New Orleans Debates Hospital Plan

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Philadelphia architectural firm RMJM Hillier's rendering of a renovated Charity Hospital. The firm says it will be faster and cheaper to renovate the building than constructing a new complex.

Credit: RMJM Hillier

UPDATE: On November 25th, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Louisiana State University announced the selection of the Mid-City neighborhood for the site of their new hospitals.

After Hurricane Katrina, when floodwaters receded and the city began restoring vital services, many residents of New Orleans' historic Mid-City neighborhood repaired their houses and moved back home. Now 200 of those houses, along with other historic commercial buildings, could be demolished to make way for a major new hospital complex.

The Louisiana State University Medical System has teamed up with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)to propose a new 70-acre hospital complex in Mid-City. The site selection could be finalized as early as Nov. 21.

At a meeting last week, the university and the VA said they would consider the feasibility of retaining large historic buildings at the periphery of the Mid-City footprint (such as the Dixie Brewery, the 1920s Deutsches Haus, and the modernist Pan-American Life Insurance Building.) But no offers were made to save or move individual residences.

Construction of two new medical centers in Mid-City would have far-reaching implications for New Orleans, particularly in the central business district, where the fate of Charity Hospital has remained uncertain since Hurricane Katrina.

Louisiana State University declared Charity unsafe and irreparable after the storm, pointing to its flooded basement and damaged mechanical systems. (Volunteers had successfully restored electricity to the 1939 Art Deco building and cleaned it after the hurricane, only to have additional interior damage inflicted.) The university asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for $492 million in compensation for the damage, but so far FEMA has only been willing to put a $23 million price tag on the hurricane-caused damage.

But Philadelphia-based RMJM Hillier, an independent consulting firm, says the building is structurally sound. A report filed by Hillier in August says that Charity could be rebuilt in just three years. The firm concluded that a $484 million investment could transform the one-million-square-foot building into a state-of-the art hospital for local residents.

Hillier also pointed out that renovation of the still-empty Charity would be easier and cheaper than demolition and new construction in a recovering neighborhood like Mid-City. The firm's study estimates that construction of a completely new hospital complex will take at least five years and cost 22 percent more.

"It's just bad planning," says Walter Gallas, director of the New Orleans Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which named Charity Hospital and the Mid-City neighborhood one of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places this year. "You're going to abandon your central business district and let two major hospitals rebuild outside [that] district with dim prospects and no future for the buildings you're leaving behind. … If they go with their preferred site, they will have picked the most complicated and the most expensive and destructive way to do it."

Preservationists say there's an empty 25-acre parcel nearby that would work for the VA hospital site – without requiring the demolition of a single home or historic property – and are urging the university and the VA to avoid new construction in the Mid-City Historic District.

"It costs more, it takes more time, and it causes more destruction," says Sandra Stokes, executive vice chair of the board of directors of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, which raised $600,000 for the Hillier study. "This is what happened in the 60s and 70s; you pulled out of your downtown and went to suburbia. This is urban blight."

Read more of our coverage of Charity Hospital

 

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