Best Laid Plans

To hear architect Andrés Duany of Miami-based Duany Plater-Zyberk tell it, Coastal Mississippi is about to enter a reconstruction renaissance. At the same time, he says, New Orleans has been hamstrung by indecision and conflict. "Every time they make a final plan in New Orleans, they retreat," Duany says.

By Matthew Power, Senior Contributing Editor | February 28, 2006


Online Resources
Cottage Industry
Left Behind



To hear architect Andrés Duany of Miami-based Duany Plater-Zyberk tell it, Coastal Mississippi is about to enter a reconstruction renaissance. At the same time, he says, New Orleans has been hamstrung by indecision and conflict.

"Every time they make a final plan in New Orleans, they retreat," Duany says. "Then they retreat again. I've never seen anything like it. They let five or six people come in who are vocal, and everything comes to a halt. You wouldn't design chewing gum based on the opinions of five or six people. How can you plan a city that way?"

In January, we filed a report about the prospects for a surge in home building in the New Orleans region ("No Man's Land"). Since then, construction activity has begun to pick up — not just in New Orleans, but all along the Southeast Coast — through Mississippi.

Mike Centineo, the Director of Safety and Permits for New Orleans whom we met with in November, says he expected a faster repopulation of the city.

"Hundreds of people come to our office every day," he says. "But we've got a long way to go. We assessed 91,000 properties and we're writing hundreds of permits for renovation, but not thousands."

Almost all of those permits, so far, have been for repair and renovation. But the trades — especially electricians and roofers are swamped. Estimates of total homes in the region either lost or heavily damaged total about 217,000.

"At first, we couldn't get labor," says Carl Lenczewski, a Detroit roofing sales rep who has been working in New Orleans, and is now moving to the region. "But now there are a lot of guys standing around without work. I'm talking about unskilled laborers. The contractors are all working, but they can't use any more inexperienced labor.

"There are scams everywhere, like you wouldn't believe," he adds. "Nobody's pulling permits. I've seen two pregnant women working on two separate roofs. Guys are putting their wives and their kids to work. I've seen some crazy stuff."

Mixed Motives

That labor problem is not unique to the Louisiana coastline. Further west, Mississippi is facing its own growing pains. Jason Spellings, a builder with ICON Artisan Builders in Jackson is planning to jump into the coastal rebuilding fray.

"I live three hours from the coast, here," he says. "Personally, my motivation is that I sat down with a group of 50- and 60-year old women from that area and listened to their stories. They're totally screwed. They're living in FEMA trailers and popups. They need help, and they don't know where to turn.

You drive down there, and you see more Chevy pickup trucks than you can count that don't have a tag," he adds. "It's just sick. A lot of these people coming down there don't know what the hell they're doing."

Spellings has carefully thought through how he can build economically on the coast, spending a few days of each week at home in Jackson. His solution: a narrow choice of plans, modular components and care and feeding of his framing crew. First, he has to create a base of operations. He was the first builder to construct one of the new "Katrina Cottages," so he's hoping to capitalize on that experience, and build a small selection of simple, New Urbanist-inspired homes.

Next on the agenda: acquiring land for scattered sites near the coast. Spellings figures the inflated labor costs on the coast will allow him to raise his own rates enough to cover travel and inconvenience.

"Pretty quickly we're going to have a reputation as somebody who does what we say will do, and does it well," he asserts. "Then we'll have plenty of work."

New Urban Coup

Perhaps the biggest difference between Mississippi and New Orleans, however, has been the fast-track application of New Urban master planning. While the Katrina Cottage  may be getting the press, the bigger story is New Urbanism's leading role in shaping a vision of Gulf Coast renewal.



Andrés Duany

"Before we even arrived on the scene, there were about 60 high-rises in the permitting pipeline," notes Duany. We either had to build elsewhere or incorporate them into our plans."

Duany credits the top-down "get it done" leadership of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour for allowing New Urbanist principles to become reality almost overnight in the region.

Barbour was not above twisting arms to get his way, either, Duany notes. The Governor dangled his discretionary funds over the heads of local planning officials. To get their share of the rebuilding money, they would have to sign on to a master plan with long-term design integrity (translation: New Urbanism).

Working without pay, DPZ led a successful effort to get 11 coastal towns to adopt ambitious plans, all of them rooted in New Urban principles. Other New Urbanism-friendly architectural firms such as Calthorpe Associates in Berkeley, Calif., and Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh, also played a major role in the effort.

"This is what you might call a 'Perfect Storm' for adopting new technologies," notes Ben Brown, a new urbanism consultant based in Franklin, NC. "You can't just pick off one little thread. It all has to happen at once. For one Mississippi charette, we brought in sociologists, mass transit guys and the economic development people. They're all specialists but it all has to work together."

Marty Milstead, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Mississippi is working the practical end of the rebuilding equation: helping builders get their operations back together, and making sure they're well supplied. But he, too, is looking for something other than rough shelter.

"I think we can't just rebuild the coast," he says. "We've got to build it better, or we're doing ourselves a disservice."

Modular Futures?

Which technologies will leap to the foreground? "I think there's going to be an enormous, instant market for manufactured housing," Brown says. This will be good looking stuff with architectural detailing, he notes.



 Jason Spellings

Spellings, the Jackson builder, is a devout believer in traditional neighborhood design principles. He suggests modular components with the right detailing will be an essential tool for rapidly creating traditional neighborhoods in many communities in southern Mississippi.

"The concept of traditional neighborhoods has been sold in 11 cities," he says. "It's going to be up to the private developer to make that promise a reality.

"We're hoping the big-shot tract builders will stay north of I-10," he adds, "and not come in and change the face of the landscape. If they want to build a cookie-cutter subdivision with three kids on bikes riding around on empty streets, they can do it out on some farmer's field."

