Few developers have faced as daunting a task as planning the rebuilding of an entire city. Developer Joe Canizaro, however, has stepped up to the plate to yank New Orleans back from what might arguably be called the jaws of hell — the floods that followed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Canizaro, 69, is chairman of the Urban Planning Committee of the 17-member Bring New Orleans Back Commission, created by Mayor Ray Nagin. The committee has been charged with developing a sweeping plan that brings into play every element of a city's reconstruction following total annihilation — from infrastructure and zoning to housing and commercial real estate.

The urban planning committee's schedule is aggressive. By March 20, it calls for residents to declare if they plan to return. The neighborhood plans are slated for completion by May 20. And toward the end of the summer, property acquisitions and neighborhood reconstruction will begin. “We can't wait forever, and so we have to move more rapidly than one might have to if you were building the city over a normal time cycle,” says Canizaro. “We have to recover faster and we better be ambitious.”

Despite months of media reports, miles of panoramic helicopter video footage, political posturing over funds and racial wrangling, Canizaro is confident that the general public does not grasp the enormity of devastation in the city.

“First and foremost [outsiders do not understand] the extensiveness of the damage that continues to exist,” says Canizaro. He notes that six months after the flood, there are between 70,000 and 80,000 damaged houses that have been virtually untouched. “If you drive through our neighborhoods, in both upper-income and lower-income areas, it looks like bombed-out areas of a city.”

No matter how you slice it, rebuilding New Orleans is a complex, multi-layered undertaking rife with uncertainty. Losses of population, wetlands, housing, levees and commercial properties, compounded by labor shortages and a political quagmire, make the rebuilding an almost unfathomable task.

More than a half year later, visitors driving the city streets cannot miss the ever-present water line — the dirty bathtub ring that permeates the city from the Super Dome to the Lower Ninth Ward. On almost every house is the spray-painted “X” with a circle around it. The markings denote the date emergency workers first inspected the house, where the rescue workers came from, the number of people found dead, and the number of people founding living.

And there is something else that outsiders might not understand — about Canizaro: “Here's a private citizen who more than anybody else stood up and said, ‘Look, we've got to figure out what the problems and answers are, and let's get on with it,’” says Urban Land Institute President Rick Rosan. He has known the New Orleans developer and banker for 14 years and credits him with bringing ULI and its multitude of experts to the planning table. “He's not running for political office. He's not trying to go out there and figure out how he can gobble up land,” says Rosan.

Whether leadership roles seek Canizaro — or he seeks them — is hard to say. The developer shuns the spotlight but speaks with a decisiveness that shows the casual onlooker that he is comfortable giving orders and having them followed.

Canizaro's civic contributions to the city over the past 40 years have included everything from buying New Orleans a football team (the Breakers in 1984) to founding the Committee for a Better New Orleans (in 2000), a privately funded group of business, community and religious leaders dedicated to developing a blueprint for the city's future.

Canizaro now devotes roughly 75% of his time to rebuilding efforts, and has set aside for the moment the task of repairing his own home, a newly finished beaux-arts palace that was awash in more than 20 inches of water for two weeks.

Even before it was announced that Canizaro would head up the Urban Planning Committee, many industry experts placed his name at the top of a short list. Hyped by some as the “local Donald Trump,” Canizaro has business and political connections that cover a wide swath from Mayor Nagin to President George W. Bush.

Canizaro, however, knows better than anyone how and why he was selected, and is quick to point out that he's not alone. The Urban Planning Committee is broken down into numerous subcommittees of experts — equally seated with African-Americans and whites — to oversee the preliminary rebuilding plans.

“Actually, I got together with the mayor a week after the storm,” says Canizaro. At that meeting, he discussed the need to assemble a dynamic team of people who would carry weight in convincing the state and federal government that New Orleans had a realistic rebuilding plan.

Shades of 9-11

The closest analogy to Canizaro's latest challenge — really there is no direct comparison, Rosan says — is the rebuilding following 9-11, when the public and private sector worked together at the local, state and federal level to resurrect lower Manhattan. “The problem in New Orleans, more than anything, is that the political leadership seems to be very fragmented,” says Rosen. “Besides Joe Canizaro, I don't see anybody who has the energy, or the direction. They're just back and forth fussing about this and that, and the state doesn't agree with the city.”

Canizaro notes, for instance, that while New Orleans bore 70% of the devastation from Katrina in south Louisiana, some Baton Rouge lawmakers question whether New Orleans will, in the end, get more than its fair share of funding. Canizaro also notes wryly that not only do the city's revenues generate a lot of the money for the state, but that the entire reconstruction process will as well.

Come on down

Funding notwithstanding, financially responsible investors and developers are welcome to New Orleans post-haste. Financially responsible, as defined by Canizaro, means “large developers who have the financial wherewithal to come in and move quickly.” The labor force has been depleted, and most available housing is still occupied by FEMA and other emergency workers. Hence, the committee seeks developers with the ability to import their own labor force.

The chairman believes that the end result will be a better New Orleans, given the ability to plan and develop specific sites that need high-density development, standard single-family housing units and commercial properties to service the rebuilt neighborhoods.

“Ultimately, the city planning commission will adopt a master plan that will give developers comfort that if they build something here, they know what's going to happen,” says Canizaro. “It's a matter of measuring demand to determine from there what a particular developer might want to do.”

