Last month, Louisiana Speaks, an arm of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, joined the blogosphere, setting up shop at laspeaks.blogspot.com. Louisiana Speaks has been charged with the task of developing a long-term, state-wide comprehensive plan. During the past two years, they have held a series of community planning meetings throughout South Louisiana, and in May 2007, they published Louisiana Speaks Regional Plan: Vision and Strategies for Recovery and Growth in South Louisiana, a thorough and insightful document that establishes a number of key priorities in planning the recovery and redevelopment of coastal Louisiana and the areas most affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Currently, Louisiana Speaks is expanding its focus and its scope; they are beginning to reach out to those of us in Central and Northern Louisiana. Last week, Louisiana Speaks, in coordination with the Center for Planning Excellence, held their first community planning meeting here in Alexandria, and throughout the planning process, they will continue to visit Alexandria, meeting with disparate groups of stakeholders in order to ensure that their comprehensive plan accurately addresses the needs and the hopes of those of us here in Central Louisiana.

A few months ago, I attended a Louisiana Speaks state conference in Baton Rouge, and during one of the question and answer forums, an older man from Lecompte asked the panel, “Why isn’t Central Louisiana included in your current regional plan?” The answer to his question was both simple and promising: First, there was the issue of priorities. Due to the destruction of the hurricanes, South Louisiana was in greater need for a comprehensive redevelopment plan, a plan that would guide investors, local and parish governments, and real estate developers. But, as one of the panelists pointed out, those of us in Central and Northern Louisiana may actually be at an advantage as we create a long-term plan for our future. “We have learned a lot through trial and error,” she said, “It’s probably better to be one of the last regions we plan than one of the first.”

Recently, Louisiana Speaks published “The Next Ten Steps.” They are:

— 1 —
(a) Establish an Office of State Planning (see LSRP, pp. 81, 83, 85-8)
A new Office of State Planning will help coordinate state plans and incentives, and it will provide technical and material support to local planning efforts. It would be governed by a public-private board serving staggered terms. Dedicated funding for this office and its programs would be established and protected either through state statute or the Constitution.
(b) Establish an Independent La. Speaks Leadership Group (see LSRP, pp. 83, 87-8)
This non-profit group will unite diverse community leaders and citizens from across the state to monitor progress toward Regional Plan benchmarks, support the activities of the Office of State Planning, and conduct public education and advocacy for community-planning best practices.
Status: (a) The 2007 Legislalture established a study committee to recommend a structure for an Office of State Planning to the 2008 Legislature; (b) the non-profit La. Speaks group has established an interim executive board and staff, and its 501(c)3 application is pending.

— 2 —
Fund and build recovery-critical transportation infrastructure (see LSRP, pp. 32-3, 38-9)
Regional infrastructure projects with vital economic-recovery value and/or critical evacuation importance should be funded immediately. These projects include:
· Regional transit projects with recovery and evacuation value, such as commuter rail from New Orleans to Baton Rouge
· Coastal evacuation and economic-recovery projects such as La. 1 to Port Fourchon, La. 23 to Venice, and La. 27 to Cameron
· Regional evacuation and economic development projects such as I-49 from Lafayette to metro New Orleans, La. 20/24 from Houma to I-10, and U.S. 165 north of Lake Charles
· Key local connections with regional evacuation and economic recovery value, such as the Calcasieu Pass bridgeworks, the Florida Ave. bridge to St. Bernard Parish, and expanded public transit in the New Orleans metro area.
Status: Partial funding exists for intercity rail between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, DOTD has operating agreements in place, and the LRA is working on a feasibility study. Work is underway on some of the other projects, and partial funding has been identified for many.

— 3 —
Create a “Louisiana Location Index” (see LSRP, pp. 63-4)
A “Louisiana Location Index” will be a powerful tool for coordinating La. Speaks and other plans, policies and incentives. The Index would be a database-driven, publicly accessible map (GIS) that categorizes land in Louisiana based on its suitability for different kinds of development. All state data, policies and incentives—regarding economic development, conservation, transportation-planning and related development, community reinvestment, and more—could be integrated into this comprehensive resource. The first step in creating the Index will be convening a broad stakeholder group to establish viable and credible categories for land-classification. The Index would provide a framework to local planners. This approach has been very successful in other states, including Maryland and New Jersey.
Status: This effort has yet to be launched, but rich base-data has been created by state agencies, universities, regional planning offices, and through the La. Speaks process.

— 4 —
Create Model Development and Zoning Codes (see LSRP, pp. 58, 64)
A Louisiana Model Development Code will be a body of zoning and development-regulation statutes offered as a free resource to local jurisdictions. Locals could import selected portions “cafeteria”-style, or they could adopt the whole Code. The Louisiana Model Development Code would include best practices for creating safe, walkable communities by addressing building massing and density, block standards, buffers, street design, parking, and fire and public-safety standards. The Code will be tailored to the distinctive physical, cultural, and legal character of Louisiana, yet it will also be flexible enough to address urban, suburban and rural areas; areas experiencing growth and areas in need of reinvestment. It will include innovative guidelines for transit-oriented development and traditional neighborhood development. Its development will also be coordinated with Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority so that the Code will be a tool for sound coastal development and conservation. The Louisiana Location Index will provide a basis for local application of the Code. Educational outreach is a key part of the project.
Status: CPEX and LED have partnered to hire a top consultant team to develop the Louisiana Model Development Code.

