A New Orleans Hospital Has a Shot at Recovery

The Fate of Charity and its Neighborhood Depend on a Study.

Charity's cornerstone indicates it was erected in 1938, the hospital was originally founded in 1736.

Credit: SHL

In August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina's waters scoured their way into New Orleans' history books, some 200 patients and workers were left stranded at the city's Charity Hospital. Days later, their rescue made national headlines. Now, for the first time since the flood, preservationists are optimistic that the endangered historic building and its neighborhood can be saved.

The 80-year-old hospital—the city's most significant art deco landmark and once the nation's second-best Level I Trauma Center—has been abandoned since the last patient was carried out nearly three years ago. Owner Louisiana State University (LSU) has moved on with plans to build a new medical center that will, among other things, serve the indigent and uninsured patients that Charity once welcomed.

However, the area tentatively chosen for the LSU center and an adjacent Veteran's Administration hospital will consume 25 square blocks of a 19th-century neighborhood. Residents and housing advocates have been crying foul since the 2007 announcement, protesting that residents had no voice in the site selection and that alternate sites, including Charity and the former VA hospital, were prematurely discarded.

Now their pleas, and questions raised by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and others, have spurred an architectural and structural evaluation of "Big Charity" by noted architectural firm RMJM Hillier. Those results, and other recent developments, may turn the entire project on its head.

Charity Hospital's Role in New Orleans

Before Katrina, LSU had publicly asserted Charity must be replaced with a more modern facility. That conjecture became reality on Feb. 23, 2006, when LSU and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs signed an agreement to explore building a joint teaching hospital and trauma center in downtown New Orleans. A few months later, Charity Hospital neighbors discovered that New Orleans' metropolitan Regional Planning Commission, with the support of New Orleans city government, was offering their neighborhood as a site for the project. Despite calls from preservation groups and residents that Charity could be saved, its chances seemed increasingly remote. In September 2006, LSU System Executive Vice President Donald R. Smithburg opined, "re-opening the Big Charity building … is a financially unwise and a medically dangerous move."

11 most markA year later, the die appeared cast. The New Orleans' Times Picayune reported that "an approximately 70-acre chunk of a neglected section at Mid-City's downtown edge would be replaced by a $2 billion [medical] development." According to the article, LSU spokesperson Charles Zewe noted that environmental assessment of the targeted area was nearly complete and had not turned up significant preservation issues. Residents protested that their National Register-listed neighborhood was neither neglected nor insignificant, pointing to renovations and historic assets as proof.

A New Plan for a Big Hospital

Fast forward to today, and Jindal's concerns about the cost of the LSU venture have resulted in a scaled-down facility ($1.2 billion; 364 acute-care and 60 psychiatric beds). The Foundation for Historical Louisiana (FHL) is preparing to release on August 21 the results of the architecture firm's independent assessment of Charity Hospital. The VA is just beginning the National Historic Preservation Act Section 106 review process and has yet to designate its final APEs (areas of potential effects).

"We've been accused of being obstructionist, but we believe the city, LSU, and the VA did not do their homework," says Walter Gallas, head of the National Trust's field New Orleans Field Office. "There has been inadequate citizen participation, and we believe there are alternate sites that have not been given proper consideration."

Gallas says he and others have argued that the VA must consider the entire LSU-VA footprint as a single historic area for the APE. "We can have one discussion, and raise all the questions in one forum," he says.

In the meantime, locals say the prolonged uncertainty is fracturing an already disabled area and stifling its post-Katrina recovery.

"People think this is a run-down area that is not recovering, but we have homeowners who want to renovate," says resident Bobbi Rogers. "They can't because there is a city moratorium on issuing building or demolition permits until a final decision is made." (New Orleans City Council Resolution 22944, dated December 6, 2007, prohibits the issuance of most demolition, building, renovation, or repair permits within the LSU-VA footprint for a period of one year or until the implementation of permanent land use measures.)

An Alternate Site?

In an unexpected move, this month the VA took steps that may give Rogers and her neighbors the relief they seek and possibly force LSU to reevaluate Charity. Two weeks ago, the VA announced to residents it is now considering yet another site about a mile away from the current one. The 25-acre parcel, known as the "Lindy Boggs site," which Georgia real estate developer Victory Real Estate Investments LLC purchased after Katrina for big-box development, sits vacant after economic downturns and neighborhood opposition stymied the company's plans.

"The Charity report and a decision by the VA to go to the Lindy Boggs site would prevent the demolition of historic housing in the lower Mid-City neighborhood and could spur further housing infill there," says Gallas. "The site presents an unusual opportunity for development that wouldn't destroy any historic buildings and which could get moving much more quickly. At the same time, planning for a VA hospital would have to be done in such a way to ensure that it's a neighborhood asset, not a neighborhood threat."

New Orleans resident Bobbi Rogers restored her home, which sat with no roof for 8 months after Katrina, before the permit moratorium took effect.

Credit: Bobbi Rogers

Waiting for Big Charity

Even as the VA evaluates its options, all eyes are set squarely on Charity and its assessment report, which the Louisiana Legislature ordered (but did not fund) in 2006. FHL Executive Vice Chair Sandra Stokes says, "This will be the first structural report on the building—and will enable us to know the potential for reuse. Previous assessments of Big Charity Hospital have only been to determine damages by Katrina, and the correlating reimbursements from FEMA."

Rogers says the report is crucial for the health of her neighborhood as well. "There have been no studies released about why they haven't considered an alternate site, and how badly the VA hospital was damaged," says Rogers. "I cannot believe, with all the modern technologies they have, that they cannot renovate and reuse Charity Hospital."

According to Rogers, both the LSU and the VA hope to make final site selection announcements on the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on August 29. Stokes says that is too soon to properly evaluate the report and urges patience and caution.

"We raised over half-million dollars to fund this report … yet it seems decisions are being made before we have the results," Stokes says. "We have heard rumors that Charity is unusable. Before we discard this cultural, architectural and medically significant icon, let's determine the facts."

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