . I don't feel anyone should be blamed."
In reading about crime I ran across a quote from former Chief Pennington. He said when he came here there were 425 murders and 180 occurred in the Projects. That was at a time that was only about 6,000 hosing units out of approximately 200,000 units in the city. That is an indication of the kind of problems get when you concentrate the most dysfunctional families together with the most vulnerable.

We need to do something different and better. If we want housing for displaced low income residents provide a housing voucher for them at market rates. In a few months developers will be trying to move people back into newly renovated apartments. If we had done that two years ago I have no doubt that there would be housing available now. If we wait for HANO or the spawn of HANO to do it will take years.

3 comments:

Puddinhead said...

For the record...Duany first said that as he understood it (only being in town for a few days at the time) the St. Bernard Development wasn't going to be totally demolished due to political considerations...so that option wasn't even considered.

mominem said...

I'm not sure that the plan now is to demolish everything.

I have seen comments that indicate some buildings in some locations will be retained.

Puddinhead said...

Probably. The "core" oldest buildings are supposed to be the most viable and sound, and apparently oriented such that the street grid can be cut back through the parcel of land, something he was opining was really needed to tie the residences back into the surrounding community.