Why the rebuilders of New Orleans should visit Denver.

What we build.
Aug. 24 2006 11:42 AM

How To Rebuild New Orleans

Start with a visit to Denver.

It's been almost a year since Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans flood. A year after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, San Franciscans had moved out of emergency camps in parks and playgrounds and were rebuilding their homes. Progress in New Orleans has been slower. It's been estimated that as much as two-thirds of the population has not returned. The cleanup is still incomplete, and attempts at developing a comprehensive master plan have pretty much fallen apart.

In July, the city put the rebuilding in the hands of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, a local charity. Abandoning the idea of a citywide visionary plan, the foundation will focus its reconstruction efforts at the neighborhood level. Whether or not this strategy will succeed—and in the current state of New Orleans, who knows?—it is not unreasonable. Levees and flood control infrastructure must be built by public agencies, but urban neighborhoods, as Jane Jacobs pointed out long ago, work best when created piecemeal by private households and entrepreneurs. So, a decentralized approach is definitely a good idea.

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To facilitate the rebuilding process, the foundation, funded by a $3.5 million Rockefeller Foundation grant, has selected 15 teams of architects and town planners who will be available to advise the more than 70 neighborhoods. The teams are national as well as local, and include EDAW of Atlanta and Frederic Schwartz Architects of New York. Notably, Goody Clancy of Boston and Duany Plater-Zyberk of Miami (who recently held a planning workshop in the Gentilly section of New Orleans), as well as two other firms, are associated with the so-called new urbanism movement.

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East 29th Avenue Town Center

Reed Kroloff, dean of Tulane University's architecture school and a member of the ill-starred Bring Back New Orleans Commission, is an outspoken critic of new urbanism. "It's a one-size-fits-all approach to city design," he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Every city doesn't have to look like your grandmother's hometown." My grandmother grew up in downtown Lwow, but you get the idea: A New Orleans rebuilt by new urbanists would end up a Disneyfied theme park. Or would it?

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Botanica on the Green apartments

One of the largest new-urbanist developments under construction at the moment is in Denver. Stapleton is the site of the old Denver airport. When it's finished, the 4,700 acres will have 30,000 residents and 35,000 new jobs. The pragmatic developers—Forest City Enterprises—have provided something for everybody. In addition to dense residential neighborhoods of single-family houses, there are low-rise apartment buildings and condos, an 80-acre public park, several neighborhood centers, a regional shopping mall, an office campus, and a power center that includes a Wal-Mart and a Sam's Club. This is not doctrinaire new urbanism, but in the real world, planning doctrines must adjust.

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Garden Courts housing

The big-box stores look like big-box stores everywhere, but the first of the neighborhood centers consists of three-story mixed-use buildings, with office space and residential uses above shops and restaurants. The low, close-to-the-sidewalk buildings (parking lots are in the rear) create a traditional Main Street atmosphere, with outdoor cafes and pedestrian squares. What is striking, in the context of Kroloff's remark, is that it doesn't look like your grandmother's hometown at all. No faux Western gear, no ersatz saloon signs or Victorian storefronts. Instead, there is the kind of generic modernism that one associates with downtown developments in Holland or Scandinavia. It could work in New Orleans, too.

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Syracuse Village affordable housing

And what about the residential neighborhoods of Stapleton? With two exceptions—a cluster of "affordable" housing with flat roofs, techy sun shades, and bold, simplified forms; and a group of upscale "urban townhomes" clearly meant to appeal to a specialty market—the single-family houses are resolutely traditional in appearance. They have white picket fences, front porches, and other domestic paraphernalia that are hallmarks of the new urbanism formula. The stylistic differences are not a reflection of architects' tastes, since the same firm designed the picturesque garden-court cottages and the modernist affordable housing. It's a question of what buyers want. (The development is a great success. Houses, which are mostly in the $300,000 to $900,000 range, have been selling briskly.) It appears that people will accept modern design in an apartment or a loft or when affordability is the main consideration (since undecorated construction costs less). But when it comes to houses, most people prefer something more old-fashioned. A successfully rebuilt New Orleans—whoever plans it—is likely to be a similar mix, of edgy and traditional, of downtown plate glass and neighborhood picket fences.

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.

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