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Sunday, March 19, 2006


If you look at all the books of prophecy and not just the Bible you will always find that the Anti-Christ (the Beast, the son of perdition---that man of sin)always goes far in destroying people's culture (New Orleans, Iraq the Middle East in genearl)....President Bush you might not prove to be the one prophecy talks about but so far you are leading that race!!!!!

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Canizaro takes the heat in plan for city's future
Sunday, March 19, 2006
By Brian Thevenot
Staff writer
The Sheraton ballroom overflowed with people from across the city's economic spectrum, many with conflicting agendas and raw nerves tied up in The Plan being unveiled by the mayor's rebuilding commission.

In the middle of the giant, U-shaped commission table sat land-use committee chairman Joseph Canizaro, the short, cocky developer and f.o.b. (friend of Bush) who cast a giant shadow over the process and, after a career of breathtaking scope, over the city itself.

Many in the crowd cheered the plan laid out by committee members and a consulting firm handpicked by Canizaro. It's a utopian vision of light rail and green space, intended to anchor a smaller but stronger city. Smaller was the rub. To reflect the city's reduced population and diminished financial resources, the city needed to shrink its footprint, planners warned, triggering cries of alarm among flood victims who feared that the city would confiscate their land through eminent domain. A few unloaded rage and threatened to load shotguns to protect property rights. Though the entire commission had been targeted as elitist, Canizaro had stepped up to serve as the bulls-eye, the only one called out by name.

"Mr. Joe Canizaro, I don't know you, but I hate you," said Harvey Bender, a working class African-American landscaper displaced from eastern New Orleans.

Canizaro had braced for public abuse since the moment Mayor Ray Nagin appointed him, but not for the unfiltered hatred that poured out of Bender and others.

Barbara Major, a friend of Canizaro's and co-chair of the rebuilding commission, said Canizaro served as the whipping boy for decades of racial inequity reflected in land ownership.

"He represented all of that history of rich, white, male developers in the city of New Orleans, and he took the rap for all that history. I'm not saying he didn't contribute to that history, but the rest of them, their names aren't out there, so they're just sitting back," Major said. "When that man said, 'I hate you,' that was years of stuff."

The man for the job?

To many observers, Canizaro's résumé made him the obvious choice to lead the rebuilding plan. A seasoned developer and past president of the Urban Land Institute, a planning group that served as pro bono consultant to the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, he is a man with the clout to petition the White House by virtue of the truckloads of his cash that helped elect both Presidents Bush. To others, the same résumé embodied their greatest fears. Bender's comments cut to the core of the great galloping myth of the evil Joe Canizaro, a man to hate for what he symbolizes. Rich. White. Republican. Developer. They see Canizaro as the wizard behind the curtain, a man for whom public service masks the profit motive.

The attitude doesn't fairly take into account Canizaro's career as a self-made man who overcame his own measure of prejudice, Major said.

"He may be Joe Canizaro the developer now," she said. "But I guarantee you when he came here, he was Joe Canizaro the dago."

They know Canizaro only as the man who built the tallest towers on Poydras Street and the grandest palace in Old Metairie. They see him as having helped engineer the demolition of the St. Thomas public housing development and the scattering of its residents, to raise property values in the Lower Garden District, adjacent to Canizaro-owned land on which he made a fortune. Pres Kabacoff developed River Gardens, the mixed-income development that replaced the St. Thomas, but Canizaro was deeply involved in the neighborhood planning process that led up the demolition of the public housing complex.

Activist Malcolm Suber of the People's Hurricane Relief Fund said Canizaro epitomizes a class of developers who have long sought to marginalize the poor and gentrify the city.

"In developers' minds, you hide the poor people, push them to the margins on the West Bank or New Orleans East," he said. "There's no regard for the culture of New Orleans, which is made up of the poor black men and women who work in the kitchens and hotels. The rich people who run this city could care less about that culture. They're embarrassed by it. Canizaro is among that snobby Uptown crowd that dismisses that culture."

Those who know Canizaro personally describe him as a new money giant in an old-money town. Though he has donated generously to local politicians, as do most developers, Canizaro, an Italian-American from Biloxi, Miss., rose to wealth and power though a combination of innate skill, prophetic market timing and a ferocious work ethic -- not the privilege of birth into Audubon Place.

