The Cost of Progress?

Razing entire blocks for a massive hospital complex in New Orleans divided residents and decimated parts of a historic neighborhood

In 2002, while looking for a house in New Orleans' Mid-City neighborhood, Doris Bahr fell in love with a ruin. Though the 1903 wood-frame double shotgun at 2407-09 Palmyra St. was dilapidated, and the lot it stood upon weed-choked, Bahr was undeterred. Having emigrated from Honduras in 1994 and become a U.S. citizen, she had grown to love New Orleans' historic neighborhoods, Mid-City in particular. And she knew that the house on Palmyra had great potential. So she purchased it. Then she began to bring it back.

She undertook much of the labor herself, sitting atop a 12-foot ladder, for example, to install new insulation. And over the course of a year, drawing on a network of friends and family, she turned this wreck of a house into a home. Then came the hot summer of 2005 and Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the floodwalls along the city's drainage canals. People lost their homes, their livelihoods, their lives. In Mid-City, fetid, murky water swirled through the streets, lingering for weeks. Bahr's house flooded nearly to the height of her kitchen stove. "When I finally got inside, there was mold almost up to the ceiling," Bahr recalled. "And the fridge was knocked over—it was like there'd been a fight inside."

Even after losing her secretarial job in the tumultuous months after the flood, Bahr stayed in New Orleans (living temporarily in a suburb) and set about restoring her house. Again. She grappled with bureaucrats, with insurance companies, with building supply centers that had suddenly jacked up their prices. She called upon her friends once more. A year later, she returned to Palmyra Street.

In December 2008, just three months after she'd finished redoing the floors, she received a letter from the state of Louisiana: Her house, the letter stated, and dozens of others in the neighborhood were standing in the way of a new hospital complex coming to the heart of this National Register-listed historic district. Hundreds of structures, including numerous residences, a German cultural institution, an 1879 Italianate school designed by prominent local architect William Freret, and dozens of functioning commercial buildings, were going to be bulldozed.

"It was kind of like Katrina all over again," Bahr said. "It just felt so beyond me. Katrina was an act of God, but this was an act of the government … I was," she added, with considerable understatement, "completely bummed out."

In New Orleans, no event is truly inexplicable, not when you unwrap the complex politics and history swaddling it. Peel back the layers surrounding the letter Doris Bahr received, for instance, and you end up back in 1736.

That was the year L'Hôpital des Pauvres de la Charité was founded through a bequest from a French sailor and shipbuilder. The mission of this charity hospital, originally located in what is now the French Quarter, was to provide care for the indigent.

The hospital occupied several locations in the city, but it was the autocratic Gov. Huey Long who envisioned the current Charity Hospital on Tulane Avenue. He instructed Weiss, Dreyfous, and Seiferth, the same architects responsible for his grandiose 34-story state capitol in Baton Rouge, to design a heroic Art Deco edifice. Long was assassinated in 1935, but a few years later, the new hospital opened: a 20-story limestone tower flanked by lower wings and support buildings. In 1952, a federal Veterans Administration (VA) hospital, designed as a sort of pale echo of Charity, was built behind the complex, part of a growing downtown medical district.

Charity Hospital, called Big Charity by nearly everyone here, has had a long, complicated relationship with the city. Ingrained in the urban fabric (many of the city's noted residents, including Louis Armstrong, were born there), it has been heralded for its commitment to caring for the poor. It has also, at times, been a symbol of bureaucratic lassitude. The state legislature tended to toy with Charity like a marionette, leading to endemic funding crises and repeated challenges to its accreditation.

Beginning as early as the 1970s, state-backed plans to create a new hospital were put forth, debated, and ultimately dismissed. In the 1990s, the idea of moving the VA and Charity into a single complex with shared services gained favor. Planners envisioned a modern hospital with a modern configuration filled with modern technology. Big Charity didn't need improvements, they said; it needed a fresh start.

