Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Audubon Charter Extension, originally uploaded by .


The Recovery School District (RSD) has requested written comments to their recently issued master plan “A Blueprint: Building 21st Century Schools for New Orleans.” While the master plan establishes important goals for the re-visioning of the public school system, we believe that important issues regarding urban planning, sustainability, and historic preservation are not being addressed.

The deadline for comments is tomorrow, October 1st, and we are urging everyone to let the RSD know that these issues are important for our community, our organization, and for establishing an approach towards adapting existing buildings to address the needs of individual neighborhoods. The email address to which you may send your comment is:

Of utmost concern is that over 56 schools are threatened with closure or demolition. While we are not proposing a mandate to save every school building under threat, we are greatly concerned that there is no specific plan for utilizing these buildings, and we feel that the demolition of historic buildings is not appropriate.

The following three statements are intended for you to utilize in your communication with the RSD. Feel free to use any of these statements to supplement your position or simply cut and paste one of these into your letter. The important issue here is to let the RSD know that we want more specific plans for these sites and that we want to preserve our culture and history that is embodied in these buildings.


1. Landbanking as concerns responsible city planning:

There are over 56 sites within the plan currently proposed for demolition and/or landbanking in New Orleans. Many of these sites currently exist in what are already heavily blighted conditions without proper planning or address for solutions for the sites. Without an idea or plan in place for what might be or could be on these sites, there is a high possibility that these properties will simply exists as empty, gated lots without purpose or programming for what could be many years. Some of these demolitions have replacement buildings planned, some will simply be boarded up, and those that are demolished will have the lots seeded and fenced off, waiting for the prospect of development sometime in the future. With a rash of demolition activities pending throughout the city, it is imperative that as a community, we step back and evaluate the long-term loss of the culture, diversity and history that these structures represent before they are torn down and hauled to the landfill.

It is understood, not only from current conditions in the city, but from a great variety of examples nationwide, that this type of clearing and closing off of land creates further problematic conditions (as opposed to solutions) in the areas in which they occur. Without active buildings, programming, people, and access these sites can easily become uncared for empty lots that potentially create conditions with undesirable outcomes that go beyond the obvious negative visual impact. Unlit, fenced and deactivated lots become literal barriers between activated spaces for those that live and work in these communities. It is against the very notion of a city plan, or planning itself, to create empty lots in areas in which there are already so many unused and non-activated spaces. The very notion of planning consists of creating a purpose, a need, resources, and opportunities to further enhance and allow for an engaged community. Creating empty lots with unknown futures is simply bad planning. This condition already exists, and it has not proven to be a fruitful means to engage the surrounding community. Empty, unused space only provides people with unsightly lots and unused land, resulting in an overall waste for the public and the city. We need to promote neighborhood development through targeted areas and infill development.

2. Sustainability and Adaptive Reuse:

It is clear that one of the most environmentally responsible reactions to a building or site that is no longer needed is that of finding a new purpose for the EXISTING building and site. The prevalent rallying cry seems to be “anything new is better than what we had.” Complete replacement in lieu of a sustainable approach based on renovations, adaptive reuse and infill development is simply not supportive of the sustainable mandate that the RSD is requiring for it’s new schools construction criteria. The process of planning, design, demolition and replacement is not only more costly than renovations, it takes more time and it is not sustainable.

While it is easy to tear and build new, this is a great waste not only of the material and structure that is tossed into a landfill, but also as concerns the secondary materials and wastes involved with building new. Within the current schools plan, there has already been an example of a school deemed as unnecessary--in terms of populations served—that has been given a new and needed purpose. This example is Mahalia Jackson, which is now being transformed into an educational center for young mothers and children. Taking a site which no longer demands the population to serve a school, and in turn creating a site to serve a community with a much-needed service, is a prime example for a successful adaptive reuse project. The building is preserved, upgraded and transformed for a current condition and direct need. This current example should be further investigated as to what methods were adopted, etc. to make this happen. Was this a singular gesture? How and what paid for the outcome? Assuming there are others, why are so many sites not considered for the same result? How can we think about these site and structures as OPPORTUNITIES to further engage the surrounding areas and community with solutions as opposed to providing them with open lots that serve nothing and no one for the immediate future? Have other organizations been involved with creating opportunities, responses and purpose for the sites? How can we, as an organization, help to identify and pair the organizations with purpose and need with these sites? If the objective is education, can we further identify other organizations with the same mission to assist in not only programming these sites, but also to identify and retain funds for the same purpose?

Renovation and rehabilitation of these school buildings can become symbolic of the city’s ability to recover and renew itself.

3. Historic Preservation
Many of the sites deemed for demolition have been recognized as having historic significance, and should be treated with this in mind. These identified historic resources speak of a place, time, and culture -- something that should be retained for future generations to learn from. We have the great opportunity to retain these sites, and the history of New Orleans, while simultaneously creating new uses for these buildings.

There are many buildings that can and should be saved including a number facilities designed by E.A. Christy and the Priestly School of Architecture and Construction.

Of particular interest is the unique design of the Phyllis Wheatley Elementary School located at 2300 Dumaine Street in Historic Treme, which is currently slated for demolition and replacement in the second phase of the master plan.

It is imperative that the RSD secures the preservation of these buildings by taking the responsibility, as the owners, of ensuring that their fate is a positive one, and does not end with demolition or neglect. Whether these historically significant buildings are part of the public school system under the master plan, or are sold to outside parties for redevelopment in the community, the RSD should chose a course of action that plans for these sites to retain the historic properties that enrich the city.

Many of these buildings would adapt well to updated facilities and an integration of sustainable design elements. An adaptive approach that maintains sensitivity to the historically significant elements would be a positive and successful route for retaining these sites and integrating dual goals of preservation and sustainable design / adaptive reuse. This approach would make the introduction of these sites in the communities that much more successful, as not only historically educational and culturally rich components, but as models of an innovative approach that combines up-to-date facilities for the students with a successful sustainable design approach and the retention of historically and culturally significant fabric in the city for the enjoyment and education of our future generations.

We need to establish and promote an advocacy for preservation and conservation.

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