A recent design competition promised novel ideas for vacant land in New Orleans. It ended with some very unhappy participants.

By Timothy A. Schuler 

Despite the lack of implementation, Future Ground has informed the city’s approach to vacant land, including the creation of a Strategic Acquisition Program. Image courtesy New Orleans Redevelopment Authority.

On Friday, March 6, 2015, the city of New Orleans posted more than 1,700 properties online and began auctioning them off. Most were vacant lots. The city was hoping to attract investors who could put these properties back into circulation, so to speak, in part to raise tax revenue and also to continue chipping away at the scourge of blight that had afflicted New Orleans since well before Hurricane Katrina.

Today, somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 lots sit vacant in New Orleans, about the same number as before the levees collapsed but significantly fewer than the 43,000 tallied in 2010. The city has employed a number of strategies to bring that number down, including these online auctions, a strategy later adopted by the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA), a public agency that owns close to 2,500 vacant lots in the city.

Auctions can be good for a city’s bottom line. They generate revenue and reduce maintenance costs—NORA’s lots are typically mowed about every three weeks, which means the agency is responsible for some 45,000 maintenance visits over the course of a year. But a series of proposals produced by the winning teams of the Van Alen Institute’s Future Ground competition suggests that some vacant lots are worth holding on to. In certain areas, cities should even consider purchasing additional properties to create larger parcels, which are required by job-creating industries like manufacturing. “This kind of physical economy is really important and is really very tied to our land use policies,” says Amy Whitesides, Associate ASLA, a studio director at Stoss Landscape Urbanism, which led one of the winning teams.

The notion of strategic acquisition is just one of several revelatory strategies that came up as part of Future Ground. Launched in 2014, the competition emerged out of conversations between Jerome Chou, Van Alen’s director of competitions, and Jeff Hebert, NORA’s executive director, who in 2014 was appointed the city’s chief resilience officer.

After Katrina, NORA’s role in rebuilding New Orleans expanded significantly. It was charged with selling 5,000 city-owned vacant lots and overseeing the Lot Next Door ordinance, which allowed property owners to cheaply purchase adjacent lots. As a result, the agency began focusing on redevelopment strategies that were larger in scale and driven by data, consulting experts from around the country and implementing a number of green infrastructure projects across the parish to help create a more amphibious city.

With Future Ground, Hebert, who resigned his position at NORA when he was named deputy mayor and chief administrative officer by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu in 2016, wanted to go further. He was interested less in design strategies for individual lots; the city already had the requisite rain gardens and the low-maintenance wildflower meadows. Rather, Hebert wanted to know how the city should think about vacant land.

Over the course of six months, three teams of architects, landscape architects, urban designers, lawyers, economists, and experts in land use policy and real estate identified a number of novel solutions for New Orleans, many of which subvert conventional wisdom and can be adopted by
municipalities across the United States. Some already have jumped Louisiana’s borders.

Participants, however, say Future Ground also raises serious questions about the responsibility of organizers to design professionals and cities like New Orleans, which, since Katrina, has become a repository of shelved, stalled, and failed plans. “That was a sensitivity in New Orleans from the beginning,” Whitesides says. “There have been a lot of people planning things in New Orleans” and a history of “things not happening.”

It is not clear what exactly happened between Van Alen’s original RFQ and the conclusion of the competition, but team members recall what they describe as an aggravating and duplicitous process. The Ohio State University landscape architecture professor Kristi Cheramie, who led another winning team, says the competition was “significantly botched.”

“We left the competition with a very, very bad taste in our mouth[s],” she says.

From the beginning, it was an ambitious enterprise. According to the RFQ, Future Ground would generate “flexible design and policy strategies that forecast and accommodate changes in density, demand, climate, and landscape over the next half-century in New Orleans.” Van Alen encouraged a mix of local and national talent and required that teams be multidisciplinary, and in 2014 it and NORA selected the winning teams: Team NO/LEX (New Orleans Land Exchange), led by Cheramie; Team Stoss, led by Whitesides and Chris Reed, FASLA; and Team PaD (Policy as Design), led by the architect James Dart of the design firm DARCH.

Jonathan Tate, the principal of an architecture and urban design studio in New Orleans and a member of Team Stoss, says the competition provided teams with an opportunity to bring ideas that had not yet been tested in the city. He and Ann Yoachim, who has 10 years of experience working in New Orleans, helped Stoss vet ideas for their sensitivity to the local context but also for their originality. “We were there to say, look, somebody’s already done this, this has already been investigated, let’s try to coax out something that feels new,” Tate says.

