PITT HELPS HURRICANE-WRECKED NEIGHBORHOOD REBUILD - by Leyla Linton

As residents work to rebuild their lives and homes a year after Hurricane Katrina, actor Brad Pitt says he and girlfriend Angelina Jolie will be frequent visitors to the city observing the progress.

The couple was in New Orleans on Thursday, though only Pitt appeared at an afternoon news conference to announce the winner of the design competition he launched in April for plans to rebuild hurricane-ravaged neighborhoods using environmentally friendly designs and construction.

"We're going to be spending a lot of time down here," Pitt said just after the announcement was made. Preproduction for his next movie was scheduled to begin in November, and Pitt said he would be in New Orleans for much of January and February for filming.

Around that time, he also hoped to break ground on the first phase of the neighborhood redevelopment project slated for a section of the devastated Ninth Ward, he said.

The winning plan was submitted by Matthew Berman and Andrew Kotchen of Workshop APD of New York City. It includes designs for six single-family housing units, 12 multifamily units, a community center and play area, and a pedestrian bridge leading from the neighborhood to the top of the levee.

Pitt said the goal is to replicate the project in other parts of the city.

"This is not difficult. It's relatively easy if you're rebuilding," he said. The designs will also be cost and energy efficient in the long run, he added.

The designs had to pass certain standards to account for future emergencies and they incorporated architectural influences now found in many New Orleans homes, such as gabled rooftops over windows and doors.

Pitt headed the jury of architects, city residents and others who decided on the top designs that use energy-saving materials such as metal roofing and recycled textiles. More than 100 individuals and architect firms submitted designs for the competition. Six finalists were announced in July, when Pitt got his first up-close look at the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina.

Pitt said Thursday he's still appalled embarrassed even that people in many New Orleans neighborhoods cannot return because of the lack of basic services like hospitals and schools.

"This is a social justice issue," he said. "In a catastrophe, you help the most vulnerable first, and we failed to do that."

Pam Dashiell, a Ninth Ward resident who served on the committee that judged the designs, sat beside Pitt at the news conference. She said the rebuilding plan will likely urge residents to come back home.

"It's the first real redevelopment project in the Ninth Ward," she said. "This is hope."

Matt Petersen, president and CEO of Global Green USA, the national environmental organization working with Pitt on the project, said 50,000 homes rebuilt according to the energy cost reduction goals in the competition could save residents as much as $50 million annually.

Pitt initially contributed $100,000 to help underwrite the contest. It was announced Thursday that he contributed another $100,000 to help cover prize money. The winning team will get $75,000 and two others Fred Schwartz of Schwartz Architects in New York City and Steve Dumez of Esckew-Dumez-Ripple in New Orleans will receive $7,500 and certificates of excellence.