By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer

A plan to spend $4.2 million in federal disaster-recovery grants on Woldenberg Park in the French Quarter has provoked the ire of community activists who say the money should be spent in areas still suffering from Hurricane Katrina.

The $4.2 million package includes $1.4 million for a new splash pad and playground within the 20-acre park, $516,000 to improve signage and sculptures and $2.25 million to repair the wharves upon which the park is built.

The combined spending is equivalent to about one-fourth of the $16 million capital budget for recreational facilities in the Lower 9th Ward.  The grants equal a third of the $12 million in state and federal funds budgeted by the city for clearing abandoned houses and cleaning blight citywide, and one-fourth of the city’s total $16 million blight-fighting budget, including $4 million from the city’s general fund.

Critics say that the riverfront destination, a popular tourist attraction, is one of many facilities benefitting from a seemingly ad-hoc system of distributing disaster money that shortchanges the neighborhoods that need the recovery dollars the most.

“I don’t have a problem with tourists. We need them here,” Lower 9th Ward organizer Vanessa Gueringer said.  “But drive around our parts. We live here and where we are, it’s jacked up.”

Money for Woldenberg comes from $112 million in federal disaster grants set aside by the state for infrastructure and economic-development projects that were not eligible for recovery money through local governments or FEMA’s Long Term Community Recovery Program – the federal government’s primary tool for distributing disaster aid. All governmental and semi-governmental organizations are eligible, including school boards, state universities and economic entities, such the Port of New Orleans, which is in line for $13.5 million from the fund, and the organization that manages the Superdome, approved for $40 million from the fund. The Audubon Institute manages Woldenberg and is the recipient of the $4.2 million.

Other Orleans Parish grantees are Delgado University, Southern University at New Orleans, University of New Orleans, Orleans Parish School Board and New Orleans Redevelopment Authority.

Unlike the arduous damage assessment process and exacting reimbursement formula that guide FEMA spending, the state is relatively unconstrained in how it chooses to draw down disaster money.

“We wanted to set up a flexible pool for priorities that weren’t able to get done in the Long Term Community Recovery Program, so we focused on local government and special infrastructure,” former director of the state’s Office of Community Development Robin Keegan said in an interview with The Lens held shortly before she resigned from her position in November. The Office of Community Development took over management of recovery grants and programs when the Louisiana Recovery Authority closed shop on July 31, shortly before the 5th anniversary of Katrina.

Chief among the few hard and fast federal rules that dictate spending are requirements that disaster grant money only go to facilities that can prove significant storm damages and show that they contribute to federal anti-poverty campaigns by meeting an “urgent” community need, contributing to the clearance of blight or serving a low-income population

By giving the state leeway in how to spend the money, the federal government hopes that state will spend in line with community priorities that can’t be predicted from Washington.  In creating its program for using the grants, Louisiana preserved that element of self-determination by allowing all government agencies the ability to apply for grants without coordinating.

In the case of Woldenberg, for instance, the city administration was not necessarily aware that Audubon had applied for the grant money and “is not responsible” for the Audubon Institute’s request for disaster funds, Deputy Mayor of Facilities, Infrastructure & Community Development Cedric Grant wrote in an email

The Landrieu administration did not include the Woldenberg projects on its own list of priority projects, Grant wrote. He emphasized that the city budgeted its recovery dollars with the city’s hardest hit areas in mind.

“From a new state-of-the-art hospital and Joe Brown Park in New Orleans East to the Sanchez Community Center in the Lower 9th Ward, those areas most affected by the flooding are represented” in the city’s priority list,” Grant wrote.

Located on some of the New Orleans’ highest ground, Woldenberg Park did not flood in 2005. But while damages directly related to the storm were minimal, the park qualifies for the federal block grants because of its use during the disaster as a staging ground for rescue operations with Coast Guard boats docking along its wharves and rescue helicopters landing on the grass, Audubon President and CEO Ron Forman said at a public hearing in 2009.

“The park, in the days immediately following Katrina’s landfall, and for some weeks later, was literally a war zone,” Forman told the handful of people gathered at the Louisiana Recovery Authority hearing.

Woldenberg meets the other federal requirement of helping fight poverty because it is open to low-income city residents, Audubon Institute spokeswoman Sarah Burnette said.

“Everyone uses it: tourists and people who live in the French Quarter,” Burnette said. “It’s open to everyone and everyone takes advantage of it.”

Urban planner David Dixon created the master plan approved by the City Council last year. He says that investing in downtown New Orleans projects such as Woldenberg is essential to the city’s largest job-generator — the tourist industry — and to improving “the quality of life that attracts the kind of people who are creating a more diverse economy.”

“We have to fund the big downtown projects, but it’s true too that the Lower 9th Ward neighborhoods haven’t been treated fairly,” he said. “They should not be competing with the rest of the city for grant money.”

Yet that is exactly what has happened. The park doesn’t appear as a major rebuilding priority on any of the publicly vetted recovery plans made in the aftermath of the storm, and it is not one of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s 100 priority projects. Instead, Audubon was able to secure the funding through a bureaucratic process requiring only one public meeting. That 2009 meeting was attended by seven people, including a single city employee, a City Planning Commission staffer, and several neighborhood residents.

Urban planner Paul Lambert has done marketplace analysis for waterfront developments across the country. In New Orleans, though, he is best known for directing a neighborhood planning process that focused on designing projects in residential parts of the city that flooded.

Four years after he helped complete the $2.9 million community-driven, City Council-funded public planning process, very few of the projects envisioned have secured funding to move forward and even fewer completed.

“What you’ve see to some extent, either by design or just muddling through, is disaster funding focused on the business core along the river, as opposed to the low- to moderate or even more affluent neighborhoods in the eastern New Orleans and Lakeview,” he said.

Despite the extensive work he has done planning tourist-driven economic development projects, Lambert questions the logic behind spending recovery money in less affected areas.

“It never made a heck of a lot of sense to me as to why these projects in the Central Business District, in the tourist areas, were essential to disaster recovery,” he said.

Audubon officials say the low level of the Mississippi River made it necessary to use an emergency designation to speed selection of a contractor, thereby avoiding the state’s public bid law.

A first phase of wharf repair work will be done on an emergency basis, which means Audubon will not have to abide by the state law that obligates public agencies to select the contractor with the lowest bid on the project. The contractor who awarded the job, Kostmayer Construction, LLC, will be paid $270,000 for the emergency work, according to a contract signed on Dec. 1.

“We knew we needed to do repairs, which is why we got the project, but we didn’t know the extent of the work until the engineers went in there,” Audubon Chief Operating Officer Dale Stastny said. “There is a very short window in which the work can be done because it needs to be done when the water level is low. If it wasn’t a water-level issue we just go through the regular bidding process.”