Does this sound vaguely familiar to you? East Baltimore's overly ambitious biosciences district, after a decade in limbo, has failed, as revealed in an investigative report by The Daily Record. After spending millions of public dollars to raze dozens of acres and displace hundreds of people, the project has failed to attract the signficant private investment that it needs.
The lesson from this sorry tale should be clear to New Orleanians: we need to increase skepticism of the 1,500-acre BioDistrict New Orleans, which encompasses Charity Hospital. If we don't, the results could be disastrous for a huge portion of Mid-City and Gert Town. We could be the next East Baltimore - razed for next to nothing. Even now, we continue to see demolitions and site preparation in the UMC Footprint in Lower Mid-City, despite the lack of funding for the project. And Charity and nine of its outbuildings remain vacant in the CBD, as does the former VA hospital complex.
There are some lingering uncertainties about the BioDistrict viewed in light of the Baltimore example. At a recent neighborhood meeting, SaveCharityHospital.com asked the head of the BioDistrict why his project was different from East Baltimore. The response: essentially, the LSU/VA hospitals would be the lynchpin of the district.
However, another person in attendance asked what the BioDistrict would do if funding did not come through for the UMC Hospital (Jim McNamara said the BioDistrict was dependent upon the UMC getting funding at a meeting in the fall). This didn't seem to worry AECOM, planner for the BioDistrict, even though it's a real concern at this point. A representative from the company simply said it would reduce the level of residential units that must be built in the district (which is an entirely different concern - why are mid-rise residential developments such an important part of a district that's supposed to be building biosciences infrastructure?).
So, it's unclear at this point how BioDistrict New Orleans will be different. The driving engines that it claims will make it different are not even built. And it looks like one of them might not ever get built, the way things are going - the UMC start date was recently pushed back all the way to 2015 (10 years after Katrina! We could have had Charity reopened long ago). In the meantime, the BioDistrict continues to destabilize large parts of Mid-City by injecting uncertainty into the neighborhoods about future development.
Would you want to invest in a home that might get demolished in the next five years to make way for a biomedical light industrial park? The BioDistrict keeps saying it doesn't have eminent domain powers - but it has the ability to enter into Cooperative Endeavor Agreements. And as we saw in the LSU/VA footprints, that's a backdoor route that can be used to expropriate - other governmental entities can simply do the dirty work of taking property.
What can you do to ensure that BioDistrict New Orleans doesn't end in a Baltimore-style implosion? For one, try to take this survey at the BioDistrict's website and give your input on the consolidated scheme for the district.