Federal and local stakeholders will need to work together to create a transparent and coordinated process in rebuilding the storm-battered Gulf Coast area, said participants on a panel hosted by RTKL, an architecture and urban planning firm.

The Tuesday panel, “Rebuilding the Gulf Coast: What Lies Ahead?” featured presentations by Paris Rutherford, director of RTKL’s urban design practice; Peter Brink, vice president for programs at the National Trust for Historic Preservation; Saroj Jha, senior infrastructure specialist at the World Bank; and Sara Galvan, managing editor of The Next American City.

Rutherford noted that the region’s image, especially that of the city of New Orleans, has suffered from widespread publicity of looting and poverty. He urged the region to shift these perceptions and attract investment by establishing a level and transparent playing field for the allocation of funds, according to an announcement by RTKL.

“In the past, the private sector has seen the Gulf Coast as an unpredictable region,” Rutherford said. “As we look to rebuild on a large scale, this stereotype needs to be disproved. To succeed in the short- and long-term, the region needs strong leadership and transparent finances.”

Galvan said, “American cities are first and foremost places of opportunity and promise. We need to try to uphold this promise and enable people who have a real stake in the region to be involved. At the same time, we need to be cautious of planning hubris. There is some value in organic growth.”

Rutherford said that Katrina challenged the traditional underpinnings of life in the Gulf Coast communities. “This provides a time to reflect on the region’s strength in the new economy.”

“Addressing human needs is paramount,” Brink said, “But we must not compound human tragedy by allowing a cultural tragedy.”

Rutherford cautioned against using gambling and tourism to rebuild the economy, pointing to Reno, Nev., and Atlantic City, N.J., as challenged cities that took that approach, according to the account by RTKL.

Brink said that “oftentimes when surveying damaged areas, the first impulse is to plow facilities to the ground and start over.” He cautioned that this isn’t the right approach, citing that $1 million spent rehabilitating buildings holds more value than the same $1 million dedicated to new construction. The rehabilitation process lends itself more to the community, where local workers tend to be employed and the labor-intensive nature of the restorative work provides an increased “skill bank” for the local labor pool, according to RTKL.

Saroj Jha, of The World Bank, said that the use of local skills and resources in other post-disaster rebuilding projects have helped to revive the local economy, besides physical infrastructure reconstruction.

Other suggestions and observations from panelists:

  • The region must align economic development policies with a market-based strategy that balances jobs and housing to create a fiscally sound future. This could include the rewriting of building codes, better design in affordable housing and the creative use of old concepts like “usufruct,” where the city is allowed to assume temporary ownership of a residence to fix it up and lease it out, said Galvan.

  • “The establishment of a creative class economy will foster increased employment and economic viability” Rutherford said. “A creative economy based on the application of knowledge, innovation and technology can be fueled by the use of local universities and colleges as incubators, as well as a refined approach to sustainable wetlands development.”

  • Rutherford also suggested that “the identification of key catalyst projects in each redevelopment area would encourage the formation of public-private partnerships, where the private sector’s investment is encouraged by the foundation that the government provides.”

  • The panelists agreed that a strong local government is necessary to serve as the information broker between the interested parties, according to the RTKL announcement, and they also agreed that any government must communicate effectively with the local community. Jha said, “Governments need to cooperate and communicate with each other to ensure speedy recovery and reconstruction as has been seen in different countries around the world.” And Brink said there should be a depoliticized board to handle zoning issues.

“Other communities around the world will be watching the Gulf Coast rebuilding effort,” said Jha. “This program has the potential to be a model of renewal for cities and regions around the globe.”

***

Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to glenn@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 137.

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