Last month I found myself in New Orleans for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields conference, wondering if I had unwittingly traveled back in time to the 1950s or 60s. The conference was great; it was the city’s land use planning that left me disoriented.
This was my first trip to New Orleans, and in addition to learning all kinds of things about brownfields, I toured the Lower Mid-City neighborhood that is slated for demolition to make way for the sprawling suburban style medical campus planned by Louisiana State University and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The current LSU and VA development plan abandons Charity Hospital, one of New Orleans' most iconic buildings, in favor of a disjointed and sprawling medical campus located to the west of the Charity and Tulane Hospital (see the proposed development plan.) To make way for this decidedly retrograde development, over 250 homes and commercial buildings in the Lower Mid-City neighborhood will be demolished. (Approximately 165 of these buildings are historic, and the National Trust named Charity Hospital and the adjacent Lower Mid-City neighborhood to its 2008 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.)
Stunning. That’s the best word I can think of to describe the irresponsibility of the proposed development. In a city that has suffered so much loss, so much devastation, how can the further destruction of a viable neighborhood be justified? And for what gain?
And need I point out the irony of building a sprawling medical complex in a dense urban area -- when the human health impacts of sprawl have been so well documented? I guess that’s one way to ensure continued demand for health services related to obesity and sedentary life styles.
It’s hard to imagine this plan for wide-scale demolition getting much traction in other large cities, which in recent years have tended to embrace density and smart growth principles. Sure, older and historic buildings may be targeted for demolition here and there – but whole neighborhoods? And to make way for suburban style sprawl? It’s hard to believe we’re even having this conversation.
Perhaps it’s asking too much for responsible city and state governance in the wake of a disaster as significant as Katrina. But we should demand better of our federal government. The Department of Veteran Affairs is a major driver in the project and the Department of Housing and Urban Development is blithely providing the funding for demolition in the form of Community Development Block Grant funds.
This project – more than any other I know of – tests the Obama Administration’s commitment to use federal resources in a way that promotes sustainable development goals. The current plan makes a mockery of these goals. Should the project go forward, I’d wager that in the demolition of Mid-City will be seen as just one more way in which the federal government has abdicated its responsibilities to New Orleans.
We are working with the Foundation for Historic Louisiana and other partners are fighting the demolition of mid-city and the reuse-of Charity Hospital. FHL has put forth a viable alternative solution that not only saves the dense historic neighborhood, but revitalizes the vacant historic downtown area, and brings healthcare and economic development back faster. Visit FHL to learn more and take action.
Patrice Frey is the director of sustainability research for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.