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Wednesday, November 16, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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New Orleans: New Urbanism?

Newhouse News Service

NEW ORLEANS — New Urbanism will be the salvation of post-Katrina New Orleans. Or perhaps it will lead to the Big Easy's complete demise. When planning pundits discuss the future of this battered city, New Urbanism is the dominant concept.

The air buzzes with phrases like "smart growth" and "pedestrian-friendly" — code words from the New Urbanist canon.

So, just what is New Urbanism?

As anyone commuting through American suburbs can attest, the Eisenhower-era impulse to build farther and farther away from the grit and grime of city centers has led to ever-expanding bands of suburban sprawl. Of course, for every impulse there is a counter-impulse.

Apparently suburban Americans miss aspects of inner-city life: walking to the corner store, chatting with their neighbors at the curb, taking the kids to a park without driving, etc. To match those retro desires, visionary planners and architects since the 1980s have been sculpting new demi-cities with all the charms of urban life and, hopefully, none of the warts.

Since they base their plans on the old-fashioned downtowns recalled by sentimental suburbanites, the styles tend to be historical. The continent is now punctuated with new row-house strips, residential greens, village plazas, commons and market squares in Victorian, Cape Cod, Pueblo and even Creole styles. Some of these developments went up on "underutilized" land, others were shoehorned into city centers. Combine some form of new development with the conveniences of old-fashioned urban life and you have New Urbanism.

Pros and cons

Admirers find New Urbanism to be an attractive, ecologically responsible alternative to the never-ceasing cycle of suburban single-story, petroleum-dependent blight, or the denser, dirtier cities that the suburbanites were fleeing. Detractors see it as the diabolical Disneyfication of America — artificial, superficial, soulless and, now, quite out of fashion.

In post-Katrina New Orleans, New Urbanism could mean an expansion of the beloved small-scale, city-mouse lifestyle of the city's old neighborhoods. Or it could represent a pox of dreary taupe and putty-colored apartment complexes, spaced around little-used green spaces, festooned with skin-deep architectural flourishes.

One of the city's most notable New Urbanism proponents is Pres Kabacoff, chief operating officer of Historic Restoration Inc., a development company principally known for converting unused industrial dinosaurs into apartment hives, with restaurants, dry cleaners, wine shops, workout centers, swimming pools and other on-site yuppie amenities — a sort of old urban/New Urban synthesis.

A grander vision

But Kabacoff's post-Katrina vision includes more than inner-city conversions. His dreams run to a series of 10-acre, freshly built, densely populated New Urban enclaves between downtown New Orleans and the airport 15 miles to the west.

"New Urbanism is a good term, especially if you can relate it to transportation," Kabacoff said. "What I imagine was that you make housing throughout the city along a light railway, mixed-income communities with residences, business, even a school. Not in areas ruined by the flood, but vacant land on high ground."

Kabacoff's compact communities would be built in fallow areas "anywhere you have a large tract of high-ground land."

Each of these would resemble one of his more controversial accomplishments: the conversion of New Orleans' old St. Thomas public housing site into River Garden, a mixed-income development replete with its own Wal-Mart Supercenter and, one day, a nursing home.

A reasonably accurate approximation of a late-19th-century New Orleans neighborhood, River Garden replaced one of the city's most intractable slums. Many new residents lauded the development, though it also became a lightning rod for preservationist angst, in large part because of the incongruous Wal-Mart.

"As people begin to sift through the wreckage left by Hurricane Katrina," New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote in mid-October, "there is a creeping sense that the final blow has yet to be struck — one that will irrevocably blot out the city's past."

Out of the guidebooks

He was not talking about another killer storm. He was, rather, preparing to outline a future-dread vision in which an onslaught of New Urbanist developments a la River Garden would sap the soul of the reeling city for all time.

It's not entirely clear just how such a history-blotting scenario would unfold, especially if you consider that miles and miles of the 19th-century Crescent City architecture featured in tourist guidebooks remains intact and that the areas most afflicted by wind and flood never made the pages of those guidebooks.

