The illusion of momentum: state sets premature "groundbreaking" ceremony for UMC hospital

Bobby Jindal and company, aided and abetted by local media figures, would have you believe that all is well with the proposed University Medical Center - that there's momentum, there's progress.

Well, here's the deal.  The second hospital in Lower Mid-City is no done deal.  The so-called "groundbreaking" ceremony apparently planned for the UMC on April 18 at 11:15 a.m. is entirely premature.

While we want healthcare back online here in New Orleans, and we'd like to see the regeneration of jobs, those things would not come solely via the poorly planned disaster in Lower Mid-City.  They would come even if the hospital re-opened in the old Charity Hospital building.  And they would have come sooner if the state had simply gone back into Charity at the beginning.

Let's look at the math first and foremost.  They don't have the money.  The state has $800 million for a project that, if built as designed, would cost $1.2 billion.  The UMC Board has not acquired HUD mortgage insurance to cover that $400 million gap as far as we can tell.  At this point, all signs appear to indicate that the UMC will not get the funds - (our guess: UMC will frame the failure to attain funds as merely a decision to "not apply for funds" at all, claim that the first rounds of its application efforts were merely "pre-applications", and therefore claim that it was never rejected).  Governor Bobby Jindal and Jim McNamara, President fo the BioDistrict, have both recently appeared on tv suggesting other ways forward than via HUD funding for the full project.

The state's chief reason for shuttering Charity hospital was it needed land and space for a larger modern hospital (and shared facilities with the new VA hospital - which was long ago revealed as an illusion).  Now, figures like Jim McNamara - (who is strangely fixated on the fate of the UMC hospital these days despite saying at a January public meeting that it's not crucial to the success of the BioDistrict) - say that the UMC should simply build a smaller hospital in the existing UMC Footprint - where much of the property was acquired via expropriation. 

No. 

The state and the UMC should go into Charity Hospital if a smaller hospital is ultimately what's in the works.  Experts showed it was possible with even a larger hospital.  Jindal's vague talk of junk bonds and third party developers contained absolutely no details about how that would work or what developers would be involved.  This thing stinks to high heaven.

The groundbreaking is also premature for other reasons.  It is premature because the state still does not have title to all of the parcels in the UMC Footprint, as far as we can tell.  The state has not resolved legal claims with the Blood Center or the Orleans Parish School Board, among other landowners.  There is still no finalized plan for the fate of McDonogh No. 11 School.  And it doesn't seem clear if any historic houses will move off the site as the state promised.

Most importantly, though, is this fact: the City of New Orleans has yet to revoke the public streets in the UMC Footprint - a legal step that is necessary if the project is going to proceed as planned (the hospital buildings will be crushing what is now street grid).  Revocation of the public streets is seemingly the last bit of leverage that the city has over the state on this project.  The City Planning Commission will consider revocation of ALL of the streets in the UMC Footprint at a hearing on April 12, 2011 at 1 p.m. in City Council Chambers at City Hall.  We encourage you to attend and advocate for the retention of the streets so that the city retains control over the project in some way - perhaps a phased revocation that actually ties to the state's ability to fund the project.  As far as we know, the City Council also needs to approve the street revocation...and it's unclear that the council will be able to do that before the projected April 18 "groundbreaking."  There is no regular council meeting scheduled for the window between April 12 and April 18.

Here's another meeting you might want to attend: April 7, 2011 at 1 p.m. in the LSU Health Sciences Center Lions Clinic Building, 2020 Gravier Street, New Orleans, Louisiana in the Isadore Cohn Student Learning Center, 6th floor.  At this next UMC Board meeting, we may finally learn something about the attempt to procure HUD mortgage insurance funding.  If you want to give public comment to the board - urge them to keep McDonogh No. 11 School in place or not revoke all the streets, for example - be sure to arrive at least 30 minutes early to sign up as required.

Bottom line: the state and UMC - - (read: LSU) may be quite adept at convincing media sources that everything is peachy with respect to the proposed hospital.  But oh, it is not.