One of the great political moments in recent times came last year when voters approved a plan that would finally create a procedure for a rational, well-thought out Master Plan to guide the city’s growth. During the past session of the legislature, a dreadful bill came damn close to in effect killing the Master Plan. Known as Senate Bill 75, the proposal would have in effect negated the plan.
As originally approved, a professional urban planning firm, Goody Clancy and Associates, will hold a series of public hearings. From there the Boston-based urban design firm (which has extensive experience in New Orleans) will propose a citywide master development plan that would have to be approved by the city council before becoming law. Once approved there will be rational guidelines for development and the process will be de-politicized, thereby weakening the stroke of politically connected developers and deal-making politicians.
SB 75 would have called for the final plan to be put before the voters again for approval, but that would have just politicized the process and given those whose power is threatened by the plan one more chance to try to defeat it.
Why was this presented as a racial issue? Because the real motivation behind the bill, political influence and control, doesn’t play well in the public arena. We see many examples in political life of people, black and white, who feel their power base threatened resorting to race baiting to maintain the tension needed to stay in control.
But isn’t there a chance that local whites will use the plan as a way of bulldozing their way over the best interests of the black community? No. First of all, the final plan has to be approved by the city council. All council members (including the two at-larges) represent significant black populations that are either in the majority or that are large enough to represent powerful swing votes.
Secondly, such an argument is condescending to blacks, as though they won’t make their voices heard.
Thirdly, such as argument is condescending to whites who choose to live in the city. They understand, and in many cases desire, multi-cultural communities. There is an underestimated sense of decency among those of both races who want a better life for all people.
Finally, Good Clancy, the firm that will submit the plan after a series of public hearings, isn’t naive or uninformed about urban issues and sensitivities. Its planners know about cities and how they tick. The company’s national reputation as well as local community standards will not allow for a race- driven plan.
Who were th heroes in lobbying to defeat the bill? Three council members: Jackie Clarkson, Stacy Head and Shelley Midura, spent much time going to Baton Rouge speaking against the proposal. Even Ray Nagin and his administration deserve credit for making the case that the legislation violated the city charter. City Attorney Penya Moses Fields personally advanced that argument before a legislative committee. In an announcement sent out by Clarkson she thanked members of the city planning commission, the Business Council, the New Orleans Metropolitan Association of Realtors, the Home Builders Association, AARP Louisiana, the Preservation Resource Center, the Bureau of Governmental Research, the Downtown Development District and her staff. These people protected one of the most important pieces of legislation in the city’s history.
Who were the disappointments? In the House, Cedric Richmond introduced the bill. Many of the people who had to give up their time to oppose the proposal were, we suspect, especially disappointed in Murray who has a reputation as being one of the bright lights in the legislature – both smart and progressive. He might argue that by calling for an extra public vote he was championing the democratic process, but he’s smart enough to know that his bill was a way to forever kill the Master Plan.
To his credit Murray did help finalize the Saints deal during the session and there were other good works, including securing money in the capital outlay build for improvements of Bayou St. John, but SB 75 hurt.
Will there be another attempt to drag down the master plan in the upcoming city elections? Possibly but, if so, the only way it can possibly succeed is to play the race card – again.
Here is hoping that the next election will be the one that the special interests, and their political boosters, will learn that the city’s voters, black and white, are smarter than they think.