Travel the world one day and build it the next. The architecture across Europe inspired Rebecca Otte ’95 to work to preserve historic structures in the United States after earning her civil engineering degree from Valparaiso University.
Rebecca has led many projects as an environmental planner for the Regional Planning Commission’s (RPC) Brownfield Redevelopment Program (BRP) in New Orleans. Through grants provided by the Environmental Protection Agency, the BRP assists developers, property owners, and prospective purchasers to navigate the environmental obstacles of redeveloping abandoned and underutilized properties.
“The purpose of the BRP is to promote economic development and create jobs in urban environments,” Rebecca says. After starting her career as an environmental consultant in California, she moved to New Orleans and began overseeing the environmental aspects of the BRP at RPC, quickly transitioning to handling all aspects of the role, including overall project and grant management.
One recent project was Progressive Church’s Family Living Center site. The church purchased the property thinking it was getting simply a vacant lot, but soon learned the soil contained asbestos. Rebecca oversaw the assessment and cleanup of the site, walking the church leaders through the environmental regulatory process and facilitating the relationship with the EPA and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. Progressive Church is now in the process of building their future Family Life Center to support their congregation and the surrounding community.
Rebecca also led redevelopment of the Bayou Treme Center, a vacant church and school complex. Due to changing demographics, the buildings had been vacant for more than a decade when Bayou Treme LLC developed plans to revitalize the site. After the removal of an underground storage tank and plan development to address lead and asbestos contamination in the buildings through the BRP, the property is currently being redeveloped as the new home of Southern Rep Theatre, the Waldorf School, and a business incubator for home-based businesses in the community.
Just this past summer, Rebecca learned that the RPC was selected by the EPA to receive additional funding to redevelop properties along New Orleans’ Industrial Canal that were abandoned following the closure of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet after Hurricane Katrina and from the changing needs of port commerce.
“I work with a lot of developers,” Rebecca says. “They know the development side once it’s all cleaned up but are not necessarily experts on navigating the environmental process. That’s where we come in. We’re especially excited to be partnering with the Port of New Orleans and their efforts to revitalize the many blighted properties along the Industrial Canal corridor, creating jobs for nearby residents and restoring the community fabric.”
Rebecca’s appreciation of architecture came from her grandparents, who helped develop plans for the Historic Trinity Lutheran church in Detroit.
“My grandmother and grandfather traveled quite a bit throughout Europe,” Rebecca says. “Somehow that got passed down to me. My focus has long been on historic buildings.”
It was on a three-week trip overseas while an undergraduate at Valpo that Rebecca combined her love of historic architecture with her growing knowledge of civil engineering and aspects of city planning.
“Traveling helped build my confidence,” Rebecca says. “You see different ways of doing things when you travel to different parts of the world.”
It is difficult for Rebecca to choose her favorite European city.
“I loved them all,” she says. “Barcelona is amazing. I did a report on Antoni Gaudi’s architecture in college. It was great to see it in person. I loved Venice and their system of canals and seeing an entire city without roads.”
Building a solid foundation
It was the ability to travel abroad that attracted Rebecca to Valpo to study engineering. And like the historic buildings she admires, her career was built on a solid foundation at Valpo.
“I had the full college experience. I was in a sorority. I was on the student council and newspaper staff. I loved the fact I could be well rounded at Valpo,” Rebecca says. “The class sizes were small. They were taught by professors instead of graduate assistants.
“Professors gave us all a lot of personal attention. Their focus was on having us succeed. If you missed two or three classes in a row, they would start asking other students where you were to make sure you were okay. They were willing to work with you to help you learn. They wanted you to succeed.”
Rebecca’s studies in the College of Engineering built a great foundation for her work today. As an undergraduate, she took a class on engineering management. “The class noted that most students may be an engineer for five to seven years but be managing people and projects for the rest of their career,” Rebecca says. “I’ve found those from other colleges didn’t receive that kind of education that prepared them for a long-term career and not just the immediate job out of school.”
She also learned what it was like to be professional — giving countless presentations and working with a variety of people who weren’t engineers. She spends her time presenting to and working with developers, environmental consultants, regulators, and more. “I’ve found myself being a translator between all of the various groups,” Rebecca says.
The art of organization
According to Caitlin Cain, a former colleague of Rebecca’s at the RPC and current CEO of the World Trade Center of New Orleans, Rebecca is the epitome of the engineer’s engineer. She is meticulous in her planning and analytical in all her projects.
“Rebecca was always the most organized and analytical among us. She was superb at all levels of project development from vision to execution,” Caitlin says. “One of Rebecca’s most outstanding qualities is her passion. Rebecca treats program management, analysis, and organization as an art form.”
Caitlin recalls walking into Rebecca’s office at the RPC where she would encounter “a cornucopia of springtime color where every program, client, or initiative is displayed in a beautiful, intricate array of sticky notes, arrows, and spreadsheets.
“Her office, much like her personality, is full of joy — a program management passion-fest, which always made me smile,” Caitlin says.
From development to innovation
After graduation, Rebecca continued to give back to Valpo, where she served a three-year stint on the board for the Valpo Guild. As someone who sees development daily, she is proud to see the continued development at her alma mater. And she is encouraged by the continued development of young people — especially females — entering the engineering profession.
“The key aspect (to the engineering profession) is how many doors you can open with an engineering degree,” Rebecca says. “If someone likes problem solving, engineering is great for that. The thing with engineering is you have to learn from your failures. It’s okay to fail. Too often students focus on test scores and not the learning process. With engineering, you have to be able to take risks and be innovative.”
Rebecca’s other program, the Southeast Louisiana Clean Fuel Partnership, is grounded in innovation. The group is a U.S. Department of Energy–designated Clean Cities Coalition, which promotes alternative fuels and advanced technologies in vehicles.
The group partners with fuel providers, fleet managers, drivers, and cities, all to promote clean transportation.
“The goal is energy security by diversifying fuel services, using more domestically produced fuel sources, and improving air quality,” Rebecca says.
Rebecca sees her current work as a parallel to her days at Valpo — it’s all about improving the world through exploration and innovation.
“There’s something special about bonds you build with classmates during college,” Rebecca says. “At Valpo, I was able to have multiple experiences. I had a holistic engineering education. It was not just technical, but I learned the soft skills of managing teams and people.”