New Orleans VA's hospital plans going before public tonight

Amid growing questions about proposed hospital complexes for lower Mid-City, the public will have its first opportunity tonight to speak directly to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officials about preliminary designs for its portion of the project.

The meeting, scheduled for 6:30 to 9 p.m. at Grace Episcopal Church, 3700 Canal St., comes as some individuals and organizations representing varying interests are asking government officials to reconsider -- or at least slow down -- their plans for the adjoining federal hospital and state teaching medical center in a historic but blighted neighborhood.

And despite the session being intended only for narrow critiques of schematic designs, the meeting could become a forum for people who would rather see the state make its investment in gutting and rebuilding the old Charity Hospital from within, while finding another space for the VA.

But there is no indication from various levels of government that there will be any deviation from the current plans.

Julie Catallier, director of the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System, said in a recent interview that "we are as sure as we can be of anything" that the VA hospital will be built in lower Mid-City.

Jeff Thomas, a deputy to city Recovery Director Ed Blakely, echoed that sentiment and said the city is on track to meet its obligation to provide the VA with the necessary land by a Nov. 24 deadline.

And at the state level, state Health Secretary Alan Levine said recently that neither he nor Gov. Bobby Jindal has seen "anything compelling enough" to convince them that the state should alter its plans to build a $1.2 billion academic medical complex alongside the VA hospital.

The side-by-side projects would cover the more than 70 acres bounded by South Claiborne Avenue, Tulane Avenue, South Rocheblave Street and Canal Street, while effectively extending downtown north of Claiborne to fulfill some officials' long-simmering visions of an expanded biomedical corridor.

Opponents of the projects continue to argue that the planning process has been perfunctory, with Louisiana State University bent on a new hospital even before Hurricane Katrina led them to shutter Charity Hospital, and with city officials focused after the storm on keeping the VA in New Orleans.

In particular, critics say the public planning meetings that have occurred are too restrictive, isolating the decisions of site selection, design and the use of the existing Veterans and Charity hospital buildings rather than considering all the issues in the larger context.

Critics also lament that the city's master planning process has not been more integrated with the hospital planning. Tonight's meeting occurs at the same time as a community meeting for the master plan's District 1, which includes the old Charity and VA.

More than 50 groups, from neighborhood alliances to the American Planning Association, have asked the City Council to hold public hearings on the projects and for Jindal to order an independent review of competing proposals for a new state hospital versus a rebuild within Charity's shell.

Several City Council members have endorsed the idea of some kind of public sessions, but they also have said the supremacy of the state and federal governments strips city officials of any actual authority over site selection or design.

The council has long been on record supporting the Mid-City site. In 2007, the panel unanimously endorsed joining the Regional Planning Commission and others in proposing the lower-Mid-City site to the federal government.

The VA announced its site selection publicly in November 2008, after a series of required public meetings during which officials from the city, state and federal government made presentations about potential sites and heard comments from hundreds of residents.

Tonight's meeting, described as the second phase of that mandated "environmental assessment, " is expected to follow a similar format.

Citizens were limited to two minutes each, and transcripts show that they sometimes asked questions that were not answered by the government officials in attendance. Rather, authorities told them that their comments would be noted in the record.

No follow-up meetings for the design phase have been announced. The state's architectural team also has not announced any public sessions. Thomas said the VA expects a final schematic in June, with the state to follow within months.

The two architectural teams met in January with an invited list of "consulting parties, " but that session was not open to the public. Since that meeting, the two design groups have said they are collaborating in response to critiques from consulting parties.


"New Orleans VA's hospital plans going before public tonight"
by Bill Barrow, The Times-Picayune
Thursday April 16, 2009