And now, late in an extraordinary career, associates say his public service is motivated as much as anything by a fervent Catholic's belief that money and power mean nothing in the absence of noble works.

If it's indeed easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man into heaven, Canizaro's life embodies that struggle, to balance a moral life with one of unmatched achievement in business and immersion in politics.

"If you asked him his greatest love, what he really wants to get out of life, he'd tell you he wants to go to heaven, and bring as many souls with him as he can," said Mel Lagarde, co-chair of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission and a friend of Canizaro's for about a decade.

At 68, Canizaro's greatest achievement may be the mastering of his priorities, Lagarde said. If two phones rang in his pocket, one with a call from President Bush, and the other from his wife and childhood sweetheart, Sue Ellen Canizaro, he'd grab his wife's call first.

"Absolutely, I guarantee it," Lagarde said. "Now, the question is, if one call was from the pope and the other from Sue Ellen? Then he'd take the pope's call first. And Sue Ellen would want him to take the pope's call."

Mass is first

Most mornings, the first stop in Canizaro's busy day is a Catholic mass at St. Francis Xavier in Old Metairie, often with his priest and close friend, Andrew Taormina, who lives in Canizaro's old home, an $800,000 house he donated to the church. Before the storm flooded Canizaro's new $12 million mansion on Northline in Old Metairie, he prayed in a private chapel he had built in the sprawling, white beaux-arts palace.

"I probably could get a prize for the number of mistakes I've made in my life, and for the number of times I've sinned," Canizaro said. "But for the last 20 years, it's safe to say I've tried to change that, and that change comes from prayer. . . . I feel very strongly that everything I have comes from God and belongs to him, and I try to do His will in my business."

Though once a nominal Catholic, Canizaro recommitted himself to his faith in the late 1980s, he said, beginning a journey toward spiritual renewal that continues today. At around that time, Canizaro made a trek to Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, where tens of thousands of pilgrims flocked in response to reports that a group of children there communed daily with the Virgin Mary, who appeared to them on the mountainside.

Sitting near that mountaintop surrounded by a pastoral scene of grapevines and wheat, Canizaro witnessed the "miracle of the sun," he said, by staring directly into its harsh brilliance for minutes at a time without damaging his eyes. The sun appeared covered, he said, by a white circle resembling the Eucharist, the circular communion wafer Catholics believe is the body of Christ. The vision has stayed with him. "It's not like I see it every day, just sometimes," he said, motioning toward the horizon outside the window of his 17th-floor corner office.

Upon his return from Medjugorje, The Canizaro Foundation, his philanthropic arm, became The Donum Dei Foundation, for "gift of God," a conscious renunciation of his egotism. One cause Canizaro has taken on, both locally and around the world, is the promotion of adoration chapels, small sanctuaries that offer a Eucharist 24 hours a day. "This is Joe's heart of hearts. He loves to spend an hour every day in the presence of the blessed sacrament," said the Rev. Neal McDermott, a priest and close friend.

In 1990, McDermott said, Canizaro petitioned God with a proposal: He needed help pulling himself out of one of the many financial crises he has survived. He promised in return to donate $1 million to Mother Angelica, the staunchly conservative and at-times controversial matron of EWTN, Catholic television.

Whether by divine intervention or Canizaro's toughness and skill, he soon emerged from financial peril and made good on his private vow, flying with retired New Orleans Archbishop Philip Hannan to deliver the donation to Mother Angelica's headquarters in Birmingham, Ala.

Canizaro's faith in God's direct hand, he said, was reinforced again about ten years ago, through the trauma of one of his two daughters' struggle with drug addiction. He blamed himself for not making his family his highest priority, and sought solace in a private prayer with one of Medjugorje's children, Ivan Dragicevic, who had come to New Orleans to evangelize.

"I really broke down," he said of his prayers with Dragicevic. "I asked him to recommend prayers to the Blessed Mother."

Soon after, his daughter hit bottom and began the difficult and redemptive journey back to health and a habit of daily prayer, Canizaro said.

"To me, that was a miracle," he said. "It told me what this young man was saying he was experiencing, he obviously was experiencing. The miracle of the sun, as we call it, is one thing. But when you have it impact you directly -- and you know that's what happened, that's another."

