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EYE ON THE PIE: Let's build a new New Orleans

September 12, 2005

At the moment, rescue and relocation are the primary concerns along the Gulf Coast ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. In time, restoration will become the leading issue.

Most property owners from Mobile to New Orleans will want their buildings repaired or replaced. They will seek to recreate the past instead of looking to the future.

A more comprehensive approach is appropriate. Let's consider the Gulf Coast as a region, centered on New Orleans, that stretches from Florida to Texas. This area is highly attractive for an extraordinary variety of commercial and recreational purposes. It also is hurricane-prone.

Given what we know today about urban design, would we develop Biloxi, Gulfport, Pass Christian or New Orleans as we did in the past? Would Pensacola or Galveston be configured differently? But existing land titles specify ownership of property that define the street patterns of those cities. Existing zoning ordinances specify land uses. Most of all, deep-rooted, multigenerational memories, sentiments and expectations may override opportunities to re-imagine these coastal cities individually and as an integrated region.

Should the coastal region be planned by the government or left to the free market to develop? Don't fool yourself considering this question. If U.S. 90 is rebuilt in its existing location, the government is condemning the region to a future that replicates an unattractive past. If the levees are rebuilt and strengthened, the government is making the key decisions about future land use in the region.

How will the public have access to the beaches and the water? Is access a public right or a benefit of private wealth? What kind of structures will be developed? Will high-speed rail connect the cities east and west of New Orleans with one another and with inland points for daily uses and for more rapid, efficient evacuation of those fleeing the recurrent hurricanes?

If we redevelop the coastal region along new lines, existing claims on property will have to be exchanged for new instruments of private ownership. There will be an uproar. Corporate ownership will be denounced as government-sponsored seizure of individual properties, a step toward collectivism, socialism and-ultimately-either fascism or communism. But it is one instrument to be considered as we redesign the coastal region.

The temptation always exists to rebuild what we had in the past. Other than the French Quarter and the Garden District of New Orleans, is there reason to re-create the past? Shouldn't we use the destruction wrought by Katrina as an opportunity to upgrade the housing stock and public infrastructure of the coastal communities? Do we want to bring back refugees now in Houston, Baton Rouge and other cities to the "charmingly decrepit" homes they inhabited before Katrina?

The nation will allocate billions of public dollars to rebuilding New Orleans and other devastated places. Other billions of private insurance payments will put money in the hands of individuals constrained to focus on themselves because they have no opportunity to relate to a broader vision. Together, those funds would be used best by building new cities that demonstrate how public and private investment in the 21st century can improve urban living when the slate is wiped clean of our inherited liabilities.

Who will do that? Who is thinking today of the vast opportunities for the future brought about by the disasters of the past? Do we have institutions in place to coordinate novel solutions? Or is it already too late for us to change tomorrow?



Marcus taught economics more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.
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