Perhaps the best incentive for developers to come to New Orleans, says Canizaro, will be profit. “We have obviously a wide demand for housing because we've had so many houses wiped out,” he says, “but beyond that, you talk about all of the retail and commercial properties that have been damaged, there's a need for those kinds of facilities.”

The plan includes a neighborhood rebuilding strategy that delineates immediate opportunity areas, neighborhood areas and then, within that category, six targeted areas. Immediate opportunity areas are those with little or no flood damage. Sections with severe flooding will require visions to be developed for the neighborhoods — from identifying the population that will return to extensive planning between residents and professionals. The targeted development zones are downtown, Algiers, Central City, the Almonaster Corridor and the Lower Ninth Ward.

And these targeted areas are big sites, generally on high ground, that are ripe for larger developments to spearhead the early stages of the recovery. “The Almonaster Corridor is a great example,” says Canizaro. “You've got some industrial, but you've got a lot of vacant land out there also, and it's a site that I think can be put together pretty easily.”

Canizaro has been speaking to national developers, many of whom have a stake in the city. He declined to name names, however, because nothing is final yet.

Recovery process

Outside of the immediate development areas lay built-up marsh or wetlands. During Katrina, the city lost all of the wetland acreage it had projected to lose by 2050, precious wetlands that, with a levy system and pumps, served to protect the city and slow down storms. In the short term, Canizaro expects the levees to be fixed in time for the next hurricane season and then to be fortified by the end of 2007. New pumping systems are slated to go on line by June 2008 and into 2010 to prevent the type of catastrophic flooding that occurred post-Katrina.

“There's opportunity though for developers to come in and just start building,” says Canizaro. “On the other hand, we need to be able to control the environment as we go down the road, and that will come through the [request for proposals] process.” The commission, however, failed to get state legislation passed that would allow the creation of an institution, tentatively entitled the Crescent City Recovery Corp. (CCRC), with an executive director and staff to identify redevelopment sites and issue requests for proposals.

Canizaro hopes that the measure will come through by mid-April. “Part of what we're trying to do is institutionalize the recovery process,” he says. “I think what's important about this recovery is that it should be set aside from the day-to-day politics of the community — our community and the state candidly.”

Behind the scenes, Canizaro is also working to get a proposed light rail system for New Orleans connected to the entire Gulf Coast by way of Biloxi, Miss. Recent meetings with Biloxi casino heads and the mayor, he believes, could yield partnerships between New Orleans and other affected areas.

“There's reason to believe it would make economic sense,” says Canizaro. “and if it makes economic sense, then that's a giant step because then you get private business to participate, and the process of it would show the government that we've got skin in the game and we're all working together to rebuild the economy of this whole area that was devastated by Katrina.”

Sibley Fleming is managing editor.

Developer has President's Ear

Because of close ties to the White House — he raised roughly $200,000 for the Bush re-election campaign in 2004 — Joe Canizaro is able to make a firsthand assessment of the administration's intentions. “I believe that the president and his staff know that they can trust me and others that have supported and worked with them in our area,” says Canizaro, “and I believe that helps them understand a little better some of the problems of the area.”

In mid-February, an additional $4.2 billion in funding was secured from the White House, following a visit earlier that month by a New Orleans delegation that included Canizaro. The money is earmarked to rebuild, repair and buy flood-damaged homes in the state and is part of a larger supplemental spending bill that the White House proposed to Congress Feb. 16.

The total package of $19.8 billion for the Katrina recovery is on top of the $87 billion in relief aid already approved by Washington.

For New Orleans, the figure includes $1.36 billion to rebuild levees, close off canals and build more pumping stations on the lakefront as well as $100 million to restore surrounding wetlands.

In spite of the White House's opposition in late January to Baton Rouge Republican Richard Baker's bill (see Washington Wire, p. 60), a plan that would form the federally funded Louisiana Recovery Corp. to buy out homeowner's equity, Canizaro is unwavering in his belief that Bush stands firmly behind recovery efforts. “I can tell you that I know the president to be personally interested in, and committed to, New Orleans' recovery.”
Sibley Fleming

Qualifications for the Job

Joe Canizaro, president and CEO of Columbus Properties, is perhaps best known locally for bringing high-rises to the New Orleans skyline. Several are easily spotted from his well-appointed 14th floor corner office in the 909 Poydras Street building (which he also built). They include the 32-story 400 Poydras Texaco Center and a 456-room Crown Plaza Hotel.

Canizaro grew up in Biloxi, Miss., and in 1964 came to New Orleans where he got a start in the mortgage business. “I knew I was going into real estate,” he says. “One of my early jobs was to appraise an office building here in town where I found we have a very strong office market. That started me into building office buildings downtown. It just sort of sprouted from there.”

The urban planning process of getting those projects off the ground helped Canizaro to understand the “importance of the people who are impacted, which is going to be a major thing here in this community.”

Columbus Properties, which has developed more than 10 million sq. ft. over the past 30 years, is also noted for New Orleans developments such as Canal Place, LL&E Tower and First Bank Center. Canizaro is also chairman of Firstrust Corp., a bank holding company he formed in 1991, and First Bank and Trust of New Orleans. In 1998, he founded Corporate Capital LLC, a venture capital company that invests in what Canizaro calls traditional American businesses.
Sibley Fleming