Six months ago, in the shell of a house just blocks from the now infamous Industrial Canal breach, a displaced resident of New Orleans' most ravaged neighborhood went head to head with a Hollywood megastar.
Brad Pitt, flanked by a team of world-class architects, had just finished explaining his plan to build 150 affordable, environmentally friendly, storm-safe houses for residents of the worst-swamped section of the Lower 9th Ward. The houses would sit, he said, on the same lots where their old homes once stood.
Standing under generator-powered light bulbs, some 30 neighborhood activists contemplated the pitch. It was hardly the first scheme an enterprising outsider had offered these residents, who after finally being allowed to return to their battered homes three months after Hurricane Katrina put up lawn signs attacking big developers they feared were waiting to gobble up their land.
Despite Pitt's celebrity acclaim, thorough presentation and pledge to put his own money into the project, the idea met with only cautious optimism. This community, deeply cynical of promises made but rarely kept, had survived for years amid abandoned properties, failing public schools and escalating crime fueled by the illegal drug trade.
Giving voice to a feeling that several people in the room recently said they shared, the man stood up and warned Pitt that he couldn't stroll into the neighborhood -- even in its ruined state -- and reengineer its future without their consent.
"You have to earn our trust," he said.
With the announcement this week of the $12 million Make It Right project, a venture strikingly similar to the concept Pitt laid out in March, it appears the actor met his challenge.
Despite rampant skepticism, Pitt, bolstered by a nonprofit real estate investment group specializing in sustainable development, got nine civic groups with strong ties to the Lower 9th Ward to sign on to the project. They joined 13 architecture firms from around the globe that soon lent their efforts for free.
Meeting every Wednesday evening, residents and planners worked together on what the new houses would look like, from open floor plans in shotgun-style houses to the inclusion of roof-level patios as havens from rising water.
In keeping with one of Pitt's driving principles, architects explained elements of "green" construction to residents who lost decades-old homes that, while rich in family history, were riddled with cracks that let cool air and heat escape, driving up power bills. Many structures in the Lower 9th Ward also were caked with dangerous lead-based paint.
Homes built through the Make It Right program, the architects said, would have energy-efficient appliances, south-facing roofs laden with solar panels, outdoor space for composting and interior finishes made from products that are not harmful to residents' health or the environment.
At each weekly session, residents and architects shared their ideas for the revival of an area that Mayor Ray Nagin described for months after the storm as a place residents should beware of rebuilding.
Recalling the process this week, residents said that each time the architects returned to their drawing boards, they came back with more of neighbors' suggestions integrated into their blueprints, from the inclusion of back-up fuel sources for solar-powered appliances to wheelchair ramps to reach elevated first floors.
Steven Bingler, founder of the local architecture firm Concordia, said the innovative partnership helped architects tailor their designs to residents' needs, in contrast to the ready-made prototypes typically offered to potential buyers in middle-class subdivisions.
But more importantly, Bingler said, the Make It Right process became an exercise in democracy as it upended the traditional model of home buying and offered working-class people high-quality choices in new construction -- the sort generally reserved for the upper-middle class and the wealthy.
"It's asking people, who don't often have a choice about what kind of architecture they could have, what they really want," he said. "They usually end up getting what's left over, and in this case, they're being offered some of the most progressive opportunities in the city -- or maybe anywhere -- for affordable housing."
Vanessa Gueringer, a local community organizer with ACORN who has participated in most of the Wednesday meetings, acknowledged this week that she could hardly believe it when she first heard Pitt, an international luminary, say he wanted to lend a hand to the modest community where she grew up.
"You're used to being stepped on. You're used to being misused. So, at first, you are a little leery," she said.
But Gueringer said she has been convinced by the steady devotion of architects and other participants that Make It Right will help restore an area now known as the place where a barge came to rest after floating through the levee breach.
"I'm 80 percent there," she said. "I guess I'll be completely sold when I see the first house on a lot over there. But they have done everything they could to make us understand that they want to see us see our neighborhood come back."
Work getting quick start
The revival could be under way by year's end.
With the architecture firms wrapping up work now on 13 house designs, one per firm, organizers expect blueprints to be complete this fall and groundbreaking to begin by December or January, said Tom Darden, director of the Make It Right Foundation, a nonprofit corporation that has set up shop in a downtown office donated by the McGlinchey Stafford law firm.
With a goal to build 150 houses as quickly as possible, Darden said organizers are aiming initially to construct as many as 20 homes as part of a pilot program. Using traditional stick-built methods, those structures would be ready within about five months.
In the meantime, Darden said he and others have begun sifting through some 40 applications to select families whose houses will be in the pilot group. The names were submitted at Pitt's request by the leaders of the nine community groups that participated in the project.
The families should be chosen by Thanksgiving, he said. Organizers are still working out the process to receive applications and select families to participate in the program beyond the pilot phase. To qualify, individuals must have owned a house or a lot in the area prior to the flood.
