It’s often said that cities’ master plans have to be clear-eyed about the public policies, demographic trends and market forces that have brought a city to its moment of self-reflection. They also must shoot straight about what likely will happen if old ways remain entrenched.
When it comes to laying out the state of affairs, Kenner’s newly revamped “Pattern for Progress” pulls no punches.
The 143-page plan, a draft of which is on the city’s website, says Kenner’s population has been getting older, more diverse and less affluent, and its decades of heady postwar growth had begun to level off even before the gut-punch of Hurricane Katrina.
Lower taxes and insurance rates aren’t the draw they used to be, and the suburbs no longer enjoy the perception of being predominantly crime-free. Young professionals are choosing city life in New Orleans — with all its attendant risks and benefits — instead of settling for the aging housing stock, traffic jams and cluttered commercial corridors of once-booming suburbs.
Simply put, the document says, “Kenner’s population has stagnated, as well as begun to shift demographically. The picture for future population is a continued decline.”
Starker still: “Recent trends, local demographics and characteristics of the housing stock indicate that Kenner faces a serious challenge to its legacy as a great place to live.”
Kenner by the numbers
The plan’s numbers tell the tale as well.
Following the construction of the New Orleans airport there in the 1940s, Kenner’s population began to boom: from 5,500 people in the 1950s to 60,524 in 1979.
By the 1990s, its population was about 72,000 and had begun to taper off, peaking at 72,284 just before Katrina, which subtracted 10,000 residents overnight. It got back fewer than half of those and sits at 66,715 residents by current estimates.
Looked at another way, Kenner has effectively added just 299 residents in the past 30 years, and the best projections have it dropping to 54,365 by 2030.
Kenner also has seen an influx of laborers and service industry workers.
In 1990, the percentage of Kenner residents 25 or older with a college degree was higher than in the rest of Jefferson Parish, New Orleans and Louisiana. By 2010, it was “last among those communities.”
While average household income in Kenner remains 4 percent higher than the New Orleans metro average, it fell considerably from the 24 percent advantage it enjoyed in 1990.
The number of families with children has declined as well, and with an older, more working-class population, tax revenue has stagnated at the same time the cost of government has increased.
Between 2000 and 2010, the population under the age of 54 fell by 9,523 residents, while the number of people older than 55 grew by 4,786.
The city, the plan says, “must recognize that old development patterns are no longer desired by today’s younger families and residents.”
Why all the bad news?
In taking an unflinching look at what has happened to Kenner over the past 20 years, “Pattern for Progress” sets the stage for how to turn things around.
“Understanding what is impacting the development in your community is the biggest part of understanding how to plan for the future,” said Wendel Dufour, director of the Division of Planning Services at the University of New Orleans.
Dufour led the revamp of “Pattern for Progress,” which was basically just a land-use plan the city was finishing up when Katrina struck. After considerable delay, the council adopted the plan in 2008, but it soon took advantage of a federal program to fund the addition of other elements, such as disaster resiliency, economic development, public infrastructure inventory and implementation strategies.
UNO and Kenner planners held two rounds of public meetings, where residents voiced a desire for well-maintained parks, bike and walking paths, reliable public transportation, attractive commercial corridors and canals.
“One thing that we would like to see and what we heard from residents is that they’d like to see it look a little nicer,” Dufour said. “Right now, in some stretches of Williams Boulevard and other parts of Kenner, there’s a lot of signs, electrical wires everywhere, a lot of ingress and egress cutting into parking lots. (Improving) those are the kinds of things we can do.”
Even though the city may have a lot of work to do, public participation indicated Kenner’s residents care deeply about the deficiencies raised.
“One of the things we found from residents, in general, is they all like living in the city of Kenner. They just wanted to make sure it stays a good place to live,” Dufour said.
Indeed, the city already has begun to take steps aimed at improving the city’s appearance and making it a more attractive option for young people, such as Mayor Mike Yenni’s push to bring entertainment-based development to Laketown, new cultural offerings in Historic Rivertown and the $37 million Kenner 2030 Plan to make aesthetic and structural improvements to major commercial corridors.
Where to build?
A key issue with Kenner is that there aren’t any large tracts of vacant land where any new development styles or priorities can be carried out. The West Bank, by contrast, has the 8,500-acre Fairfield area at the foot of the Huey P. Long Bridge.
In Kenner, only 13 percent of the land is undeveloped, and its traditional suburban layout — 57 percent of the land residential, with 14 percent commercial along major corridors — is firmly established.
Changing the aspects of Kenner that need to be changed will take time and will come through replacing existing buildings or changing their use, the document says.
The plan does, however, identify a dozen “target properties” that could be ripe for new development or adaptive reuse as “neighborhood commercial” sites, a zoning category that allows apartments, retail or parks.
Some of the sites are already established districts, such as Laketown and Rivertown. Others are vacant parcels, including the Loyola tract next to Ochsner Medical Center, the Morgan Playground property and nearby riverside land along Third Street, two parcels of so-called airport buyout property and the tract of land owned by Home Depot on 32nd Street.
Two sites are existing retail developments that could be added to and updated: the Esplanade mall and the 13-acre Chateau Village Shopping Center nearby.
Dufour said Kenner will need to encourage the reuse of empty buildings that are common on some stretches of its commercial corridors, though he notes the plan itself doesn’t create the market demand so much as provide some direction on where it can go. It includes a Future Land Use Map suggesting areas where new mixed-use commercial, mixed-use residential and high-intensity commercial development could go.
The plan leaves the planned $500 million northward expansion of Louis Armstrong International Airport mostly as a series of questions, noting the city needs to closely monitor the potential negative impact the project could have on the support businesses on Airline Drive to the south and its effects on residential areas as commercial development booms to the north, as well as decisions made on a “flyover” entrance for cars that could minimize potential benefits for the city.
A blueprint, not a magic bullet
Residential redevelopment is similarly challenged by the fact that Kenner is basically built out — mostly with aging, suburban-style single-family homes.
Sixty-three percent of Kenner’s houses were built before 1980, and the number of residential building permits has fallen every year since 2003.
Only seven permits were issued in the last year for which data are available.
“The recent lack of housing production suggests that the city is becoming less desirable for new families,” the document notes.
The plan says the city needs to encourage new types of housing development for an aging population as well as updated multiple-family options, particularly in mixed-use projects that provide basic services within walking distance.
Kenner Planning Director Jay Hebert said “Pattern for Progress” likely will be adopted by the City Council after final adjustments in the first quarter of next year.
But the plan is just the underlying blueprint. An upcoming overhaul of Kenner’s comprehensive zoning ordinance is the primary mechanism to implement it.
“There’s no way we would be able to implement this plan with our current zoning ordinance,” Hebert said.
Hebert said the Planning Department will work with UNO and get input from developers, business owners and real estate experts on the new zoning law by the end of 2015.
He said the new ordinance will result in less regulation, not more, noting that the current code was enacted in 1978 and triggers many hearings and bureaucratic processes “that in this age it really should not.”
Hebert said he expects the next phase of the process to go relatively smoothly once stakeholders get involved and learn more about the process.
“Their input is going to be extremely important to us,” he said.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.