Picayune: City Planning Commission sets forum on new VA and LSU hospitals

After months of calling for such a meeting, critics of plans for new Veterans Affairs and Louisiana State University hospitals in New Orleans will get a chance Thursday to voice their opinions to a city agency.

Many of the critics, however, are likely to be disappointed with the results and even the format of the session.

The City Planning Commission will hold the meeting in the City Council chamber at City Hall. It is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. and to run as long as five hours.

Under special rules approved Tuesday by the commission, members of the public wishing to speak must sign up by 7 p.m. They will be limited to three minutes each and may not ask to allocate their time to another speaker.

The commission has emphasized that it does not have jurisdiction over the $2 billion hospital projects in lower Mid-City and does not intend to take any action as a result of today's session, which is being termed a "special forum" rather than a public hearing because the commission has nothing on its agenda requiring a vote.

Planning Director Yolanda Rodriguez said information gathered at the meeting will be reviewed by those writing the city's master plan, now under preparation by a team of consultants led by the Boston planning firm Goody Clancy.

Under the format approved by the commission, the forum is scheduled to begin with presentations of up to 15 minutes each by the city's Office of Recovery and Development Administration, the LSU system, the Foundation for Historical Louisiana and, perhaps, FEMA. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also was invited but is not expected to participate.

The historical foundation hired the well-known architectural and planning firm RMJM Hillier to conduct an independent assessment of the Charity Hospital building that has been closed since Hurricane Katrina. That study found the building to be structurally sound and suitable for renovation into a modern hospital.

Critics of the LSU plan say renovating Charity would be cheaper and quicker than building a new state hospital, would put one of the city's landmark buildings back into commerce and would avoid the need to demolish several blocks of a historic neighborhood.

LSU officials have said the idea of renovating the 70-year-old, storm-damaged Charity is unrealistic.

Even though the foundation will be allowed to present its conclusions, some opponents of the LSU plan have complained that their side will be given less time to present its case than the combined time offered to those favoring the LSU and VA plans.

Mayor Ray Nagin last year signed an agreement to amass the land for the VA hospital, which would occupy the upper portion of a footprint bounded by South Rocheblave Street, Tulane Avenue, South Claiborne Avenue and Canal Street. Galvez Street would divide the VA campus from a new state academic medical center anchored by LSU.

The VA hopes to open its hospital in 2012. The state is aiming for a 2013 opening, though financing questions remain for the estimated $1.2 billion venture.

Several dozen community and national groups, including preservationists, neighborhood associations and the American Planning Association, have criticized the current planning process for the hospitals as insufficient.

They have called for an independent review of the plans and for making the plans subject to the city's master plan process. They also want the City Council officially to express its opinion on the LSU and VA proposals -- something the council has showed no inclination to do.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation filed a lawsuit May 1 trying to block land acquisition and construction work for the two hospitals.

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, named the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and FEMA as defendants. FEMA is involved because the state plans to help pay for its portion of the project using its yet-to-be-determined federal reimbursement for Katrina damage to Charity.

The suit alleges that the VA and FEMA erred when they and the city declared as part of a required federal review that building the hospitals would have "no significant impact" on the Mid-City neighborhood. If the court agrees, hospital construction would be delayed significantly, though not necessarily derailed or steered away from the currently planned site.

Bruce Eggler can be reached at beggler@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3320.


Original Article: "City Planning Commission sets forum on new VA and LSU hospitals"

by Bruce Eggler | The Times-Picayune

Wednesday May 27, 2009, 6:30 p.m.