Christian humility has not cost Canizaro the curt tone with which he cuts through his hopelessly overbooked days. As he recounted his spiritual transformation, Canizaro pressed his forefinger repeatedly on a wireless doorbell he uses to summon his staff.

No one appeared. After a few moments, he got fed up and walked briskly to the door.

"I've been pushing it . . . you didn't hear me?" he barked at staffers in the lobby, pushing the button repeatedly again to confirm it worked. "I really need a cup of coffee and a bottle of water."

A minute later, an impeccably dressed male assistant appeared, carrying the drinks on a silver platter.

A tough upbringing

One of seven children, Canizaro was born in Baltimore in 1937. His family moved to the Gulf Coast in the 1940s. In 1954, his father died of leukemia at the age of 48, leaving the teenage Canizaro with $600 from an insurance policy. Freed from his father's strict hand, Canizaro fell into wandering and occasional delinquency.

He bounced from college to college, including Spring Hill in Mobile, Ala., where he was arrested for stealing a car. He never graduated. All the while, Canizaro played the stock market with the money his father left him, at one point running up his stash to about $100,000, thereby convincing himself he was the world's smartest man -- before losing it all by shorting wheat futures on the commodity exchange.

As a safer bet, he turned to real estate, entering the field as an $800-a-month appraiser. On his first trip to scope out New Orleans in 1965, the 27-year-old Canizaro climbed to the top of the World Trade Center and stared down Poydras Street, then a skinny, low-rise lane of old-world taverns and warehouses.

Canizaro saw a boulevard of corporate towers and high-rise hotels.

Seven years later, he built the $9.5 million Lykes Center, after amassing what he bragged to a reporter at the time was a personal net worth of more than $3 million, much of it from a shrewd land buy at the intersection of Interstate 10 and College Drive in Baton Rouge.

To finance that first project, he turned to an out-of-town investor after being brushed off by New Orleans bankers. Success with Lykes kicked off a 20-year run of high-rise projects that would define the downtown business corridor: The Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, now the W Hotel; the Texaco Center; Canal Place; and his signature creation, the LL&E Building at 909 Poydras, an elegant, brown-and-black striped tower where Canizaro maintains his headquarters.

In 1997, Canizaro bought the Galleria in Metairie off Interstate 10, the mirror-windowed office park molded in the shape of a wave, and sold it last year for a large profit.

He has not forgotten from whence he came. In a drawer within arm's reach of his desk, Canizaro still keeps a raft of file folders with pencil-drawn tables of his earliest stock and commodities trades. He said he's never been able to throw them away since the time he got into a little tax trouble early in his 20s.

They represent another quality: An exacting, almost maniacal attention to detail that's rare in a CEO with his breadth of vision.

Hayden Wren, a real estate broker who served as Canizaro's chief financial officer for five heady years in the late '70s and early '80s, remembers Canizaro managing all the complexities of a multimillion-dollar project and stopping to question invoices for less than $100.

That sort of micromanaging drove many of his employees crazy, Wren said, and more than a few burned out or were fired.

Canizaro worked 80 or 90 hours a week and expected as much from his staff. If staffers came to a meeting and couldn't answer his questions, he didn't blink at dressing them down in public.

"Some people would try to wing it, and that would last for about 20 minutes. Then he'd send you out of the room," Wren said. "And let me tell you, you better not come to the next meeting unprepared. . . . It was not atypical to have a shouting match with Joe."

Some interpreted his abrupt style as simple meanness, Wren and others said, but Canizaro's impatience was driven by something more profound: a pursuit of unadulterated perfection and the conviction that it could be achieved.

In the oil bust of the 1980s, downtown property owners fled rising debt and falling income by liquidating their assets. Despite nerve-wracking cash-flow problems, Canizaro held on. He became expert at walking at the very edge of financial cliffs, always able to find creative financing if he needed it, to keep the lenders at bay by selling them on his vision and the notion that he and he alone could deliver it.

Not without help. The same attributes that make Canizaro so hard to please made those who embraced his high standards better executives than they or anyone else thought they could be, said Sue Tucker, who recently ended 25 years with Canizaro and left her job as property manager at First Bank Center when he sold the building.

