Saved in New Orleans
Historic Houses Are Being Moved Out of Harm's Way
By Jennifer Farwell | Online Only | Oct. 4, 2010
In a bold and groundbreaking move, local and national nonprofits in New Orleans are relocating historic structures out of the footprint of the new U.S Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospital in the Lower Mid-City neighborhood. The effort, which has been both contentious and consensus-building, began after a groundswell of support rose for saving the structures.
In the first week of September, a Raleigh-based nonprofit called Builders of Hope and its contractors conducted several test moves of historic houses. The following week, the team began moving between eight and ten houses per week, and as of October 1, had moved nearly 30 structures.
So far, some of the properties have been relocated within their Mid-City National Register District. Others have been moved to the neighboring Parkview Historic District. Where the structures end up depends on lot availability, and there has been talk of taking some houses as far as the Lower Ninth Ward. In all cases, preservationists hope the houses can act as much-needed historic infill in neighborhoods where post-Katrina demolitions have left hundreds of vacant lots.
The project is saving houses that would otherwise have been destroyed for the new hospital. "Faced with the choice of demolishing or moving houses, we believe that moving them is a better, more sustainable option. However, we continue to believe that the destruction of this historic neighborhood could have been easily avoided if better planning had occurred at the outset of this process," says John Hildreth, director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Southern Office. "The National Trust continues to oppose the deeply flawed plan for the VA hospital in Lower Mid-City—a suburban-style plan that displaces what was a viable historic neighborhood containing well over a hundred historic houses and businesses painstakingly renovated since Hurricane Katrina. Despite our objections to the VA's overall plan, we support moving as many houses as possible from the VA footprint to other nearby historic neighborhoods in the city, rather than seeing them demolished and dumped in a landfill, and we commend Mayor [Mitch] Landrieu for his leadership in initiating this effort."
One of the key goals of the project is to ensure that structures that are listed as contributing to their National Register District retain that designation in their new locations. (Contributing structures are those properties that retain enough historic fabric that they contribute to the character of a National Register District.)
Achievement of that goal hinges on many factors, including how sensitively the houses are restored. Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) representatives report that if structures are not altered too dramatically by the move and are relocated to another National Register District, the National Park Service will give them conditional contributing status. After rehabilitation is complete (a process that Builders of Hope says will take six to nine months), the NPS will again evaluate them for final certification.
A Plan Emerges
The relocation idea was born in March 2010, when local groups teamed up to find best-possible locations for eight houses the Veteran's Affairs had agreed to move for property owners. (The VA initially agreed to move more houses, but only a handful of property owners accepted the terms of the offer.) In April, local attorney Malvern C. Burnett, historian Sally Reeves, and Brad Vogel, the National Trust for Historic Preservation Ed Majkrzak Historic Preservation Fellow, completed a documentation effort of the contributing structures and matched the addresses against a list of "historic and realistic to move" structures prepared by the State Historic Preservation Office.
That matching effort resulted in a booklet, later printed and distributed by the Louisiana Landmarks Society, that vividly illustrated the stark realities of what might soon be lost. Not only was the fabric of a living neighborhood being rent apart, but more than 100 historic, contributing structures (and more than 100 others that were not contributing and historic) would fall to bulldozers.
A group of preservationists, local neighborhood leaders, and supportive City Council members convened to see what could be done. At first, the odds of success seemed slim. Staunch opponents of the new hospital's location felt it was too soon to give up the fight to keep the neighborhood intact. Lawyers, engineers, and others thought it was already too late, because the city had guaranteed a site-clearing deadline of July 31, 2010, and had agreed to stiff penalties if the date wasn't met.
During the initial meetings, New Orleans Councilperson Kristin Palmer suggested bringing in Providence Community Housing, a nonprofit affordable-housing developer that has rehabilitated historic homes in New Orleans for sale or rental. Providence CEO Jim Kelly reported that the nonprofit controlled more than 60 lots but lacked the moving experience needed for the relocations. Kelly recommended engaging Builders of Hope, whose mission is to rescues homes from demolition, renovate them, and rent or sell them for affordable housing.
Builders of Hope had considerable experience moving rescued houses, but had never attempted a project of this magnitude or historic sensitivity. Furthermore, it quickly became clear that the VA would not agree to the plan unless Builders of Hope could commit to a stringent deadline, leaving a week or less to move each house after the occupants departed.
