October 14, 2016
On Friday, March 6, 2015, the city of New Orleans posted more than 1,700 properties online and began auctioning them off. Most were vacant lots. The city was hoping to attract investors who could put these properties back into circulation, so to speak, in part to raise tax revenue and also to continue chipping away at the scourge of blight that had afflicted New Orleans since well before Hurricane Katrina.
Today, somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 lots sit vacant in New Orleans, about the same number as before the levees collapsed but significantly fewer than the 43,000 tallied in 2010. The city has employed a number of strategies to bring that number down, including these online auctions, a strategy later adopted by the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA), a public agency that owns close to 2,500 vacant lots in the city.
Auctions can be good for a city’s bottom line. They generate revenue and reduce maintenance costs—NORA’s lots are typically mowed about every three weeks, which means the agency is responsible for some 45,000 maintenance visits over the course of a year. But a series of proposals produced by the winning teams of the Van Alen Institute’s Future Ground competition suggests that some vacant lots are worth holding on to. In certain areas, cities should even consider purchasing additional properties to create larger parcels, which are required by job-creating industries like manufacturing. “This kind of physical economy is really important and is really very tied to our land use policies,” says Amy Whitesides, Associate ASLA, a studio director at Stoss Landscape Urbanism, which led one of the winning teams.
The notion of strategic acquisition is just one of several revelatory strategies that came up as part of Future Ground. Launched in 2014, the competition emerged out of conversations between Jerome Chou, Van Alen’s director of competitions, and Jeff Hebert, NORA’s executive director, who in 2014 was appointed the city’s chief resilience officer.
After Katrina, NORA’s role in rebuilding New Orleans expanded significantly. It was charged with selling 5,000 city-owned vacant lots and overseeing the Lot Next Door ordinance, which allowed property owners to cheaply purchase adjacent lots. As a result, the agency began focusing on redevelopment strategies that were larger in scale and driven by data, consulting experts from around the country and implementing a number of green infrastructure projects across the parish to help create a more amphibious city.
With Future Ground, Hebert, who resigned his position at NORA when he was named deputy mayor and chief administrative officer by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu in 2016, wanted to go further. He was interested less in design strategies for individual lots; the city already had the requisite rain gardens and the low-maintenance wildflower meadows. Rather, Hebert wanted to know how the city should think about vacant land.
Over the course of six months, three teams of architects, landscape architects, urban designers, lawyers, economists, and experts in land use policy and real estate identified a number of novel solutions for New Orleans, many of which subvert conventional wisdom and can be adopted by
municipalities across the United States. Some already have jumped Louisiana’s borders.
Participants, however, say Future Ground also raises serious questions about the responsibility of organizers to design professionals and cities like New Orleans, which, since Katrina, has become a repository of shelved, stalled, and failed plans. “That was a sensitivity in New Orleans from the beginning,” Whitesides says. “There have been a lot of people planning things in New Orleans” and a history of “things not happening.”
It is not clear what exactly happened between Van Alen’s original RFQ and the conclusion of the competition, but team members recall what they describe as an aggravating and duplicitous process. The Ohio State University landscape architecture professor Kristi Cheramie, who led another winning team, says the competition was “significantly botched.”
“We left the competition with a very, very bad taste in our mouth[s],” she says.
From the beginning, it was an ambitious enterprise. According to the RFQ, Future Ground would generate “flexible design and policy strategies that forecast and accommodate changes in density, demand, climate, and landscape over the next half-century in New Orleans.” Van Alen encouraged a mix of local and national talent and required that teams be multidisciplinary, and in 2014 it and NORA selected the winning teams: Team NO/LEX (New Orleans Land Exchange), led by Cheramie; Team Stoss, led by Whitesides and Chris Reed, FASLA; and Team PaD (Policy as Design), led by the architect James Dart of the design firmDARCH.
Jonathan Tate, the principal of an architecture and urban design studio in New Orleans and a member of Team Stoss, says the competition provided teams with an opportunity to bring ideas that had not yet been tested in the city. He and Ann Yoachim, who has 10 years of experience working in New Orleans, helped Stoss vet ideas for their sensitivity to the local context but also for their originality. “We were there to say, look, somebody’s already done this, this has already been investigated, let’s try to coax out something that feels new,” Tate says.
The Stoss team focused on the role that land plays in job creation. By combing through national economic data, it homed in on the link between lot size and the types of employment opportunities. “A lot of middle-wage jobs, especially middle-wage jobs for people without college degrees, are in the physical economy,” says Teresa Lynch, a principal at Mass Economics who has worked with Stoss in both Detroit and Atlanta. “They involve making things, moving things, fixing things, or storing things. So you need land.” Specifically, between two and four acres of it, Lynch found—a size ideally situated for light industry. Because the majority of vacant lots are a tenth of an acre at most, Stoss recommended that NORA suspend land auctions until it can devise a strategy for assembling these lots into larger parcels.