New Orleans architect Lee Ledbetter grudgingly allows that the size of the houses and layout of River Garden is more or less ideal, but he's rankled by the designers' efforts to imitate old-fashioned neoclassic architecture. "It has a certain false historicism," he says. "You can't replicate something that was built when those materials [old-growth timber, etc.] could be bought off the shelf. The thought of the city turning into that frightens me."

Mayor Ray Nagin has suggested that the River Garden brand of New Urbanism should be the model for rebuilding the presumably soon-to-be-bulldozed portions of the Big Easy. His assertions were soon echoed by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson, who vowed that River Garden would be the rebuilding model when other flooded public-housing developments are razed.

Despite the official accolades, Kabacoff is pessimistic that his vision to increase population density on dry land will be fulfilled, because he doesn't believe government financing will be available. But even if Washington dollars were to materialize, it's hard to imagine Kabacoff would be able to — in Ouroussoff's words — "irrevocably blot out the city's past."

Another, possibly purer species of New Urbanism is the Florida development called Seaside. Begun in 1981 on the state's Panhandle coast, Seaside is an idyllic 19th century-styled beach community designed by Miami-based Duany Plater-Zyberk and Co. For proponents it is a beacon of post-suburban promise, the first true New Urbanist development, the focus of endless architectural analysis. For detractors it's a pinata stuffed with high-minded pretensions and real-world disappointments.

Seaside is said to have been inspired in part by New Orlean' architecture, though even a glance at the virtual town tour on Seaside's Web site reveals a pastel-toned confection lacking New Orleans' patina of eccentricity or decrepitude.

Since Seaside's mastermind, urban theorist Andres Duany, has been a major voice in the debate over how best to reconfigure the devastated Mississippi coast, it's not hard to imagine that his orderly, idyllic vision could spread to New Orleans.

Between two worlds

New Orleans architect Peter Trapolin has a foot in both the aesthetic spheres of traditional New Orleans and Duany-style New Urbanism. Though Trapolin is well-known for his historically sensitive Crescent City projects, he also has contributed a hotel design to Rosemary Beach, a New Urbanist oceanfront community near Seaside. He says communities like Seaside might be "a little too sterile and a little too perfect" for the Big Easy milieu, but some New Urbanist precepts, especially heightened population density, are compatible with the city's rebuilding.

"New Orleans has always been land-poor. To accommodate a growing population, you used small parcels of land. That should be a model of how it should be rebuilt," he says. "New Urbanism is based on properties New Orleans has. The [New Urbanist] communities are more compact and they encourage unique, quirky features like balconies that overhang the property lines. They're more pedestrian in nature, with urban corridors, scattered pocket parks. They try to give these neighborhoods some of the flavor of older cities."

But Trapolin offers a caveat: "What makes New Orleans unique is it happened by chance. It's more real here than in New Urbanist communities. There's a lot of fear that people would make a lot of Seasides scattered around. We don't want that."

Unexpectedly perhaps, New Urbanist guru Duany agrees, pointing out that Seaside is a 25-year-old concept tailored to the challenges of the time, challenges much different from those facing the post-Katrina Crescent City.

"New Orleans is a very complicated place, very unique. It must be preserved at all cost. On the other hand, it had many problems. This is an unprecedented opportunity to do something about it."

Duany says that so far he has no stake in the redesign of New Orleans, though he's busily studying the area to learn what he can about the city.

New Orleans architect Errol Barron distrusts the from-the-ground-up planning that precedes any New Urban development. It's a lack of premeditation, he believes, that lends the Big Easy it's laissez-faire charms.

"It's not the [New Urbanist] aesthetic that's wrong," he says, "it's the artificiality of something planned all at once. What we have in this city is something that developed over a very long period of time, with lots of incremental adjustments along the way. Sweeping utopian plans, I don't think, would fit here. ... Honestly I really fear the influx of experts."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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