Notes from New Orleans: The Elephant in the Room

Posted on: March 16th, 2009 by Walter Gallas

If there ever was a time when the city of New Orleans needed the City Planning Commission to show some leadership, it is now. One could point to the exercises being led by the consulting firm Goody Clancy for the development of the city’s new master plan and comprehensive zoning ordinance as evidence of such leadership. The problem though, is that there’s an elephant in the room—the plan by Louisiana State University and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to build two new medical centers from the ground up—and neither Goody Clancy nor the City Planning Commission is dealing with it.

It is all well and good to call on the city’s tireless citizens to participate in crafting what could ultimately be the city’s first master plan with the force of law. But as long as the huge hospital plans are not examined as part of the master planning process, the whole citywide process is under a cloud. If the hospitals’ plan—which is a classic straight from the days of urban renewal—proceeds as it has until now with the City Planning Commission taking a hands-off attitude, what is to prevent this from happening again with another project in another part of town?

Some City Planning staff have said that they can have no involvement in this plan, because it is the work of state and federal agencies. The plan involves wholesale clearance of portions of a National Register District, covers 70 acres and would require the demolition of as many as 263 structures, 165 of them considered historic. What the city doesn’t acknowledge is that it has been intimately involved in these destructive plans all along, as evidenced by a number of agreements forged with the state and with the VA. Further, it was the city which engineered an offer to the VA of cleared construction-ready land. This was made possible by the expenditure of $74 million in Community Development Block Grant funds for demolition--money that could have been used for housing rehabilitation. This offer apparently was too good for the VA to refuse. So, the city is deeply involved in setting these plans into motion.

Will the LSU-VA hospital plan be marked with an asterisk in the city’s master plan? Will a note say, “We did this one the old-fashioned way, by having special interests push it through, but we won’t do it this way again”?

Today’s Times-Picayune makes it clear that the two hospitals will be proceeding independently of one another, and that the arguments for co-location and shared services were false. Instead of waiting for the continued drip-drip-drip of revelations emerging about these ill-conceived plans, New Orleans’ planning leadership should show some spine and actively engage its citizens in participating in planning what is conceivably the largest economic development project ever proposed in this town.

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