Though organizers and architects have declined to say what the houses will look like, they have said the designs will reflect traditional New Orleans architectural styles, such as shotguns, camelbacks and Creole cottages, and will incorporate high ceilings, front porches and gingerbread details.
And because different architects are designing each model house, the neighborhood is not expected to have a cookie-cutter appearance, like a Habitat for Humanity project rising across the Industrial Canal from the Make It Right site.
"This neighborhood, when it's finished -- and not to take anything away from it at all -- will not look like Musicians Village," said Nina Killeen, a New Orleans native who serves as liaison between Make It Right and the Jolie-Pitt Foundation, a charity founded by Pitt and his partner, actress Angelina Jolie.
When designs are complete, Darden said the foundation is considering making them available for free to other nonprofit builders or to individual homeowners who want to rebuild their properties.
Decision not made lightly
Though the project now has all the trappings of sophisticated real estate development, organizers described their early steps as tentative, in part because of uncertainty about whether the section of the Lower 9th Ward between North Claiborne and Florida avenues should be rebuilt at all.
In unveiling the project last week in New York before an audience of world leaders at the Clinton Global Initiative, Pitt said the foundation chose to begin its work there "because we see it as an icon for New Orleans," according to a video of the event posted on the Internet.
"It's notable for its contributions to our music scene, our civil rights movement. It's got a great spirit," Pitt said, "and it has the least likely shot at a successful return."
Darden, who works closely with Pitt, said the actor wanted to focus his recovery efforts in the Lower 9th Ward to prove that "if you can rebuild in the worst-hit area, you can rebuild everywhere."
But the decision was not made in haste, Killeen said.
"We didn't just blindly go out and say, 'We're going to do this no matter what anybody says,' " she said.
Make It Right organizers said they consulted with officials from the Army Corps of Engineers, including Col. Jeff Bedey, New Orleans Hurricane Protection Office commander, and were convinced that the breached Industrial Canal levee had been rebuilt stronger than ever.
"If I wanted to be next to a levee, that's the one I'd want to be next to," Bingler said.
While that section of floodwall has been rebuilt to pre-Katrina design specifications, corps officials have said the area will not be completely safe from flooding until so-called 100-year protection is in place in 2011.
Project leaders also considered that before Katrina the northern section of the Lower 9th Ward, about half of which lies below sea level, rarely flooded during ordinary rains or even those associated with tropical storms and hurricanes, Killeen said.
Make It Right's project area is expected to extend across 11 blocks between North Claiborne Avenue and the Florida Avenue Canal and several blocks to the east, though precisely how far is still undecided, organizers have said. Bingler said homes at the initial site will be elevated 5 feet, in compliance with federal recommendations.
Thinking ahead to the next hurricane, organizers also recognized that the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, which some believe intensified Katrina's surge and drove it into the Industrial Canal, is likely to be closed in the next few years, Killeen said. President Bush, however, has threatened to veto the pending Water Resources Development Act, which includes provisions for closing the MR-GO.
Darden and Killeen said Make It Right directors took cues from other major projects rising in the Lower 9th Ward, namely the $200 million effort by the state and the Defense Department to rebuild Jackson Barracks and the reopening last month of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School along Caffin Avenue, less than a mile from the project site.
As plans solidified, they approached top officials in the Nagin administration, including recovery director Ed Blakely and Chief Administrative Officer Brenda Hatfield, to stress the area's need for repaved streets, repaired street lights and landscaping on public rights-of-way.
A draft plan created by the Office of Recovery Management shows the project could get $250,000 of $117 million in federal community development block grants earmarked by the Louisiana Recovery Authority for infrastructure improvements in New Orleans.
Of all the issues organizers said they broached with city leaders, the foremost was public safety.
Crime remains concern
Even as the Lower 9th Ward has become a familiar term in households across America -- evoking images of colorful shotgun houses, tightknit neighbors and, of course, government responsibility gone horribly awry -- the area before Katrina was not without violent crime and blight.
Home ownership hovered around 60 percent, and 96 percent of residents were African-American. Of the neighborhood's 5,600 housing units, 14 percent were vacant, according to a Brown University study released last year. The average household income registered less than $25,000 per year, compared with the city's overall average of more than $43,000.
Demonstrating that concerns about crime have not waned, some residents who gathered this year to study architects' designs asked whether the houses' windows would be protected by bars or if the architects could position windows high off the ground and locate bedrooms away from exterior walls, Killeen said.
"We recognize what the neighborhood was before," she said.
Heeding residents' concerns, architects sharpened their attention to safety features, including the position of homes on lots. The team also met with New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley to see how law enforcement in the area might be bolstered, Darden said.
Several solutions have been suggested, he said, but true to the pact made between organizers and the community groups, Darden said he could not discuss the options just yet because neighbors have not vetted them.
