The U. S. Veterans Administration has announced the final location to build a new hospital complex in New Orleans, a decision that could displace hundreds of homeowners.
The proposed site is to be 70 acres bounded by Tulane Avenue, Canal Street, Claiborne Avenue and South Rocheblave, where there currently stands a predominantly African-American neighborhood containing gabled Victorian homes constructed in the late 19th.
The concept is to build two separate hospital buildings that share laundry and other operational structures, but would both be close enough to the downtown campuses of Tulane and LSU Medical Schools to create the synergy of a downtown medical complex.
The new VA hospital in partnership with LSU could include approximately 200 beds and with a $2 billion investment.
Thousands of jobs are expected to emerge from the development of the site, according to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin at a recent press conference that included top officials from the Veterans Administration and the state. The investment of a new hospital near downtown was touted as a major stimulus to a floundering economy in New Orleans area post-Katrina and be a major boost to the health care industry.
For the homeowners in the historic neighborhood that will soon face bulldozers, the state is expected to pay fair market value for property owners in the area. The state is also expected to help with relocation expenses. The full reaction by property owners is certainly now unknown. It might be necessary for the government to exercise eminent domain powers.
The Mayor and fellow city leaders described the 27-block area as a center "of blight", worthy of destruction. However as author Jennifer Farwell has noted, "Despite the perception by many that the area is filled with largely blighted homes and run-down commercial structures, residents say it just isn't so. In fact, they say their neighborhood is better since Katrina than ever before, and they're mystified as to why the complex couldn't have been built somewhere else."
The abandoned Lindy Boggs Hospital near Claiborne Ave. and a site in Jefferson Parish owned by Ochsner Health Systems were both in the running for the LSU/VA hospital. Neither required displacement of a neighborhood, but critics complained that the locations were too far from downtown New Orleans.
Farwell spoke to residents of the neighborhood, and found that most are confused as to why their homes were targeted.
Like many in the area, Nurse Gaynell Blatcher-Thornton says she's not against the medical complex because she realizes the city needs the health care facilities. However, she says, "there are so many other areas they could have used. They haven't even decided what to do with Charity Hospital and the old [Veteran's Administration] facilities." Blatcher-Thornton and others point to the land across Tulane Ave., much of which houses burned out and vacant buildings, and to flooded buildings around City Hall, some of which still sit unoccupied.
Beth Bergman, who is on the board of the area recovery organization, PNOLA (Phoenix New Orleans), agreed. She explained many homes in the sector experienced little or no flooding (including her own on S. Prieur St.). She says the area is approximately 50 percent reoccupied - with many more renovations stalled due to uncertainty - and has one of the lowest crime rates in the city.
Bobbi Rogers, who lives in the VA target area on Palmyra, concurred in an interview with Farwell. "We think the VA is good for the city, but they don't need to tear down these houses. City Hall's attitude is, 'There is nothing we can do about it. The VA had special conditions and this was the only land that worked for them.' They also keep saying they cannot tear down Charity because it's an historic building. But what about tearing down 200 historic houses?"
For Rogers, the loss is intensely personal, not only because of the house she is restoring - which she says "took a lot of time to fall in love with" because of the damage - but because of her volunteer work here. She and her husband, Kevin Krause, came to New Orleans from Phoenix in March 2006 on a six-week volunteer stint. They fell in love with the neighborhood and the people and decided to "put our money where our mouth was."
They spent a year with Americorps, working with hundreds of other volunteers restoring the blocks that LSU and the VA now want to demolish.
Still Farwell noted on the Preservation Resource Center's website that despite their disappointment with the destruction of the neighborhood, many residents are resigned to the project, believing, as Blatcher-Thornton says, "We can't do much to stop it."
Also at question are historic gathering places within the neighborhood. The 100-year-old Deutsche Haus at 200 S. Galvez is the well-known center of Octoberfests and other cultural gatherings for New Orleanians. While some of the buildings centering on Tulane Ave. and Canal St. may be converted for hospital administrative use, the Deutsche Haus is slated for the battering ram.
All over New Orleans, signs have gone up proclaiming "Save the Haus," but to little reaction from city officials. The entire neighborhood was been ranked the 11th most endangered historic area according to the National Foundation for Historic Preservation.
The irony, explains Johnny Adriani, a critic of the VA/LSU endeavor, "is that we could rebuild Charity Hospital for a fraction of the cost...and no one would have to lose their home."
In an interview with The Louisiana Weekly, Adriani noted that a reconstruction of the "Big Charity" hospital on Tulane could be undertaken for less than $500 million, or less than a fourth of the proposed LSU/VA project's cost.
"We could put the VA on the empty parking lots on the other side of the interstate. There could be a downtown hospital as everyone desires, but without the loss...Besides they estimate that building a new hospital will take three years. Reconstructing Charity could be done in eight months. Can our medical schools survive years without a teaching hospital? Can indigent care last that long?"
The Veterans Administration, though, pointed to a post-Oklahoma City bombing regulation that new federal buildings could not be situated beside other complexes to minimize the risk of potential explosions. Consequently, many of the square blocks that will be razed under the plan will be turned into empty parking lots.
The VA had resisted the downtown site, though. As recently as March of 2007, Jim Nicholson, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, said that the VA was considering building a new hospital "somewhere in the Greater New Orleans area," but not necessarily downtown.
Nicholson was not specific as to what he meant, but the manager of the local VA Hospital Benjamin Campo told The Louisiana Weekly that the Secretary meant "the Greater New Orleans area, as the Department of Commerce would define it."
In other words, he explained, the location of a new hospital "would not cross the Mississippi River [and] would not cross the Lake [Pontchartrain]."
"We're looking at something within 10 to 20 minutes" drive from the current Central Business District location he explained to The Weekly over a year ago. But, when pushed at to whether the VA would support a downtown site near LSU Medical Center, Tulane Medical Center, the Delgado Nursing School, and other elements of the New Orleans Medical Complex were located, he replied, "If you mean a hospital built in the same location...then I would have to answer no."
Under pressure from local leaders dreaming of the economic synergy of a single medical complex, the VA revised its decision and agreed to the downtown site.
Still, the New Orleans City Council has yet to sign a resolution that the land between Tulane and Canal will be acquired by eminent domain. Without such a Council ordinance the process of displacing the neighborhood cannot commence.