Five Unanswered Questions for Federal, State and Local Officials

January 5, 2009

Despite Post-Katrina recovery efforts, Charity Hospital’s doors were permanently locked when the building was deemed unsafe and unusable by the Louisiana State University Medical System. Today, the iconic building’s future remains uncertain.
The dust had not even settled from the demolition of 4,500 historic public housing units in New Orleans this past spring when the next major federally-funded demolition project began gathering steam and generating both questions and controversy.

This time, the proposed project is a massive new medical complex, which includes two independent components — a new VA medical center, funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and a proposal to replace historic Charity Hospital with a new Louisiana State University (LSU) academic medical center, to be funded in part by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The proposed sites for the two facilities would require bulldozing at least 15 square blocks of the Mid-City National Register Historic District, including at least 165 historic homes. For this reason, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Charity Hospital and the Lower Mid-City neighborhood on its 2008 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

Under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, federal agencies are required to consider the effects of their actions on historic properties that are listed in (or eligible for) the National Register of Historic Places before funding, licensing or otherwise proceeding with projects that may affect those properties. However, although federal agencies must seek ways to avoid, minimize and mitigate harm to historic properties, Section 106 does not require that harm be avoided.

What you can do
E-mail Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, or call his office toll-free at 866-366-1121.
E-mail Louisiana Secretary of Health and Hospitals Alan Levine or call his office at 225-342-9500.
E-mail The Honorable James B. Peake, Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
As is often the case, the National Trust has participated very actively in the Section 106 consultation process for the proposed medical centers. Advocacy and comments by the Trust, its members, and its state and local partners have been extremely influential in the consultation process and in defining major components of a proposed mitigation package. While we are working hard to prevent the process from becoming merely another step in a procedural check list before demolition of the Mid-City neighborhood goes forward, the following five unresolved questions remain critical to the future of this historic neighborhood.

Question 1: Why are the alternatives being ignored?

Located just one mile from the area slated for demolition for the VA facility, the Lindy Boggs site is not only outside the boundaries of any historic district, but would not require the demolition of a single home or historic property. As for LSU, rehabbing the iconic Charity Hospital, as shown in a recent study commissioned by the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, would be 22% less expensive and two years faster than current plans requiring demolition and new construction. However, despite the compelling arguments in favor of both of these alternatives, officials remain intent on proceeding with the most destructive, expensive and time-consuming options.

Question 2: Why is the proposed mitigation so minimal compared to the magnitude of the proposed destruction?

After persistent advocacy by the National Trust and its partners, a mitigation package was introduced that would allocate up to $1.4 million into Mid-City through grants to historic properties if the demolition goes forward. The funds — requiring a match from a homeowner — would apply to properties outside the construction footprint. However, the proposed amount simply would not go far enough to compensate this historic neighborhood for its losses. The combined budget for both new medical centers totals an estimated $1.875 billion, meaning that the proposed mitigation fund would be less than one tenth of 1 percent of the project budget. Even the most optimistic projections of how the $1.4 million would be distributed estimate that only about 60 historic properties would actually receive assistance, which is just over one third of the number of historic properties facing the wrecking ball.

Question 3: Why are other measures to avoid or minimize the destruction of historic properties being rejected?

Leveling 15-20 square blocks of a historic neighborhood and at least 165 historic buildings will not go unfelt and unnoticed; the void created by losing historic properties to a multi-million dollar medical complex will be stark, and the character of this largely residential neighborhood will be irreparably altered. Yet, when important action items are proposed to actually avoid and minimize the harm of these projects, Federal, State and Local officials have consistently failed to include them in the mitigation package. For example, the National Trust has pushed for reducing the size of the project footprints through consolidation of parking into structures rather than sprawling surface lots, as well as through careful planning that could avoid the “scorched earth” approach to demolition. Yet the agencies have refused to commit to any planning process that would be designed to reduce the project footprint in this manner. The National Trust has also pushed for commitments to ensure that demolition and construction are carefully phased in order to avoid the ghosts of “urban renewal,” with acres and acres of land lying vacant for years. These proposals were also brushed aside.

Question 4: Where is the financing for the LSU facility?

As opposed to the $675 million that has already been appropriated by Congress for the VA Medical Center, funding for the $1.2 billion LSU facility is still largely up in the air. Yet the City and State plan to bulldoze the entire site as soon as the project is approved. This area could then lie vacant for years while financing is arranged and individual phases of the project are planned. Immediate safeguards are needed to protect Mid-City from losing entire sections of its historic core to demolition for a project which, in the case of LSU, could be many years away from realization.

Question 5: What’s being done to protect the adjacent Mid-City blocks that are not currently facing demolition?
Designation as a local historic district would provide Mid-City and its distinctive shotgun houses with the strongest protection from bulldozers in the future. To date, however, the city of New Orleans has only committed to “fund a report that could be used to nominate” Mid-City for local designation, and has given itself a full two years to provide the funding. By that time, speculative demolition and development by private investors in the adjacent Mid-City blocks could already be rampant. The City’s financial offer needs to carry with it a commitment to support and carry out local historic district designation and to increase funding for the Historic District Landmarks Commission, which will be responsible for its implementation. Additionally, a demolition moratorium needs to be enacted to protect historic properties in Mid-City while the designation process is underway. This can be a crucial counter-weight to the mounting pressure the neighborhood will face if the VA and LSU projects are constructed as currently planned.


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