"Sometimes he'd tell me to do something, and I'd say, 'You want me to do what?!' I'd say he was crazy, and he'd tell me, 'Well, you're going to do it," Tucker said. "The expectation of what he believes a person can do is always double or triple what that team member believes they can do. We used to joke that you measure your time working for him in dog years: One year of experience there was worth seven years experience working anywhere else."

People on the opposite side of the negotiating table regularly walked away feeling no such warmth, Wren said, convinced Canizaro had pulled the wool over their eyes before emptying their wallets. But Wren said Canizaro, from his earliest days, made his money the hard way: honestly.

"Joe was very straight," he said. "A lot of people might get mad at him over a particular business deal and say, 'Well, that was kind of sneaky.' No, he just beat you. If he could beat you, he would," Wren said. "Joe works harder than most people -- in fact, all people -- and he was always prepared. After you got your ass handed to you a couple of times, you were prepared, too."

Canizaro, who founded First Bank in 1991, has steadily become more of a banker than a developer, with similarly stunning results. Started by Canizaro as a niche institution, the bank has grown from $77 million in assets to $650 million. Its staff, once at 33, has climbed to 180.

He seems to have unloaded his biggest properties at precisely the top of the market. In 1997, he sold the LL&E Building and the Texaco Center to billionaire financier Sam Zell for $133 million, or $107 per square foot. The highest per-square-foot price for a modern New Orleans office tower previously had been $70.

Zell sold the LL&E building last year at a substantial loss of $45 million, or $82 a square foot. Canizaro sold the Galleria last year for $58.2 million after buying it eight years before for $32.5 million.

Cheek to jowl with GOP

Of all the reasons Canizaro has put himself at the center of the city's most vital debate, chief among them are his personal friendships with President Bush and Bush's most important political adviser, Karl Rove, a name that acquaintances say Canizaro drops often. Huge donations -- Canizaro is a "Ranger" as the GOP calls those who raise more than $200,000 for the party -- have bought him unfettered access to the White House, but his adherence to the neo-conservative dogma seems nothing if not sincere. He sees government entitlements as addictive and enslaving and, as a Catholic, is ardently opposed to abortion. But he weighs in just as heavily on local campaigns, from School Board to mayor to governor, often supporting Democrats in a city dominated by that party.

In New Orleans circles, Canizaro has learned the hard way about the need for inclusiveness, if only to keep projects from fracturing along lines of race and class, several of Canizaro's associates said. He breaks with Republican orthodoxy in embracing racial quotas in his civic work, both out of pragmatism and concern for social justice.

When he founded the Committee for a Better New Orleans in 2000, a business-led, nonpartisan group that wrote a reform blueprint for the city, Canizaro took a hard line in insisting that the membership be half black and half white. He took a similar tack in pushing for diversity on the committees of the mayor's rebuilding commission. The blueprint's recommendations had no force of law, and many stayed on the shelf, but the process went some distance to break down suspicion between black and white community leaders, those involved said.

"I've found him (Canizaro) to exhibit many qualities and philosophies that are not necessarily Republican policies," said Bill Rouselle, a public relations contractor who worked closely with Canizaro on the CBNO blueprint. "He was very open and sensitive to the black community in that effort. He realized that if change would come in New Orleans, you have to include the black community."

Canizaro has given no small amount of money to social service agencies working to aid poor African-American New Orleanians, such as Hope House and the St. Thomas Health Clinic, run by Major, and often given directly to individuals. Bart Stapert, an attorney for the St. Thomas public housing development's residents council, recalled Canizaro approaching some of that philanthropy with a classic conservative tack, giving opportunities rather than handouts.

"He got people jobs at his bank. I think he truly was about giving people a chance, but if they didn't take that chance, he could be pretty tough," said Stapert, who tapped Canizaro to help him negotiate with Kabacoff, the developer in charge of the controversial revitalization of the St. Thomas, in hopes of increasing the number of public housing units there. "He gave someone a job who had an alcohol problem, a St. Thomas resident. When that alcohol problem became apparent again, he sent the guy into rehab, then got him another job. But when that person didn't take that chance, and started getting drunk again, Joe was done with him."

While Canizaro has learned to operate effectively in a heavily Democratic town, his ideology often trumps personal relationships.