For the time being, Darden said, crime is not a problem where Make It Right plans to erect the first homes, near a cluster of buildings occupied by the aid organization Common Ground Relief. The flood reduced many houses to mounds of debris cleared away months ago. Hundreds more have been demolished, leaving a field of mostly empty slabs with the occasional FEMA trailer or rebuilt home.
"There's not much there to steal," Darden said.
Given that vacant landscape, urban planners say Make It Right has the potential to transform the area. And it could provide the spark for recovery to take off.
Rebuilding project unique
Unlike other rebuilding models, including Blakely's $1.1 billion blueprint to rebuild the city starting in 17 target zones, the project is not designed around the concept of clustering redevelopment at a traditional community center, like a shopping center or school. Such a model anticipates that activity at the core will encourage neighbors to reinvest in their own properties, causing recovery to spread like falling dominoes.
Rather, Make It Right attempts to reconstruct a neighborhood at once on its entire footprint, a move organizers said is intended to respect residents' wishes to return to their own lots.
Steven Villavaso, one of the directors of the Unified New Orleans Plan, a citywide initiative to develop a neighborhood-based recovery blueprint, said 150 new homes built in a limited area could inspire the same level of confidence as clustered redevelopment.
"If you spread them out throughout that neighborhood, that could have a significant impact on 10 to 12 (blocks)," he said. "You want to use them as seeds."
However, Villavaso warned that too sparse a pattern -- just one or two homes per block -- "could really work against the redevelopment of the neighborhood" because it could suggest that the area is "only for pioneers" willing to give it a go without neighbors living nearby.
With pilot sites still being chosen, Make It Right organizers have not disclosed the settlement pattern yet.
Whatever it looks like, Villavaso said the approach falls in line with the free-market strategy that has driven much of the recovery so far.
"This is not your typical model, but . . . I think it is the right way to go," he said. "Neighborhoods that are coming back home are neighborhoods where individual homeowners make their own individual decisions."
Blakely, who has advocated letting residents "swap" far-flung lots for publicly held ones clustered in their own neighborhood to avoid pockets of blight, said the Make It Right model might deter residents who want to be sure their house will not be the only new one on the block.
"It could limit it," he said. "It could make (redevelopment) go slower."
But Blakely said he is thrilled that a private foundation has made a strong commitment to an area of the Lower 9th Ward near one of the city's target zones.
Darden said organizers also have been in touch with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority to discuss whether Make It Right could get first dibs on blighted and adjudicated lots in its area as they come into the city agency's control. He stressed, however, that the foundation does not intend to become a developer, acquiring empty lots then building houses and selling them.
"We don't want to own anything," Darden said. "If we get control of these lots, we would return them to the community."
Homes made affordable
Besides its focus on sustainable architecture, Make It Right aims to help residents pay for their new homes.
With the average house expected to cost between $100,000 and $174,000, planners anticipate most homeowners will be able to contribute some cash for construction but that most will fall about $70,000 short of paying off their new homes, program materials show.
As a result, Make It Right plans to offer forgivable gap loans of as much as $100,000, with the caveat that applicants must have owned a home or lot in the Lower 9th Ward before Katrina. No homeowners who participate in the program will pay more than 30 percent of their gross monthly income for house payments, a threshold recommended by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for anyone setting up a household budget, documents show.
Homeowners will be expected to contribute money from insurance proceeds, savings and Road Home grants and to investigate their options in the traditional mortgage market. But a large loan reserve will be available, financed largely by contributions of $5 million each from Pitt and Steve Bing, a film producer and philanthropist who inherited his family's real estate fortune.
In announcing the project in New York, Pitt challenged his audience to match the $10 million seed money. Make It Right spokeswoman Virginia Miller said Saturday that members of the Clinton Global Initiative committed another $2 million last week. Additional donations also were made, Miller said, though she could not say how much or from whom.
For residents still haggling with insurance companies or waiting for the Road Home, the project's loan option should allow many to finally get back home, said Patricia Jones, executive director of the Lower 9th Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association.
"The kind of houses that we're talking about building here, they are energy-efficient, and they cost more," she said. "We want sustainable redevelopment. But right now, folk aren't even getting enough to rebuild a regular home."
City Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, who represents the area, lauded the Make It Right Foundation for filling a financing gap she said Congress should have covered completely.
"It's the private sector saying, 'We're going to get this done,' when really it should have been the federal government that got it done because the levee broke a block away," Willard-Lewis said.
With pieces falling into place, a project born amid skepticism appears to be just months from seeing shovels turn dirt. Besides putting displaced residents back on their own solid ground, organizers say Make It Right aims to become a model of eco-friendly development across the world and to show how working-class and poor people can help shape their own communities.
As Gueringer sees it, the project also will be a sign of hope for residents now living in sparsely populated neighborhoods still struggling to rebuild.
"It will say to everyone that crosses the Claiborne Avenue Bridge that if this area can come back," she said, "then any area of the city can come back."
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For information about the project, visit www.makeitrightnola.org or call (888) 647-6652.
Michelle Krupa can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3312.