Setting Up Shop

Although locals have mixed feelings about out-of-state and out-of-town contractors, new arrivals don't always deserve a bad rap. Some are experienced builders, such as Rob Waldron, who is moving his family from Southern Maine to the New Orleans area because he sees years of lucrative work ahead.

"My two friends and I are looking into buying building that nobody wants to deal with, and renovating them," Waldron says. "We'd like to be able to hire people, but the licensing thing kills you down there. The big thing is that to get licensed, you need to have workers compensation for all employees. They want 49 cents for every dollar you pay, so we can't afford to hire anybody.

Despite the obstacles, there's plenty of evidence that contractors are flooding into the region. Most motels and hotels in the area are sold out.

Waldron notes that on one front at least, New Orleans is making good progress. "There are lots of demolition guys to hire, and some are actually pretty cheap. All you have to do is get the debris to the side of the road and the city will get rid of it. That's a major plus."



In New Orleans, need for immediate housing have come head to head with hopes for long-term revitalization.


Mayor C. Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission faces enormous pressure. In January, the commission caused a small revolt among some local residents, when it suggested putting a moratorium on all permits for reconstruction for at least four months. That suggestion was coupled with the idea of forced buyouts of homes in areas considered unlivable.

The driving force behind that recommendation: a way to get reconstruction rolling more quickly. But the Bush Administration quickly stepped in to attack the buyback plan. Instead, they want compensation efforts to focus on the 20,000 uninsured homeowners located outside of the flood plain. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco lashed out at what she considers Federal meddling in local recovery plans, calling the Bush plan a "prescription for failure."

Nonetheless, say developers and planners, New Orleans WILL rise again, whether as a shanty town or a thriving city. The Rand Corporation, a research think-tank headquartered in Santa Monica, Calif., notes that New Orleans had a population of 462,000 before the Katrina flooding. They predict that the current population of 144,000 will nearly double by fall 2008.

Online Resources

Mississippi Renewal Project

Detailed plans, elevations, photos, proposals for rebuilding the Mississippi coastline.

Greater New Orleans Community Data Center

General demographic information about New Orleans' 73 neighborhoods and the 10 surrounding parishes.

Brookings Institution

The most up-to-date overview of the reconstruction process in New Orleans. Their most recent report came out on Feb. 1, 2006.

Carl Lenczewski also offered to answer builder questions

E-mail him at:

Cottage Industry

The team behind the "Katrina Cottage," hope to see it become a permanent part of the region's design vernacular.

In the age of oversized homes, will anyone really move into a 300 sq. ft. house — even temporarily? A group of influential architects and manufacturers are betting that they will, given the alternatives — a FEMA trailer or other temporary structure. Marianne Cusato, a New York Designer, created the Katrina Cottage 1 plan, aiming for a construction cost of $25,000 to $30,000. James Hardie sponsored the prototype seen at the International Builder Show in Orlando in January.

"All sorts of high-end developer want it already," says Andrés Duany. "This cottage matters, because it's a symbol of building well. The U.S doesn't know what it's doing when it comes to designing homes. People don't know what a decent design is."

Those may be fighting words to some home designers, but Duany has never been shy about his views.

"Why doesn't FEMA fund these cottages, instead of trailers. But that's the problem, FEMA is not chartered to do anything permanent. HUD is. The FEMA trailers from Andrew are still there 15 years later. Whatever you install is going to be essentially permanent."

The New Urban Guild plans to publish several designs specific to the Katrina effort. "Katrina Cottage 1" is the first home actually built from those plans. Jason Spellings of Jackson, Miss., built the prototype.

Left Behind

Nobody expected the waters of the hurricane to reach the high ground here in St. Bernard Parish. The few residents who have returned so far face a desperate situation.



Irma and Joe Pizzuto

As Irma Pizzuto talks about what happened to her following the hurricane, she has to fight back tears. She and her husband Joe fled before the storm, taking few of their possessions and never dreaming that the water would end up 13 feet high in her living room.

Now, her beauty shop business is no more. She had minimal flood insurance, and the house is being consumed by mold.

"Our insurer told us not to bother with flood insurance here," Pizzuto says. "I didn't feel good about that, so I bought half a policy anyhow - but that's not going to allow us to rebuild. The couple now stays in a tiny FEMA trailer in Peal River, more than an hour away.

"I never expected to be living in a trailer after 38 years in my home," Pizzuto says. "We were just about to pay it off. It's not right. We can give all this money to rebuild other countries, but we're Americans, and we can't get help. Now, everything we try to do is like hitting a brick wall."

Monroe Riviere and his wife Linda face an even worse scenario. Neighbors of the Pizzutos, they had no flood insurance at all. All of their family members also lost homes, and have moved away. The safety net is gone. The Rivieres have been driving two hours (one way) from Mississippi, where they're living with friends, to work on their house. They live in dread that they will be required to elevate their home in order to continue living here.

"You can't take a whole city and bring it up," Riviere says. "Where are streets gonna be? 20 ft. down below at the ground?"

A block away, Charles and Cindy Ricard are sitting alone amidst the ruin of their home. They have been driving to the site every day for weeks, waiting for FEMA to supply them with a temporary trailer. Their house is in ruins behind them.

"We raised a family in this house - three, productive, tax-paying children," says Charles Ricard. He takes me to look through the broken picture window of his home. "That was our dining room," he says. "And that was our kitchen, not that you can tell. The refrigerator ended up in the living room.

"Now you can't even go in there," he adds, "not even with mask and the safety gear - I was having respiratory problems. Now we can't even get FEMA to return our calls." He pauses. "Hell, I'd settle for a tent right now."


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