Building shattered Haiti

Just four days after 9/11, James Stuckey, then a vice president of Forest City Ratner Cos., met with executives of Empire Blue Cross-Blue Shield at Forest City’s headquarters in Brooklyn.

Empire had been the fourth-largest tenant at the World Trade Center, and the shell-shocked executives were already thinking about new offices.

Stuckey promised them a building in 18 months, even though, he said, “they didn’t have any floor plans, they didn’t know who had sat next to who, or even where much of their staff was.”

“Based on a handshake, we started to pour the foundation,” said Stuckey, who in 2009 was appointed a dean of the Schack Institute of Real Estate at New York University.

Soon after he assumed the position, he said, he started to think how he could teach students the lessons he learned after 9/11.

The result was a course on post catastrophe reconstruction, now in its second semester, where students devise building plans, work on environmental and social issues, and create financing models for real-world projects.

The devastating earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12, 2010, provided an opportunity to put Stuckey’s theory into practice. Starting last fall, students at the Schack Institute began assisting on three development projects there.

“The magnitude of the catastrophe in Haiti is unimaginable,” Stuckey said. “In that one 30-second earthquake, more people died than in the whole area impacted by the tsunami in Southeast Asia.

Its grinding poverty, its proximity to the United States and the ability to get our feet on the ground quickly made it a perfect location for us to put our efforts to work.”

Post catastrophe reconstruction – which Stuckey defines as the period following a disaster from Week Two to Year Five – is an emerging field in development circles, and it gained momentum after the tsunami that shook Indonesia in 2004.

While many organizations focus on disaster preparedness and the emergency humanitarian efforts that crop up immediately after the event, “there is a void that occurs in the interim period,” Stuckey said. “After the humanitarian aid ends, how do you transition to the rebuilding stage?”

The first project in Haiti is in Delmas 32, a neighbourhood of 1 square kilometre in the country’s capital of Port-au-Prince where 120,000 people lived before the earthquake.

In comparison, New York City has 27,000 people per square kilometre, said T. Luke Young, an urban planner and a consultant who is working on the project.

Approximately 1,500 of 5,000 buildings collapsed in Delmas 32, which lacks plumbing and electricity, and an additional 2,000 were structurally damaged.

With the help of a $30 million grant from the World Bank, a redevelopment plan is under way, and New York University students have been helping analyse the infrastructure, transportation needs, housing and social patterns, and are thinking of ways to determine land ownership.

A second project is the Rebuilding Center in Port-au-Prince. Under the direction of Architecture for Humanity, the centre provides work force training, education and other services, and connects Haitian professionals with nongovernmental organizations.

The New York University students are working on bolstering the Rebuilding Center’s services by devising financing structures, equity models and other ways to finance businesses in hopes the centre “will become the Haitian economic development centre in Port-au-Prince,” said Stuckey, who was the director of the New York City Public Development Corp., now called the New York City Economic Development Corp., under former Mayor Edward Koch.

The third project is a joint effort of the Schack Institute, Architecture for Humanity and Habitat for Humanity. Called the North Pole, it is the redevelopment of roughly 6,475 hectares just north of the capital.

Before the earthquake struck, some 10,000 to 12,000 squatters were on the land, but after the catastrophe and the announcement that the government was redeveloping the area, people flocked to the site.

There are now 50,000 squatters, said Elizabeth Blake, the senior vice president for government affairs, advocacy and general counsel at Habitat for Humanity International.

“If we don’t do something, don’t get some commercial developers involved, get infrastructure up and running, and have the land rights sorted out, there is going to be a slum there no matter what,” she said.

A central issue at the North Pole, as well as in Delmas 32 and other redevelopment projects in the country, is land ownership. Only 5 per cent of the land in Haiti has documentation proving proprietorship, Stuckey said.

It has long been a pattern that when the government in Haiti changes hands – which has been often, given the country’s history of political unrest – land is often forcibly redistributed.

“We don’t want to build a shelter that will cost $5,000 for a family that doesn’t own the land,” Blake said. “We learned the hard way that after the shelter is built, someone else will say the land is theirs and throw the family off, and so the donor money will be spent on some other family and the family in need remains homeless.” About 40 per cent of the world’s population is subject to forcible eviction from their homes because of a lack of documentation proving ownership, Blake said. In Haiti, that number is closer to 70 per cent.

The work Stuckey and his students are undertaking is significant, Blake said. “They have a very long resume and enormous experience dealing with commercial developers and the private sector, and that is critical to get these projects moving,” she said.

Stuckey is also laying the groundwork for what he hopes will be a centre for post catastrophe reconstruction at Schack, joining two other centres at the institute, one that studies real estate investment trusts and one that looks at environmental issues.

He said he was completing a business plan for the centre and had begun informal discussions with possible benefactors.

Stuckey said an ultimate goal was to create a reconstruction model that could be scaled up or down as needed, perhaps in the form of a field manual “that would allow us to look at what is happening from region to region throughout the world and create best practices so that next time there is a catastrophe, we can rebuild without having to start from scratch,” he said.

“When I first came to Schack,” Stuckey said. “I could have taught my students how to build condominiums in New York City, but being a person in my industry means building for all of society, and crisis situations are where we can have the biggest sociological impact.”