Hurricane Katrina put those plans on hold. Charity, by and large, withstood the wind and rain, but the storm surge that toppled the city's inadequate floodwalls brought water into the hospital's basement, destroying much of the electrical and mechanical equipment. FEMA guidelines state th at if the cost of repairing a damaged building is 50 percent or more of the cost of replacing it, the owner can apply to FEMA for full reimbursement of the replacement costs. Louisiana State University (LSU) Health Care Services, which had taken over managerial responsibilities of the hospital in 1997, consulted several engineering firms, which estimated the cost of repairing the hospital facility at 65 to 80 percent of the cost of replacing it—well over the 50 percent threshold. Citing mold and structural damage, and declaring the hospital dangerous and unusable, LSU emptied the building, posting guards at its locked doors. Still, National Guard troops and the Army's 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg joined doctors and nurses in mucking out the corridors and basement and decontaminating several floors of the hospital, hoping to reopen the facility as quickly as possible. Despite their efforts, however, the hospital remained closed, with an arbitration panel concluding that the cost of repairing Big Charity would indeed be more than 50 percent of the replacement cost, which it assessed at $474 million.

In November 2008, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and LSU announced plans to build a new complex in lower Mid-City, just north of the old hospitals. Funding  would come in large part from the federal government—including almost $1 billion for the new VA hospital from the Department of Veterans Affairs and $474 million in FEMA damage payments for the LSU Hospital, with an additional $100 million coming from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The city's official recovery plan called for both hospitals to be built as an integrated facility on a 15-square-block site. VA and LSU officials won approval instead for a complex that will occupy a 27-block site (67 acres), and the state informed residents that almost all houses and buildings in this area would have to be demolished—even though homeowners had been coming back to the devastated neighborhood post-Katrina to restore their damaged properties. Preservationists rallied to halt the move and organized around two goals: preventing Big Charity from being abandoned and keeping a historic neighborhood from being razed.

The Foundation for Historical Louisiana hired the architecture firm RMJM (then based in Philadelphia) to study Big Charity in detail. The 1939 building, the architects concluded, was structurally sound and consistent, morever, with contemporary hospital design requirements, which call for abundant daylight and views from every patient room. The architects determined that the historic building could be gutted and the shell reused for a new hospital, at a cost of $484 million (close to the amount already awarded from FEMA for new construction)—a far better deal for taxpayers than the $1.2 billion that LSU plans to spend on a much larger replacement.

"Our findings indicate that after over 75 years," wrote R. Stephen McDaniel, a principal at RMJM, "the building has held up remarkably well through hurricanes, major calamities, neglect and deferred maintenance … Our findings indicate that there is no compelling reason for this historic landmark structure not to be rehabilitated to its full potential … The answer to the question of whether or not Charity can be -re-made into a modern hospital is 'yes.' "

Locals such as Sandra Stokes, who worked on behalf of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, tried to persuade the legislature, the various agencies involved, and the public to rehabilitate Big Charity. And the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which had been heavily involved in New Orleans reconstruction since Katrina, filed suit against the Veterans Administration and FEMA in an effort to stop the Mid-City demolitions and force the VA and LSU to reconsider their plans. (In 2008, the National Trust placed both the hospital and Mid-City on its list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.) The Trust contended that the review process violated federal environmental laws, because the hospital sites were selected without considering the impacts of design, construction, or operations. Last March, a federal judge rejected the Trust's lawsuit, allowing construction to proceed. The VA hospital portion of the project would commence first. 

With the fight to block hospital relocation or consolidation seemingly lost, attention shifted to the neighborhood under threat—to those century-old shotguns, camelbacks, Creole cottages, and other buildings of local historical significance. If they had to be abandoned, they deserved something better than the bulldozer. The question was: Could the preservationist's version of Dunkirk—an unprecedented, hasty evacuation of dozens of historic houses prompted by mass evictions and expropriations—be organized? Was there any other option?