"He's aware that almost all of the blacks he deals with are Democrats, and he doesn't make it a criteria" for political support or collaboration on civic projects, Taormina said. "But if there's a Republican in a race, running against a Democrat who is black, he wouldn't support the Democrat, even if he knew him. A lot of that has to do with him being pro-life."

The same holds true with white liberal candidates, as was evident when Canizaro backed Suzie Terrell, an anti-abortion Republican, in her unsuccessful attempt to deny a second term in the U.S. Senate to Mary Landrieu, a moderate Democrat whose father, former Mayor Moon Landrieu, was a close friend and business partner of Canizaro's. Indeed, so zealous was Canizaro on Terrell's behalf that he donated $250,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee to pay for a spate of attack ads the Landrieus considered uncommonly vicious.

"He was on the A-list for callbacks," said a confidante of Sen. Landrieu's during the Terrell race, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "When she saw the campaign finance reports, she was like, 'Wow.' Nobody was shocked that he participated -- he's a Republican -- but everyone was shocked at the level of it. That's a full week of negative television ads in Louisiana that he financed."

Moon Landrieu, Canizaro's oldest friend in the Landrieu family , curtly declined to comment on their relationship, and his children Mitch and Mary did not respond to requests for comment.

Mitch Landrieu, in his campaign for mayor, however, has recently taken to using Canizaro's name as a negative buzzword, pointedly calling the BNOB land use plan "the Canizaro Plan" in candidate forums.

Sincere motives?

Major, who has worked for years in anti-racism workshops conducted by the New Orleans-based People's Institute, believes Canizaro is sincere in his efforts to build biracial coalitions.

"He's had glimpses of what can be when people of different races come together, and he knows it's possible. I think he felt that it could happen with this, too," she said of the BNOB. "I won't say I really know Joe, but the Joe I know is a decent man. He's been honest and honorable in working with me and other people in the community. I've never heard Joe say, 'I'm a good guy. I have black friends.' He just take his licks and keeps on ticking."

Canizaro's committee, Major said, produced a raft of strong ideas for land use, but lacked an appreciation for predominantly black neighborhoods like Gentilly, New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward, and the devastating effect on today's African-American community of closing or shrinking them. Creating a smaller "footprint," as the committee recommended, could raise land values and shut many lower-income black families out of the renewed city. Many African-Americans moved to their now-destroyed neighborhoods in droves after the 1950s because the older, higher areas of the city were off limits to them, either because of high costs or the active racism of lenders and real estate agents.

"They're white people of goodwill, but they just have no idea," she said of committee members who favor shrinking the city's footprint.

"When I look at the economic effect on black businesses, most of them couldn't afford to be in the high-rent district," Major said, "so that footprint is another footprint on my butt."

Bender's outburst at the BNOB meeting stung Canizaro more than he might like to admit, his acquaintances say, but he didn't shy away from the conflict or from his conviction that the planning process include as many voices as possible.

Shrugging off an aide's effort to keep him away from Bender, Canizaro followed the man out into the hallway after the meeting, to shake his hand and ask him to participate in the planning process.

Later, he reached out again, inviting Bender to a meeting at his office. Bender hadn't lost much of his suspicion, and still didn't believe Canizaro cared what he thought.

"Canizaro's got money. He doesn't care about people," Bender said a few days before the meeting. "I'm serious about putting on my fatigues. I'm not going to work for 12 years, taking stuff I don't want to take, just so somebody can throw me out of my house."

The two met alone for about an hour in Canizaro's office, Bender said. They talked about the neighborhood planning process, kicked off by the BNOB plan, about how the expected $10.4 billion from the federal government would be used to buy people out of their homes. Bender said Canizaro told him no one would be forced out.

"He was a genuine person," Bender said. "Me and him sat down and had a conversation, after the media was saying we were going to kill each other. He stuck to his word about meeting with me. At the time, I just blew it off. I didn't think it would happen . . . He didn't make any commitments to me, he just said he wanted to get the city back up and running and make everything nice. And that's what everybody's about.

"I can't be mad at the man," Bender said. "He worked hard for it. That's a nice office he's got there, on the 17th floor."

. . . . . . .

Brian Thevenot can be reached at bthevenot@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3482.


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