The Stoss team focused on the role that land plays in job creation. By combing through national economic data, it homed in on the link between lot size and the types of employment opportunities. “A lot of middle-wage jobs, especially middle-wage jobs for people without college degrees, are in the physical economy,” says Teresa Lynch, a principal at Mass Economics who has worked with Stoss in both Detroit and Atlanta. “They involve making things, moving things, fixing things, or storing things. So you need land.” Specifically, between two and four acres of it, Lynch found—a size ideally situated for light industry. Because the majority of vacant lots are a tenth of an acre at most, Stoss recommended that NORA suspend land auctions until it can devise a strategy for assembling these lots into larger parcels.

Stoss Landscape Urbanism
Stoss identified opportunities to assemble and aggregate lots into parcels of one acre or more. Stoss Landscape Urbanism

Land assembly can be a slow, onerous endeavor, however, and Stoss suggested aggregation as a quicker, easier way to group parcels. Building on its work with the Detroit Future City plan that was released in 2013, Stoss proposed that scattered sites be bundled together and treated as a common economic and social unit. For Whitesides, it reframed the way even she thought about vacant land. “At Stoss, we talk a lot about productive landscapes,” she says. “But we don’t think about them as job-producing landscapes.”

Equally unorthodox was NO/LEX’s proposal, which took as its starting point the missions of local organizations rather than the presence of vacant lots. Cheramie’s team leveraged the city’s somewhat lax legal squatting law, also known as acquisitive prescription, which requires a squatter to occupy a property for just three years before he or she can claim legal right to it (in other cities, the requirement is often 7 to 10 years). They contacted community groups not typically interested in land ownership and proposed land use agreements that would allow them joint use of a particular parcel.

NO/LEX mapped the places where organizations’ interests and vacant land overlapped and identi ed areas of the highest concentration of vacant lots. NO/LEX

“If we take vacant land out of the equation, but look at the space as a package of resources that people might be interested in, what it does is allow you to start looking at disposition strategies that may not be single-owner dispositions, where you’re trying to identify one person or one organization that’s going to take over the title of that place,” Cheramie says. Instead, cities can look at means of legal access for multiple parties and uses. Evacuteer, for instance, is a hurricane relief organization that hosts regular educational events throughout the city, often in hard-hit areas at low elevations, which are also often the most blighted. Evacuteer doesn’t need to own land, but it does need access to it. By mapping Evacuteer’s and other organizations’ interests, the designers identified where those interests and vacant land overlapped.

The schemes outlined in the three proposals, including Team PaD’s recommendation that the city’s vacant land be viewed as part of the region’s ecological and economic networks, are noteworthy in that they largely work in tandem. “They could nest into each other, and be implemented almost simultaneously,” Whitesides says.

The proposal situated the neighborhood within a regional network of state parks and wildlife refuges. PaD

Which, in a way, is what happened. In late 2015, the Future Ground jury, which included the landscape architect Elizabeth Mossop, ASLA, the urban planner Maurice Cox, ASLA, and the architect David Waggoner, as well as local and national experts, determined that “there was not one clear winning project that could be fully implemented as is,” Van Alen’s executive director, David van der Leer, says. Rather, each “brought something new to the local and national conversation on reusing vacant land.” Van Alen chose a handful of the competition’s big ideas and published an illustrated report that condensed months of research into six aphoristic lessons, including “Let the Public Get Creative” and “Create New Visions for Low Density.”

Even so, David Lessinger, who at the time was the director of planning and strategy at NORA, says the recommendations that emerged from Future Ground had an immediate and direct effect on how the city thought about vacant land. NORA established a new Regional Committee on Resilience at the Regional Planning Commission and is in the midst of developing a Strategic Acquisition Program, “which will support the acquisition of targeted lots in order to assemble larger sites,” Lessinger says. The agency has also played a key role in the vision for the Gentilly Resilience District, a $141 million infrastructure project informed by 2013’s Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan that will use blue-green corridors and other green infrastructure approaches to flood mitigation to revitalize one of the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods.

For the NO/LEX team, the competition even spawned a copycat project close to home. Cheramie, a winner of the 2016 Rome Prize in landscape architecture, and her team from Ohio State are working to set up a land exchange similar to the one proposed for New Orleans in the Rust Belt town of Lima, Ohio, which has its own abundance of vacant land.

But participants were understandably unhappy with the jury’s decision. For most team members, it was the last straw in what already had been a frustrating and opaque process. The original RFQ—really an RFP since teams were required to submit proposals, not just qualifications—stated that “Travel costs are included in the overall competition budget, and will not come from the teams’ $15,000 stipend.” Later, participants were told that the travel budget per team was $5,000. In part owing to Van Alen’s encouragement that teams be multidisciplinary and geographically diverse, Stoss had a team of nine. With four trips to New Orleans, $5,000 didn’t go far.

Dart, a principal at New Orleans-based DARCH, says Van Alen also dragged its feet on solidifying the language in the teams’ agreements. That was “the first hint that all was not well in Mudville,” he says. “We still haven’t signed our agreement because it’s somewhere still in flux.”

