February 23, 2007

Answers, Schmanswers: 2/22 UNOP Public Comment Meeting

“Can you tell me what page that’s on?” This lawyer-like prick sits behind the City Council table and gazes at the woman at the podium. “I just want to follow along with you.”

Since she’s pointed out a flaw in the plan under review, he’s decided to use an old trick to fluster her and quell the momentum. His implied point: she probably hasn’t even read the plan, and thus shouldn’t be bitching. The problem is, she’s reading off of a print-out from planners themselves; she has her facts straight. A member of the UNOP team speaks up.

“It’s in Appendix B.”

So who’s read the plan after all?

The plan in question: the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP), the supposedly-central document in the recovery process. Once (if) completed and approved by the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the UNOP will serve as the blueprint for the distribution of funds and efforts to restructure and rebuild this city. The plan is the result of meetings at the neighborhood and city-wide level between citizens and the urban planners hired by the city. The two meetings we attended were scarily hopeful; the city-wide in particular was a dazzling exercise in democracy, with people voting through laptops and hand-held devices provided by the consultants. Votes were instantly shown on a large screen and then discussed again and then narrowed down and made final. Or so we thought.

Because regardless of what the good people at round tables in the Convention Center voted on a month ago, this all must pass through the City Planning Commission. And let me tell you what: that’s a sad-sack, grayish group of people who seem anything but alert, much less eager to help.

Before them sat several of the consultants who helped run the earlier congresses and sew together the plan. These UNOP folks seemed quite comfortable at those meetings, but a little reluctant at this one. Behind the consultants: the public, or at least those of us who go to such things. I’m a little new to City Council meetings, so perhaps I’m not used to the treatment one receives as a member of the public.

We heard several citizens from the Lower 9th Ward complain about a proposed replacement bridge at Florida Avenue. The response from consultants and commission: that’s a federal project, outside our purview, ask the Army Corps of Engineers. Ask the Corps? Do you know how that sounds to a resident of that neighborhood? Ask the Corps? And if this is supposed to be our plan, how much of it is outside the purview? This is the whole city, right?

Another tactic of the Commission, which, unlike the consultants and the public, seems very unfamiliar with this whole process, was the stress on talking about what was in the plan. This meant they’d give an impatient sight when people told them, “THIS is not in the plan and it should be.” It took three tries before they’d admit the Florida Avenue bridge ought to be in the plan if all these folks were pissed off.

The Commission slouched and tolerated the commentary of the sensible and unstable alike, and did little to question comments or the consultants. Occasionally they pointed out that the neighborhood, or "district," plans would also be reviewed, even though we were told that these were the building blocks of the current plan. Sound confusing?

They also noted that they'd only recently received the district plans, so they couldn't comment on that, though some of them said they hadn't received those, and the woman who distributed the plans admitted she did not follow up to see if the they had been delivered or not, and the gap here provided a good way to elude responsibility while admitting stupidity and helplessness. Sound maddening?

Worst of all, no one--not consultants, nor commissioners--wanted to provide timelines or start dates for anything, and any question of time was greeted with silence or buck-passing. Fittingly, there were no hands on the clock above the chamber door (literally), and there seemed to be no urgency to translate plan into action, only to stutter and scoff and dick around until another year has passed and we’ll have no idea what comes next.