Nevertheless, the group's chief executive officer, Lew Schulman, signed on and began working with the demolition contractor to gain permission to remove the structures from the lots. Providence began matching houses with lots—not only its own, but also with lots controlled by other interested nonprofits—to ensure the largest number of houses could be moved.
The final plan to save the structures came together at the 11th hour after an agreement was reached among the VA, the state of Louisiana, and newly elected Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Landrieu proved crucial to the plan's success, as he ordered a 45-day demolition moratorium inside the hospital footprint in July 2010. He also ensured the city set aside $3.2 million (of the $79 million originally earmarked for land acquisition and site preparation) for the relocation effort.
"I am thankful to the Mayor, Jim Kelly, Builders of Hope, all the VA and state officials, and so many other people who worked to make this happen," says Patty Gay, director of New Orleans' chief preservation organization, the Preservation Resource Center. "This is an example of how much be accomplished in preservation when people put aside their differences and work together."
"A Huge Jigsaw Puzzle"
Even as the moratorium ended and demolitions began again, work proceeded. The $3.2 million allocation would fund Builders of Hope's efforts to move a targeted 100 houses that met historic benchmarks. Every property would be lifted from its foundation beforehand and placed on a specially designed, wheeled platform from which it would be hauled by tractor to its new location. Once moved to new lots, Builders of Hope, Providence, and other nonprofits would work to rehabilitate and green the structures, then make them available for sale or rental.
Challenges abounded, says Builders of Hope Gulf Coast Director Casius Pealer. "It is a huge jigsaw puzzle, and you don't have all the pieces at any one point," he says. "There might be one home we really want to save, but there might be another house in the way. The board changes every day." Also, he notes, houses—both those being moved as well as those not slated for moving and being demolished—can only be processed as families move out.
One difficulty Builders of Hope did not foresee—and which has preservationists concerned—is that the roofs are being removed from all structures to avoid power lines during the move. "We could go under all the utility lines [if they were raised], but the utility companies felt that no matter how many people they brought in, they could not possibly move enough lines to keep up with us," says Pealer. Additionally, if houses are too large or long for their new lots, or have second stories, workers sometimes take only a portion of them. Whether these partial structures, devoid of their original roofs, can regain contributing status is very much in question.
Further complicating matters, Builders of Hope has never attempted its so-called Extreme Green Rehabilitation Process (which meets United States Green Building Council's LEED criteria but involves replacing siding, windows, and other historic elements) on historic houses that may retain historic contributing status.
Making It Work
Builders of Hope and the State Historic Preservation Office both assert that the focus is squarely on making the move a success. SHPO representatives report that they pictorially document the exterior of each property on its old site as well as at its new one. They map the new old and new locations, as well, and send that information to the National Park Service, which uses this preliminary data to issue the conditional contributing status mentioned earlier. According to Hildreth, the National Trust is providing "technical assistance to Builders of Hope, and we remain willing to provide whatever assistance we can to ensure that as many houses as possible are saved."
Builders of Hope says it fully appreciates the importance of its mission, with Pealer noting that his workers are retaining original materials—and even room layouts—where possible. "Some of these houses date back to the 1800s," says Builders of Hope spokeswoman Joyce Kohn. "It is wonderful to have the opportunity to preserve them."
Kohn and others also point to the auxiliary benefits of saving the structures. Prior to the project, Kohn says, Builders of Hope had diverted an estimated 11 million pounds of debris from landfills, and the New Orleans project alone could easily top that amount.
New Orleans Councilwoman Stacy Head adds, "The moving of houses was right for so many reasons. Landfill space was saved, historic properties were saved, and neighborhoods with vacant lots will be reconstituted." Pealer points out the economic benefit to the city; it's a chance to "move an asset to a place where it can perform and contribute to the tax rolls."
Still, many locals remain divided regarding the sacrifice of a historic neighborhood for the new VA hospital, and continue to oppose the sites selected for this and the proposed adjacent University Medical Center (a project of the Louisiana State University). "There is no justification for wiping out a diverse historic neighborhood, and it is never too late to do the right thing," says Sandra Stokes, executive vice chair of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, who still hopes at least a portion of the historic neighborhood can be saved, intact. "There are alternatives on the table that are more viable financially, historically, and culturally—and faster to implement."
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