NORA ultimately decided not to implement any of the teams’ designs. “It was clear that they weren’t going to necessarily pick one winner,” Lynch, of Mass Economics, says. “But it was also clear that they were going to implement something from one or more teams.”

The RFQ stated: “As part of its commitment to this competition, in the third and final Implementation Phase, NORA will implement an initial phase of some of the proposed designs on NORA-owned vacant lots.” That the competition ended with a “glib and cursory” illustrated report, to use Dart’s words, felt to participants like a bait and switch.

The news came via several “very awkward” conference calls (again, Dart), during which Van Alen and NORA explained that any future projects would have to be let out for public bid due to changes to their rules for procurement.

This “rang profoundly hollow,” says Dart, who suspects that it was not a matter of changing requirements but rather a lack of oversight. “If no one bothered to check, then both NORA and Van Alen have a lot of egg on their face.”

Like the others, Cheramie takes little issue with Van Alen not selecting a winner. “But there were offices devoted to this, Stoss being one of them, on the good faith that this was going to lead to—we were told very explicitly there would be three contracts handed out for implementation. I have my job at the university, but there were people working full-time for no billable hours on this, as it turned out. And I think they had a responsibility to come through on that. Because the stipend didn’t cover anything.”

Van der Leer offers little by way of explanation, writing in an e-mail that NORA’s “process had changed” and that implementation ultimately rests on the shoulders of Van Alen’s government partners. NORA declined to comment on the reason for the change.

Ultimately, Future Ground may have been too ambitious. It’s possible that Van Alen overextended itself. “Van Alen has taken on a lot of these big-scale competitions in recent years, and it does seem like the competition is out of scale with their infrastructure,” Cheramie says. “We had one of the smaller teams, and we had four people flying in once a month from all over the country. These are significant asks for professionals. And it takes a lot of coordination to manage that.”

Is the design competition dead? Not by a long shot. But the rules are changing. “Frustrations with the limitations of the old black-box style of competition…have led to what sometimes seems like the opposite extreme: lengthy, process-heavy, multistage formats featuring extensive public involvement,” Elizabeth Padjen wrote in this magazine last year (see “Competitions: What’s the Real Prize?” LAM, July 2015). She easily could have been describing Future Ground, which in Whitesides’s opinion is Exhibit A in this “new wave of competitions that probably shouldn’t be called competitions because they’re not set up that way.”

New Orleans Redevelopment Authority
Vacant Land by Elevation

No organization is more aware of this evolution than Van Alen, which has organized 10 competitions just in the past two years. Last year, it partnered with Architectural Record to publish a survey titled “Design Competitions: Fair or Unfair?” and later hosted a two-day symposium on the topic at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. As a follow-up to that event, Jerome Chou, who recently left Van Alen but continues to consult for the organization, organized a panel session at ABX Boston devoted to the topic of equity in design competitions. Chou asked Whitesides to be on the panel. She says he encouraged her to be honest. “He recognized that a number of people weren’t particularly happy with the process and the way things had gone,” she says.

But it put Whitesides in an uncomfortable position. She didn’t want to openly criticize Van Alen because in many ways the organization functions as a client. Chou was also a friend. When asked whether or not she thought the panel was a sincere effort to answer questions about the treatment and compensation of designers, there is a long pause. “Yeah, I do,” she says finally. But the organization’s choice of venue also struck her as dubious. “I wouldn’t think a public panel is the place to really plumb the depths of this question.”

In the results of its survey, Van Alen noted: “Designers enter competitions to learn, build portfolios, experiment, push themselves, get seen, have fun, not just to win. So let’s make competitions that aren’t winner-take-all, but offer opportunities for anyone who enters.” Future Ground makes clear that the shift from a winner-take-all paradigm will be accompanied by growing pains, which seem to stem from an absence of spoils, or even clarity about what “winning” means.

Despite their frustrations, most participants agree that Future Ground offered an unparalleled opportunity to explore new ideas and modes of thinking, as well as a chance to work with professionals not typically part of a project team. “It’s hard to convince a client that they need an economist and an attorney and an urban designer and an architect and someone who does public activation,” Whitesides says. Getting to work with people who think about problems differently than they do informs the rest of Stoss’s work, she says, “so there’s great value for us in that.”

There’s value in fun, too, and Lynch says she “had a blast.” But that doesn’t change the fact that as a long-term model for competitions, Lynch believes Future Ground isn’t viable. “If you really told people, we’re going to run the competition, and at the end we’re going to call you all winners, and we aren’t implementing any of it, no one would have applied for this.”

Timothy A. Schuler writes about design, ecology, and the environment. He lives in Honolulu.

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