Tribune: "Charity is More Than a Hospital"

New Orleans Tribune: "Charity is More Than a Hospital, New Deal Era Idea and Art Deco Monument"
by Robert Tannen

Planning for the existing and new health and bio-medical district in New Orleans has so far failed to reflect a long history of respecting New Orleans unique neighborhoods, adaptive reuse of historic and vacant real estate, and working with citizens, stakeholders and property owners to develop a consensus on a workable plan for development.

Instead, a process characterized by planning behind closed doors, routine public meetings to meet federal and other requirements, ignoring citizen opposition, and failing to examine workable alternative plans for a critically needed medical district. No neighborhood, organization, preservationist, or planning group has expressed opposition to a health and bio-medical district. An unprecedented alliance of close to fifty neighborhood associations, preservation leaders, health industry representatives, and planners has called for a more transparent, rational and comprehensive analysis of alternative sites for two new hospitals, and an examination of best land use plans for the existing and proposed neighborhoods.

As director of planning for Curtis and Davis Architects and Planners in 1972, I proposed, and the firm was selected by the administration of Mayor Moon Landrieu, to conduct a study of affordable and decent housing needs of all New Orleans neighborhoods and to determine means of stopping or reducing demolition of historic and other neighborhoods and buildings, which was rampant then in the city, while also to determine ways of supporting rehabilitation and new development in appropriate areas of the city in an open planning process. In 1972 the only historic district was the Vieux Carre. The study recommended improvements through code enforcement, small neighborhood parks, a group of new historic districts within 19th and early 20th century neighborhoods and the Historic Districts Landmark Commission as well as a conservation zoning ordinance. The historic districts and HDLC were approved but not the parks and conservation zoning ordinance.

That study initiated three decades of citywide support for historic restoration, adaptive use, preservation and the integrity of neighborhoods. It also initiated the widespread belief that our city could protect neighborhoods while encouraging new development, both as infill in the city’s old footprint, as well as in newly developing areas in the core city, thus creating a uniquely historic and modern city at a time when urban renewal strategies were destroying large swaths of other American cities. This strategy of balancing rehabilitation, restoration and preservation with new construction prevented the wholesale destruction of older neighborhoods, yet the appeal of newer suburban neighborhoods at the time contributed to a depopulation of the older neighborhoods that left them significantly blighted. A counter trend of interest in reuse of the older neighborhoods and residences was undermined by the city’s failing economy, the opening of new areas in New Orleans East and in other suburban parishes and the collapsing public school system.

In the planning of Expo 84 an effort was made to use existing warehouses as much as possible thereby providing the catalyst for the warehouse, residential and arts district as well as riverfront development. A restored area evolved into a thriving urban center filled with apartments, restaurants, stores and cultural venues. A large festival marketplace filled the wharf buildings where the fair stood, joined soon by an aquarium, pedestrian parks, an expansion of the convention center, and further multi family housing development upriver from the convention center.

The redevelopment of the American Can Company factory as a multi family development demonstrated that adaptive reuse could also benefit neighborhoods outside the downtown core of the city, and that there was a growing market for such multi family developments.

It is not too late to profit from the experiences of the past four decades in New Orleans, and quickly reorganize the planning process to achieve consensus and a green light and solution for a badly needed health and bio-medical district.

In the current draft Master Plan recently released by consultants to the City Planning Commission, planners project the market for both affordable market rate housing in the city’s core will grow as a national trend brings more empty nesters, young millenials, and families back into urban core areas. The lack of a citywide housing policy, rigorous housing analysis and unilaterally developed plans do not facilitate redevelopment of the city’s core.

After Katrina, federal housing officials demanded the demolition of 4,000 or more units of public housing in sturdy two and three story brick buildings that survived the storm virtually undamaged as a condition for new housing funds. City and state officials failed to question those demands, allowing demolition even as other American cities such as Philadelphia challenged the process.

Now LSU and the VA repeat that process by suggesting to move planned hospitals outside the city unless their plans go forward as proposed. These plans involve the destruction of neighborhoods that residents returning after the storm have painstakingly restored, and the failure to fully examine restoration alternatives.

These plans also fail to examine potential adaptive reuse of over 2 million square feet of empty buildings and sites in close proximity to the existing medical complex and adjacent to the city’s central business district. The plan assumes commercial and other uses related to the bio medical district will fill those spaces. This speculation would hold much greater promise if the planned hospitals were not relocated away from that area.

