Mississippi Rebuilding

By Robbie Corey-Boulet

Ask those who have visited the Gulf Coast, and you'll hear that progress in rebuilding the region after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita is slow-going.

"It's like visiting a war zone. Still. And we're nine months out," said Elizabeth "Boo" Thomas, executive director of the Center for Planning Excellence, during Friday's seminar titled "New Urbanist Rebuilding In Louisiana."

Though Thomas was talking specifically about efforts to bring long-term regional planning to southern Louisiana, it's clear that urban planners and policymakers throughout the Gulf Coast have a daunting task ahead of them. What's more, in addition to widespread physical damage, Thomas believes planners face certain cultural obstacles, as well.

It's a region where any sort of long-term planning can be a tough sell. Louisiana, for example, historically lacks any sort of centralized planning, and citizens quickly became wary of relief efforts conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"I know how suspicious Cajuns are," Thomas said. "It's a very different culture."

Connie Moran, mayor of Ocean Springs, Miss., said she encountered similar skepticism during her city's rebuilding process. Some people "were ready to be negative."

"Ocean Springs historically is a traditional neighborhood," said Moran, who was mayor for only six weeks before the hurricanes hit. "Our downtown is very much what New Urbanism aspires to create in much of America."

Though the city's downtown didn't flood during last year's hurricanes, "our waterfront was devastated," Moran said. Along with businesses, Ocean Springs lost irreplaceable antebellum homes.

Moran participated in October's Mississippi Renewal Forum, an experience that "really pulled us from the depths of the devastation and helped us build hope for a brighter future," she said.

The city enlisted Dover, Kohl and Partners, of Coral Gables, Fla., to design for redevelopment of the harbor, waterfront and nearby areas, a process that included rebuilding the city's yacht club, designing new condominiums and mixed-use developments with restaurant and retail space, and accommodating commercial and private watercraft.

In order to convince residents that its plan was a good one, Moran said the firm focused on "keeping with the historical coastal vernacular," which includes a five-story height limit.

"We highly value our small-town charm," Moran said.

Still, not everyone was immediately on board.

"There are a few people who don't want any change," she said.

The city hosted town meetings and charettes, which over 300 residents attended, to solicit feedback. Though the design process continues, drafts of proposals recently presented by Dover, Kohl and Partners "were overwhelmingly well-received," Moran said.

It seems critics' fears "were deflected," Moran said. Presently, Ocean Springs officials are working to finalize guidelines and solidify redevelopment plans, and Moran is actively looking for developers interested in taking on her city's waterfront project. Updates from other redevelopment projects will be presented during Saturday's council titled "The Gulf Coast Renewal," which will bring together other public officials who, like Moran, participated in the Mississippi Renewal Forum, which was the largest charette ever held. For her part, Moran described the process as an "inspirational" experience that she was "thrilled to participate in." When asked what lessons can be learned from Ocean Springs, she replied: "I think the architects got it right listening to people."