Planning — April 2010

National Planning Leadership Award for a Distinguished Contribution

William E. Borah, New Orleans

By Ruth Eckdish Knack, AICP

The National Planning Leadership Award for a Distinguished Contribution recognizes an APA member "who has contributed to the goals and objectives of the association and to its development plan through an extraordinary effort over a short period of time." That description certainly applies to New Orleans land-use lawyer William E. Borah, who led a forceful campaign to pass a charter amendment giving the city's new master plan the force of law.

Citizens groups and neighborhood organizations have long attempted to make sense of the city's haphazard planning processes, but with limited success. The situation changed after Hurricane Katrina, which led to a flurry of planning efforts, culminating in the city's first truly comprehensive master plan. A draft of that plan is now being considered by the city council. "We used to say New Orleans's ad hoc process was 'planning by surprise,'" said Borah in a recent phone interview. "We'd wake up in the morning and see what was new."

William E. BorahOn November 4, 2008, local voters approved the Home Rule Charter Amendment that Borah had steadfastly championed. The amendment requires the city to follow its adopted master plan in making all zoning and land-use decisions. The master plan that is now being considered was prepared by a team led by Goody Clancy of Boston. The city's decades-old zoning code is being revamped by Camiros, Ltd., of Chicago.

"Bill Borah is a man who just won't give up," wrote Dwight Merriam, FAICP, a Connecticut-based land-use attorney, in a letter of support. "His commitment is so powerful, like a gravitational force, that it draws everyone around him into the center of the fight." Marie L. York, FAICP, APA board member and chair of the 2010 National Planning Awards jury, added: "He used his knowledge about planning and his tenacious communications skills to tap into the leadership and decision networks of the city."

Borah says he is happy to see the amendment recognized. "It will force the city — and developers — to make sure that their actions, including capital expenditures, are consistent with the plan," he says. In mid-February, the New Orleans mayoral election was won by Mitch Landrieu, the state's lieutenant governor and son of Moon Landrieu, a popular mayor in the 1970s. Although Landrieu supports the new plan and the charter amendment, Borah says neither was an issue in the mayoral race.

Still, there are problems with the draft plan, in Borah's view. One criticism is that it does not offer enough direction to developers. Another is that it accepts the sites, as well as the designs, for two new hospitals chosen with virtually no citizen input and slated to be built in an area listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Meanwhile, the long-shuttered Charity Hospital — a million-square-foot art deco building eligible for listing — is being ignored as a possible substitute. "Failure to study the hospitals is another example of planning behind closed doors," he says. "It's the way this city operated before Katrina."

Despite his reservations, Borah sees the master plan as a sign that "there is a new game in New Orleans." But he's not through yet. "After the plan is finished, we have a long road ahead of us. I'd like to see planning enabling legislation for the whole state of Louisiana," says Borah, who is a founder and former president of Smart Growth for Louisiana, a group modeled after the 1000 Friends groups in Oregon and elsewhere.

Ruth Eckdish Knack is Planning's executive editor.