— 5 —
Use the La. Speaks Regional Plan to Guide the Road Home Corporation (see LSRP, p. 39)
When property-owners opt for a Road Home buyout, the lot is developed for its best use—either by returning it to commerce or conserving it for mitigation and community enhancement consistent with neighborhood, parish, and regional plans. This process should follow the community-building and risk-management strategies in the La. Speaks Regional Plan.
Status: The LRA is currently using the La. Speaks Regional Plan to help establish policies that guide the disposition of Road Home Corp. properties.

— 6 —
(a) Focus public investment into developed areas and centers (see LSRP, p. 40)
State policy should encourage locating new state buildings and infrastructure investments in existing downtowns, neighborhood centers, and town centers—or at least within the urbanized area of existing communities. This policy should support parish recovery plans, such as the Reinvestment Areas identified in the New Orleans’s Recovery Plan. This policy could also guide state assistance for local projects, making it easier for local entities to focus investment in developed areas.
(b) Identify and clear obstacles to “infill” development (see LSRP, p. 40)
A comprehensive assessment of legal, financial, regulatory, and other barriers to development and redevelopment within existing communities (“infill”) will be undertaken. From this, remedies—legal, statutory, regulatory, and otherwise—can be pursued.
Status: (a) State policy on facilities and infrastructure siting remains to be undertaken; (b) Identification of obstacles to infill is the topic of a La. Speaks policy white paper and of associated legal research.

— 7 —
Establish a State Trust Fund to Revitalize Communities (see LSRP, pp. 40-1)
A new State Community Reinvestment Trust Fund will support plans and projects that reinvigorate streets, spaces, and corridors of commercial and/or civic importance—including downtowns, historic districts, and main streets. Funds could support implementation of neighborhood plans done through La. Speaks, the Unified New Orleans Plan, or others. The Community Reinvestment Trust will complement and expand Louisiana’s existing Main Streets program, and it will work in coordination with it.
Status: Lousiana’s Main Streets program has been operating successfully for years, but an effort to create a new trust fund has yet to be started.

— 8 —
Establish a State Trust Fund to Acquire High-Risk or Environmentally Sensitive Land
(see LSRP, pp. 58-61)
A new State Conservation and Mitigation Trust Fund will acquire rights (or surface rights) to high-risk and/or environmentally sensitive land, or acquire permanent conservation easements. In order to achieve effective and efficient administration of these efforts, the new fund should be coordinated with state, regional, and local entities, as well as allied nonprofits. (This effort would benefit from the legal severance of underlying mineral rights, so as to ease surface property transfers and create more willing sellers.)
Status: The 2007 Legislature requested the La. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to study the establishment of a state coastal land trust, and private resources already exist. It remains to be seen whether an additional effort to establish a separate Conservation and Mitigation Trust Fund is needed.

— 9 —
Locate and Design Schools and Medical Facilities to Create Better Neighborhoods and Spur Community Development (see LSRP, p. 76)
New schools, clinics, and other community and social-services facilities should be integrated into the urban fabric and easily accessible to the populations they serve by foot or public transit. Such facilities should be strategically sited and developed to function as community centers and to spur private development. Such facilities should be clustered so they can share space and parking, as well as providing off-hour community centers. These clusters can also be world-class economic development engines, such as the proposed joint efforts of Tulane, Louisiana State University, Xavier, and the Veteran’s Administration in New Orleans’s downtown medical center. These issues will be addressed in the new Louisiana Model Development Code.
Status: The State appropriated $41.5 million for planning, acquisition, and construction of neighborhood primary health care clinics throughout the recovery area, and another $100 million in federal funds is targeted to community clinics for the parishes hardest hit in 2005. The New Orleans Recovery School District Master Plan is also underway.

— 10 —
Build Greener (see LSRP, p. 64)
Developers, builders, the public, and local governments will be educated on the value of environmentally sustainable (“green”) construction using the La. Speaks Pattern Book and Planning Toolkit as resources. A key component of this is education about the lower lifetime costs of sustainable building practices. The state should require new state buildings to meet LEED or other green-construction certification, and it should encourage local governments and the private sector to do the same, including offering tax incentives.
Status: Education using the La. Speaks Pattern Book and Toolkit is ongoing, the state approved new building codes in 2005, and the 2007 Legislature approved tax incentives for building alternative energy systems, such as wind and solar. Broader education and targets, incentives, and/or requirements regarding sustainable development have yet to be addressed.

Louisiana is one of the only states in the union without a State Planning Department, and considering the demands of recovery, it makes good sense for our new governor, in tandem with the legislature, to create a department that would serve as a clearinghouse for state planning.

Check out the Louisiana Speaks blog (they recently reported that they were honored with a regional Emmy nomination), and stay tuned for more updates.

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