Eastern New Orleans resident Noel Crump (top left) says delays in rebuilding Joe Brown Park make him question City Hall's commitment to the area.

By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

As Mayor Landrieu marks a first year in office, his capital projects team is still troubleshooting design problems on more than half of the 113 federally funded recovery projects it selected from the much longer list passed on by his predecessor at City Hall.

This leaves many neighborhoods still waiting for facilities as basic as libraries and clinics. Some parts of Joe Brown Park, for instance, the largest recreation area in eastern New Orleans, don’t even have working restrooms nearly two years after FEMA signed off on replacements. Indeed, the project hasn’t been put out to bid and there is no anticipated completion date beyond a generalized expectation that all park renovation will be  done by the end of next year.

Instead of indoor bathrooms, park users rely on portable toilets that on a recent Monday stank of urine. “No sanitizer. No tissue. You gotta go at your own risk,” said Noel Crump, a retired respiratory therapist who lives in the Lake Bullard subdivision and plays dominos in the park most afternoons.

“There are times when you open that door and you just have to shut it again,” he added.

Eastern New Orleans resident Noel Crump (top left) says he would not vote for Mayor Mitch Landrieu if he ran today because he doesn’t see evidence on the ground of his commitment to the area.

Even in a city that takes roguish pride in its slow-moving ways, the pace of progress five years after Katrina continues to vex damaged neighborhoods. An analysis of 113 incomplete public facility rebuilding projects Landrieu inherited, including libraries, parks, health clinics and community centers, shows 68 of them — or 60 percent — still in the design or planning phase. Another 5, or 4 percent of the total, are in pre-construction contract negotiation. By way of comparison, 28 are under construction and 11 are complete or nearing completion, including a $2 million renovation of an indoor pool at Joe Brown Park that is expected to be done by the end of the month.

An estimated $405 million out of the $411 million in Community Block Development Grant money the federal government gave the city to supplement FEMA rebuilding grants is obligated while about $100 million has been spent, Cedric Grant, Deputy Mayor for Facilities, Infrastructure and Community Development told a recent meeting of the City Council’s Disaster and Recovery Committee.

Political irritation, long directed at the Nagin administration, is beginning to shift to the incumbent mayor. “What do you tell people when they ask why they still don’t have a park, a library, a hospital in their community,” eastern New Orleans Councilman Jon Johnson asked Grant at the meeting. “We try to tell them we’ve only been in a year,” Johnson continued. “We try to explain the issues coming in, that we are cleaning up the problems that were there before, but after a certain point, people are not really accepting these kinds of answers.”

From Armstrong Park and Treme Center in the downtown area to Hunters Field, a Mardi Gras Indian parade ground at the junction of St. Bernard and Claiborne avenues, to Joe Brown in the east, 70 projects, large and small, (link to excel spreadsheet) are caught in extended cycles of design review as new problems are discovered, Grant said. These projects include health clinics, community centers and parks in some of the most underserved sections of eastern New Orleans, the 9th Ward and the 6th Ward.

FEMA has promised money for all of them, albeit not enough in many cases to repair the new problems turning up years after the federal agency’s initial assessments.

“You peel back the onion and sometimes you find stuff that is easy to put right back on track and move,” Grant said. “Other times you find you have to slog through again every bit of (the design process) to get it back on track.”

In the case of a $3.8 million renovation of a community center inside Joe Brown Park, the Landrieu administration inherited a project plan that did not take into account mold found in the building’s walls and other engineering problems. The city is now working on a redesign while simultaneously trying to convince FEMA to raise the damage assessment of the building so it can be torn down and replaced by a simpler structure. The city expects to submit a revised project worksheet reflecting the newly discovered damage within the next two weeks, city spokeswoman Devona Dolliole said.  It will be the 18 such revision for Joe Brown Park, FEMA records show.

“No one is more frustrated than me,” Grant told the council. “This is really hard, trying to make these things move.”

Meanwhile, Grant’s office has decided to scale down planned additions to the park, nixing a proposed lakeside pavilion that the previous administration envisioned as an architectural centerpiece to be used for fishing and  picnics. “The consensus was that there are better ways to spend that money,” said Richard Kravet, a principal at Billes Architecture, the company that designed the pavilion as part of a larger park renovation.

At this point, pavilion or no, Kravet is ready to move on with the project. In November 2009 his company inked a $368,861 contract to design new signage, bike paths and an entrance for the park. This year, the city renewed the contract for another year.  “The contract had expired before we even started,” said Kravet. He is hopeful that the city will green-light the design before yet another extension is needed.

“We’re hearing and speaking to the decision-makers instead of going through a third-party project manager and that, hopefully, will mean things move faster and more efficiently,” he said.

Few challenge the mayor’s contention that he spent his first year in office doing much-needed house cleaning and restructuring. The Landrieu team walked into City Hall to find a $300 million shortfall in the city’s recovery plan and a daunting 655 capital project plans in the pipeline, 39 percent of them in initial planning and design phases but without finalized financing. Review of the gargantuan list yielded114 projects judged to be doable. Landrieu proceeded to restructure the city’s contracting process, hired a chief procurement officer and overhauled management of construction projects, most notably by assigning city staffers to perform duties previously done by highly paid consultants.

“They seem to be more organized,” Sylvia Scineaux-Richard, president of Eastern New Orleans Neighborhood Advisory Commission, said.

But the continuing delays rankle, she conceded. “You want to be optimistic but it’s hard when you don’t see, as they say, the cranes in the sky.”