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Notes from New Orleans: Citizens Sue Mayor in VA Hospital Case

Posted on: July 17th, 2009 by Walter Gallas

 

This week, four New Orleans residents, representing the many citizens who have been frustrated by the city administration’s lack of responsiveness to their concerns about the plans for a new VA hospital in the Lower Mid City neighborhood, took their grievances into the local civil district court.

In their suit, the residents contend that Mayor Nagin disregarded multiple provisions of the City Charter as well as applicable state law, when he entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in November 2007. This is the agreement which Lower Mid City residents awoke to that fall, when they opened their newspapers and learned the mayor had committed the city to seizing and clearing 34 acres of the Mid City National Register District, closing the city streets, ripping out old infrastructure and installing new, and presenting VA with a “construction ready” site for a new medical center. In addition, the Mayor agreed to bind the city to paying as much as $5 million in damages if there is any breach in the city’s obligations—again, all of this committed without benefit of public notice, City Council or City Planning Commission action, appropriation of funds, or certification by the city’s director of finance.

In a series of fourteen counts, the plaintiffs’ attorneys lay out a string of violations which, they say, “transcend the facts of this case and raise significant issues of great importance to all residents, homeowners and business owners of the City of New Orleans regarding the Charter and whether the Mayor has the legal authority under the Charter to unilaterally authorize the taking of private property of homeowners and business owners without public hearings and without prior approval of the City Council and the City Planning Commission.” Two of the attorneys in the case served in previous New Orleans administrations as city attorneys.

So many of us have been pleading for the last two years to bring the planning of the LSU and VA hospitals into the light of day. We have asked the City Council and City Planning Commission to hold public hearings. We have asked that the plans be made a part of the master planning process currently underway. Nevertheless, the go-it-alone style of this administration has prevailed. The City Charter is the city’s legally binding operating manual on how things are supposed to be done in city government. It’s easy to follow, and not difficult at all to understand. Fundamentally, this case is saying the mayor chose not to follow the rules. Perhaps a date in court will provide a long-overdue course for this mayor in how to properly operate city government.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is not a party to this suit, but clearly the case supports points we have been making for quite some time.

Walter W. Gallas, AICP, is the director of the New Orleans Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Notes from New Orleans: Land Acquisition for LSU Hospital Halted

Posted on: July 2nd, 2009 by Walter Gallas

 

Governor Bobby Jindal's commissioner of administration, Angele Davis, announced last week that land acquisition on the LSU portion of the proposed hospital site in Lower Mid-City New Orleans would be halted. The announcement appears to be an attempt to pressure LSU to adopt a compromise regarding the governance of the state hospital. The compromise was rejected by the LSU Board of Supervisors after a negotiated arrangement steered by the State Secretary of Health and Hospitals had been settled on by both LSU and Tulane leadership.

This development came as both the state legislature was winding down and hope of reviving House Bill 780 faded. This bill, which we had succeeding in passing through the House, stalled in a Senate committee. It would have done something similar to what the governor ordered – halted land acquisition for the new LSU hospital until a financing plan was approved by the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.

Governor Jindal's people opposed HB 780, yet they decided to use this leverage to get LSU's attention. It is noteworthy that in Davis's statement below, she recognizes the challenges of raising the funds for this project, which is pegged at $1.2 billion. Here's the full statement:

There remains no agreement on the proposed governing structure and it is critical that we make an intensified effort to reach an agreement before the state acts to purchase the property. The proposed agreement called for a non-profit corporation to operate the hospital, with the corporation being responsible for obtaining debt financing. Without this corporation, or an agreement by the stakeholders to form the corporation, financing the project becomes a bigger challenge.

This will have no impact on the VA Hospital and the on-going land acquisition activities for the new VA Hospital in New Orleans. Today, we are suspending land acquisition activities and efforts for the MCLNO / Charity replacement hospital pending a resolution of the governance issue.

In other developments out of Baton Rouge, we were happy to see that Senate Bill 75 was put to death – at least for this session – after two last-minute efforts to attach it to other bills. The bill would have required that the New Orleans master plan be put to a vote of the citizens again, despite the fact that they already voted to amend the city charter last fall to include a master plan with the force of law, an accompanying zoning ordinance, and a citizen participation process. However, the issue may not really be dead and could come back to life as part of the mayoral or city council campaigns that will begin this fall.

New Orleans' master planning process continues to go forward, but there remain questions about whether the City Planning Commission and City Council will ever really weigh in on the plans for the LSU and VA hospitals in Mid-City. Up until now, these bodies have stood back and said they have no authority over the planning of these two massive public projects.

> Learn More About Our Efforts to Save Lower Mid-City New Orleans

Walter Gallas is the director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's New Orleans Field Office.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

LSU Hospital Plan Oversight Bill Stumbles in Louisiana Senate

Posted on: June 12th, 2009 by Walter Gallas

 

The Senate Education Committee of the Louisiana Legislature likely killed House Bill 780 yesterday by deferring it, after a vote to report it favorably out of the committee failed. It's doubtful that the bill can be resuscitated.

This bill would prohibit the LSU Board of Supervisors from purchasing or expropriating land for the development of their proposed new academic medical center in New Orleans without approval by the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget of its financing plan.

