The New Orleans City Planning Commission recently approved the final draft of the city's master plan. The master plan includes two chapters, one on historic preservation and the other on environmental quality. The goals listed in the historic preservation chapter include "Encouraging adaptive-reuse of historic structures that contribute to overall neighborhood character and quality of life," and making New Orleans a model city of "sustainable historic preservation." The goals listed in the environmental chapter include achieving Smart Growth patterns by encouraging mixed-use, walkable and "bikeable" neighborhoods; "renovating and reusing existing public facilities or other available buildings wherever possible" and "requiring all municipal facilities to adopt sustainable building practices."
New Orleans has always been the leader in historic preservation and sustainability. New Orleans created the Vieux Carre' Commission in 1936, and was one of the first cities to recognize the importance of the tout ensemble of a neighborhood, that is that a collection of individual historic buildings, even buildings that would be of little significance on their own, are more worthy of preservation as a group. This initiative has preserved the Vieux Carre' neighborhood that presently exists, and today the City of New Orleans, with its 18 National Register Districts and 13 local historic districts, has the largest number of historic districts than any other city in the United States. The historic neighborhoods of New Orleans are often referenced and pictured in books and publication on the New Urbanism and Smart Growth, making New Orleans a leader in sustainability long before Make It Right and Global Green were established.
It is therefore discouraging to go further into the city's master plan and see that the land use plan for the area bounded by Canal Street, South Rocheblave Street, Banks Street, Tulane Avenue and Claiborne Avenue, the area known as the site of the proposed LSU/VA Hospitals, has been designated as "Mixed-Use Health/Life Sciences Neighborhood" when there is presently no such health facility located in this area. I wonder how a proposal to build two large hospital facilities that requires eviction of residents and business owners, and the demolition and disposal of 24 city blocks of an established historic district, including the relocation of streets and infrastructure, fits into a master plan with goals of historic preservation and sustainability. I also wonder how the abandonment of the existing Charity Hospital building, which is suitable for a complete renovation into a first class teaching hospital, and the further degradation of the current medical district into an urban ghetto of vacant buildings, fits into the master plan's goals of historic preservation and encouraging "renovating and reusing existing public facilities...wherever possible." Some of the affected property owners repaired their Katrina damaged homes with Road Home grants, a complete waste of tax payer dollars if these same houses are to be demolished.
I cannot believe that the drafters of the master plan would have authored a master plan with goals that are contradictory to the proposed land use plan. I can only conclude that the land use plan was purposely manipulated to suit the LSU and VA Hospital projects. The process for establishing the land use in these blocks is vastly different than the process for establishing the land use everywhere else, which included lengthy planning sessions involving the input of residents. In the footprint of the LSU and VA hospitals, the residents and business owners affected by the proposed hospitals have no say over the future development of their neighborhood. It also sets up a dangerous precedent where a politically connected developer can have the master plan modified to conform to whatever the developer wishes to propose.
The City of New Orleans finds itself back where we started.
The next day I learn that a federal arbitration panel, swayed by testimony from biased architects and engineers who have a stake in the new hospital design in closed-door hearings, has awarded Louisiana $475 million dollars for the Katrina damages to Charity Hospital, and have concluded that the building was damaged beyond 50 percent. This could have been received as great news, allowing the state to proceed with the conversion of old Charity Hospital into a first class teaching hospital, sparing the relocation of residents and businesses and the destruction of Mid City, and at little cost to the state. Work could start immediately since the state already owns Charity and doesn't have to acquire any property. What's more, the project could be completed in 3 years. A study done by RMJM Hillier, a renowned architectural firm that specializes in both health care facilities and historic preservation, substantiates the claim that Charity can be renovated for less time and for less money, particularly since the building is presently closed, allowing for a single phase renovation rather than the costly multi-phased, piece-meal renovations that are typical of hospitals having to remain open during construction. To renovate a closed hospital is a rare opportunity presented to Louisiana. Preservationists trying to convince state and local officials to abandon the current plan in favor of renovating Charity Hospital are looked upon as "obstructionists" when in fact they are trying to encourage LSU to take the path of least resistance.
LSU and proponents of the new hospital claim that the only way to achieve a state-of-the-art teaching hospital is to build from the ground up, as if a complete gutting of Charity will only yield a hospital that is the equivalent of Pre-Katrina Charity. If Charity were gutted in accordance with RMJM Hillier's recommendations, all that would remain is the brick and limestone exterior walls, and the concrete and steel building skeleton; everything else, the interiors, fixtures and equipment would be new and state-of-the art. All the building's systems including HVAC, plumbing, electrical, medical gases, laboratory wastes, fire sprinkler systems, etc. would also be new and would be equivalent to new construction installations.
Unfortunately, LSU is proceeding with their original plans for construction of the new facility and the abandonment of the existing Charity Hospital facility. The $475 million combined with $300 million still falls short of the estimated cost of $1.2 billion required for the facility, therefore requiring additional financing by the state. The time estimate for the LSU Hospital is 7 years of construction following the time spent acquiring property, from an article in "Top Construction Projects 2009" a supplement of City Business, published in February of last year.
What is more unfortunate is that the proposed hospital design is deliberately suburban. It could have been designed to fit on as little as four city blocks by stacking the patient bedroom floors on top of the diagnostic/treatment "podium," which is typical of urban hospitals; and stacking the physical plant and parking garages. This would result in a hospital that is 12 to 14 stories tall, with a minimal footprint and less demolition of historic structures. Instead, 12 blocks were assigned for the site, so the design response is a low rise facility with the patient bedroom floors connected to the diagnostic/treatment facility via pedestrian bridges. To the east of the site, and providing a substantial buffer from the established medical district downtown, is a vast amount of surface parking that would rival in size the surface parking lots of the Esplanade Mall.
Instead of New Orleans moving forward to achieve goals of historic preservation and sustainability, we are moving backwards.
Michael Rouchell, architect