Notes from New Orleans: Preservation Plan for Charity Hospital Heard by Legislature

Posted on: January 26th, 2009 by Walter Gallas
Preservation-friendly site plan for Charity Hospital. (RMJM Hillier)

Preservation-friendly site plan for Charity Hospital. (RMJM Hillier)

It was really remarkable that the Louisiana House Committee on Appropriations devoted an entire day this past week to a hearing about Charity Hospital and LSU’s and VA’s plans for new medical centers in New Orleans. We had an attentive and polite group of lawmakers, whom we thanked repeatedly for holding essentially the first real public hearing on these major plans. I presented the National Trust for Historic Preservation's email petition signed by more than 650 people to the committee chairman, Representative James Fannin.

The presentation by RJMJ Hillier’s Colin Mosher and Steve McDaniel on their feasibility study for the building’s reuse; resident Bobbi Rogers’ passionate statement about the neighborhood; attorney Laura Tuggle’s cautions about the costs and challenges of expropriation and relocation; National Trust Community Investment Corporation’s Kirk Carrison’s tax credit work sheet; Sandra Stokes’ overview; my observations on the plan and preservation’s role — all of these pieces came together to paint a picture designed to show legislators what was at stake and what was possible in New Orleans. It was at this meeting that we presented an alternative to the over-powering and destructive LSU-VA scheme. The image at the top of this post, created by RMJM Hillier shows our proposal, in which Charity is back in play, thereby enabling the new VA medical center to be built on a portion of what would have been the LSU site, saving the majority of Lower Mid-City's historic homes and cultural landmarks.

What was also remarkable was how little information LSU officials could provide in response to repeated questions about the financing of the proposed $1.2 billion plan. The state is already beginning the process of acquiring the properties on the preferred LSU site — yet no more than about $300 million dollars is committed so far by the legislature for the new hospital. State officials are pinning their hopes on an appeal to President Obama's FEMA and receiving an award of nearly $500 million for the damages to the Charity Hospital building. Without this sum, the financing plan falls apart.

The night before the committee hearing, we spoke about these issues before a packed meeting hosted by Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates, the French Quarter's oldest neighborhood group. The meeting attracted a variety of people from all over town -- not just French Quarter types, and it showed that all neighborhoods need to be worried when bad planning like this happens. Here we presented a new flyer summing up the situation.

We are up against some serious opposition. As is so common in these cases, we are accused of delaying progress when we start raising questions or presenting alternatives. But the week was full of good press -- print and TV.

On Friday, I was the guest on (yet another) call-in radio show. It was clear that my point of view on good planning and re-use of existing buildings fell flat with my host. He focused on the bad condition of the Mid-City neighborhood, and the need to build something new. A caller said that I was being inflexible, that before Katrina the neighborhood was dangerous, that the houses on the site could be moved to one of the former public housing sites. Another caller, the leader of the movement to create the biosciences district, once again disparaged the Hillier report, and said it was time to move on and plan for the new hospitals.

I took a look at the preliminary designs for the new hospitals for the proposed sites which were released on Thursday. How depressing that was. The massing schemes didn’t even begin to deal with any of the measures we suggested in our December 31 comments as consulting parties to the Programmatic Agreement. Furthermore, there was no evidence that any elements of the two hospital plans had any relationship to one another—putting the lie to the oft-stated argument that the LSU and VA facilities would achieve certain efficiencies through shared facilities.

The designs portend the future of Mid-City if these plans are realized. The rest of the historic district is clearly at risk of further obliteration.

See for yourself what may be on the horizon (click images to enlarge):

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