Equally important, there has been an irresponsible lack of consideration for the interim health needs of the clients of the former medical center. It is estimated it will take more time to build a new hospital than to rebuild Charity. It is also estimated that it will cost more to build new rather than build within the substantial shell of Charity.

We have entered a new grassroots, or bottom-up leadership phase of New Orleans history during this post-Katrina New Orleans. We have had extraordinary public involvement in neighborhood planning through several cycles beginning with the ULI planning effort followed by BNOB planning, the Lambert planning, the UNOP planning and now the Master Planning and Zoning program. Neighborhood associations throughout the city are more engaged now than ever before. On the other hand, public officials, public agencies and some nonprofit organizations involved in the planning of the new bio-medical district ignored the voices of the neighborhoods in their effort to move the project forward without open citizen participation in the planning process. They have also tried to ignore an independent study conducted by a leading hospital planning consultant commissioned by the Foundation for Historical Louisiana to determine the feasibility of building a new hospital within a gutted Charity Hospital building.

The concept underlying the current LSU plan harks back to a discredited urban renewal process of utilizing large cleared and contiguous sites in an urban core, destroying neighborhoods in the process. The practice, common in the 1950s and 1960s is totally inconsistent with the character and history of combining old and new development in close proximity in New Orleans. Restoration of 19th and 20th century buildings is common to New Orleans. LSU’s concept of developing a suburban model of new subdivision-like development may be appropriate and consistent within new suburbs, like those in St. Tammany Parish and elsewhere. It is inappropriate and inconsistent with New Orleans’ older, small, culturally and historically significant inner city neighborhoods. Adaptive reuse of existing buildings and sites is also the norm for older historic cities and towns throughout the world. This form of urban development was pioneered in the Vieux Carre beginning in the early 20th Century.

The underutilized and vacant commercial buildings, warehouses parking lots and office space bounded by Loyola Avenue, I-10, Galvez and Tulane Avenue with some facilities on Canal Street, offers sufficient space that can accommodate an expanded, consolidated state of the art medical district that would become the health center and economic driver all health, public officials and citizens want to see developed. Such an approach may seem more complicated than the urban renewal or suburban subdivision development approach, yet creative planners, architects and engineers would produce an urban design and New Orleans style health and bio-medical center that could move faster to fulfillment than the present plan opposed by many citizens and neighborhood organizations.

Moreover, a rehabilitated former Charity Hospital would be the right centerpiece for the restored downtown medical center surrounded by newly occupied buildings such as the New Orleans Centre, several office towers, warehouses between Poydras and the Pontchartrain Expressway plus the former Jung Hotel and several other vacant or available office buildings, so called class “B” and “C” buildings.

A legitimate alternative analysis should explore reconfiguring the existing medical district with the former Charity Hospital as the LSU Medical Center, adjacent to the Tulane Medical Center, the VA Hospital site, medical research facilities, clinics, student dormitories and offices in comparison to the proposed new relocated health and bio-medical district. In both cases the studies should consider the combination of all related facilities and services in each area, the extent of residential neighborhood development in each area and other land uses that support viable neighborhoods.

The proposed and former medical districts should be viewed not just as groups of buildings left vacant, demolished or to be filled with health workers, researchers, residents and customers. They are key areas important to the functioning of a healthy business district and metropolitan area, filled with opportunities for further development, and places for people to live, work and enjoy life. They are an intrinsic part of the community of neighborhoods and surrounding suburbs. In the case of the existing and proposed medical districts, these questions about former and present uses, as well as present and interim services during a long construction period, and future uses must be addressed by citizens, professional planners, stakeholders and public decision makers.

New Orleans preservationists and neighborhood leaders often speak of the importance of the “Tout Ensemble”, or the whole neighborhood. We have not, but still can consider the former or relocated medical centers as parts of whole neighborhoods. We should also consider the future downtown development and business district of New Orleans as a new adjacent mix of business, health, science, research, education, housing, culture, conventions and tourism and as a means of attracting more people back to the inner city.

In my judgment we have not addressed these questions systematically including the timing, costs and benefits of adaptive reuse of the former downtown health and bio-medical center sites and the proposed new site plan. We have rushed to move ahead with a plan without public consensus, or a comprehensive and bold vision of the future downtown New Orleans.


Original Article: "Charity is More Than a Hospital, New Deal Era Idea and Art Deco Monument"
by Robert Tannen
Accessed Tuesday, April 28, 2009