Brad Vogel was a Tulane University law student when he read about the impending demolitions in Mid-City. He started visiting the neighborhood regularly, photographing the houses, meeting the residents, and launching a blog called Inside the Footprint, which featured pictures of the endangered structures. (After graduating last year, Vogel became the National Trust's Ed Majkrzak Historic Preservation Fellow.)

Activists such as Vogel, civil rights attorney Mary Howell, architectural historian Sally Reeves, National Trust Trustee Jack Davis, and many others agitated to save some of the houses slated for demolition. They eventually received help from city council member Kristin Gisleson Palmer and the city's newly elected mayor, Mitch Landrieu, a former lieutenant governor and longtime friend to historic and cultural preservation. As a result, about $3.2 million of city funds—set aside for acquisition and demolition in the VA footprint—were instead earmarked for moving endangered structures.

Palmer reached out to Providence Community Housing, a nonprofit that made available 60 of the lots it controlled in New Orleans. Builders of Hope, a North Carolina-based nonprofit, agreed to send members to help run the relocations. A survey identified the houses that contributed to the neighborhood's historic character. These were the structures deemed worthy of moving.

Among the 80 or so houses singled out to begin life anew: 2407-09 Palmyra St.

Doris Bahr's mood—understandably gloomy upon receiving her eviction notice in 2008—improved markedly after Louisiana's office of cultural development informed her that her house wasn't necessarily doomed. She had a choice: cede the house to the state and receive full reimbursement for both structure and property, or keep the house, accept partial payment, claim a nother Mid-City lot, and have the whole cost of moving and rehabilitation covered. (The VA and the city were required by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 to provide financial assistance for relocations.)w "I think I was the first one to say, 'I'm in!' " Bahr said.

She was underwhelmed, however, by the available lots she saw: some too small, some located in neighborhoods too sketchy. When she finally found a lot on Banks Street—at just 29 by 100 feet, smaller than her previous property, but featuring pleasant shade trees on the grounds and a tidy row of historic houses to the north—she thought, "This is it."

As it turned out, she was very much in the minority. Some residents were happy to take the cash and get out of New Orleans. Others objected to the lots they were offered, several of which were located just behind the parish prison. Still others wanted nothing to do with state officials, whom they now viewed as the enemy. Ultimately only Bahr and one other property owner requested relocations.

Mitch Landrieu was convinced that unwanted houses could still be saved and offered to new residents. Racing against an aggressive demolition timetable, the mayor set a goal of moving up to 100 houses. And eventually, more than 70 (out of a possible 123 historic residences) were moved from the VA hospital footprint, clustered together when possible, along N. Derbigny, Bienville, and S. Rocheblave streets. They will be rehabbed, then offered to low-income residents, many of whom were displaced by Katrina and have yet to return to New Orleans.

It's hard to find much good to say about the callous treatment of this historic corner of Mid-City, about the roughshod politics that have affected it. But "if there's a silver lining," Vogel told me, "it's the house moving. We didn't stop the hospital project, but we did manage to get over 70 houses moved off the site." Recent reports suggest that some of the houses were badly damaged—in some cases, roofs and upper floors were sheared off to accommodate overhanging wires on New Orleans' streets—en route to their new locations. And though this damage has troubled many in the community, Vogel remains convinced that most of the moved structures can ultimately be revived.

Gaither Pratt, director of the New Orleans Field Office for the National Trust, admits that the loss of the original neighborhood is a defeat for preservationists. But he insists some good can come of all this by testing out a new model for future urban development. "House moving can help solve the question of how cities grow and still deal with preservation," he said. "We've proposed the idea that you can move threatened homes from a development site and relocate them to vacant sites in surrounding neighborhoods in need of economic investment. Keeping the homes together creates safety, security, and neighborliness. The moved homes can create a nucleus of neighborhood revitalization that will continue to grow."

"This will play out over the next year or so," Vogel added, "with houses rehabbed and streetscapes that are authentically New Orleanian. It really is a variegated streetscape that you see coming back on line."

But what about the houses in the footprint of the future LSU Medical Center, adjacent to the proposed VA hospital?

This is an excerpt from the print magazine.

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