Representative Rick Nowlin of Natchitoches, author of the bill, took some heat from New Orleans Senator Ann Duplessis, who said she was surprised that the New Orleans delegation wasn’t consulted about this bill. He stood his ground, explaining that this was a statewide matter, and that he filed the bill only after repeated unsuccessful efforts to get financial information from LSU. Joining Rep. Nowlin was State Treasurer John Kennedy who stressed that this was a bill to prevent taking property for a public purpose without having financing in place to carry it out.

Those arguments didn’t seem to connect with the vast majority of the committee which seemed, rather, to buy the argument that this bill could delay the LSU project and cost more money. The head of state facilities planning, Jerry Jones, claimed delays would cost $160,000 a day. No one questioned this figure or how he’d arrived at it.

I testified in support of the bill along with Sandra Stokes of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, New Orleans land-use attorney William Borah, business owner Mickey Weiser, and Committee to Save Charity Hospital’s Brad Ott.

Earlier that morning, some of us attended a rather unusual press conference at which Governor Bobby Jindal appeared along with four of the state’s past governors. It was an awkward moment for Jindal, as former governor Buddy Roemer, joined by Kathleen Blanco, Mike Foster and Dave Treen exhorted the Jindal to show some leadership and not slash state higher education funding to intolerable and destructive levels.

The moment seemed an appropriate complement to our own calls for the Governor to demonstrate leadership in the LSU hospital matter, and order a comparative cost-benefit analysis of LSU’s plans versus the alternative which would incorporate the re-use of Charity Hospital.

It is remarkable that so many in leadership positions aren’t questioning LSU’s ability to assemble a financing package of over $1 billion. In the meantime, the process of appraising and then buying out and seizing properties in Lower Mid-City can continue unhindered.

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By a vote of 94 to 2, the Louisiana House on Wednesday passed House Bill 780, which would require LSU to have the financing plan for its proposed new hospital approved by the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget before it could purchase or seize property on the proposed Lower Mid-City site.

We spent two days in Baton Rouge again talking to lawmakers. On Tuesday, we managed to speak to about one-fifth of the 105-member body, and our tallies showed a decided lean toward passing what essentially is a simple bill calling for good fiscal practices.

With the exception of Representative Juan Lafonta, the New Orleans legislators didn’t seem strongly inclined to pass the bill when we spoke to them—remaining non-committal, vague in their support, or somewhat hostile to it. Nevertheless, seven of the eleven New Orleans legislators voted for the bill, with three absent, and one voting no. The no vote from New Orleans was from Rep. Karen Carter Peterson, Speaker Pro Tem of the House, who presided over the vote. The Charity Hospital building is in her district.

Rep. Lafonta rose to speak to his colleagues before the vote, saying without this bill there were no checks and balances on LSU. He talked about the possible demolition of a neighborhood and referred to the billboard on the interstate approach to Baton Rouge which states “Want to save $283 million? Reopen Charity Hospital.” The billboard is the work of theFoundation for Historical Louisiana (FHL).

This was another great effort in the beautiful halls of the Art Deco State Capital which included myself; Sandra Stokes of FHL; Mickey Weiser, owner of Weiser Security located in Lower Mid-City on the proposed LSU site; Brad Ott of the Committee to Re-Open Charity Hospital; Michelle Kimball of the Preservation Resource Center; Jack Davis, NTHP trustee; and Jonah Evans of SaveCharityHospital.com.

We appreciate everyone’s support of this latest effort, another chapter in the unfolding drama that could decide the fate of an ill-conceived plan for medical facilities in New Orleans.

The bill moves to the Senate next week, where it first needs to pass out of committee.

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The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

 

This past Thursday evening, seven members of the New Orleans City Planning Commission--for the first time before this body in a public setting--heard about the plans for the state and VA hospitals in New Orleans. The commission also got an earful of opposition from the public about those plans, and heard--again, for the first time as a body--that there could be an alternative to those plans, an alternative based on the return of Charity Hospital as a state-of-the-art 21st century anchor of the medical district in New Orleans' Central Business District.

I was one of scores of citizens who testified during the nearly four-and-a-half hour meeting after extended presentations by the city's out-going director of recovery, Ed Blakely; the state; and RMJM Hillier. Dr. Blakely made a point of saying the plans were those of the state and the VA, not the city. The state's representative argued that Charity was in danger of losing its accreditation before Katrina, and therefore no longer suitable for use as a hospital. That argument is immaterial. The RMJM Hillier proposal for the rebuilding of Charity is based on gutting of the entire building to its limestone exterior and floor plates. This structural skeleton would then support entirely new systems inside. None of the existing interior walls or systems would be retained.

The citizen comment was strictly limited to three minutes. Outbursts and spontaneous applause from the audience were promptly tamped down by an ever-vigilant commissioner. A number of physicians spoke in favor of the rebuilding of Charity and the dire need for medical care of all kinds in New Orleans. In my comments, I observed that the city seemed to want it both ways--saying it has no role when its planning department is asked to take leadership; and on the other hand, confecting agreements with the state and VA that very much demonstrate its intimate involvement with these controversial plans.

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The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.