Last-ditch effort tries to reshape drastic proposal for hospital project in New Orleans

New Urban News
Jul-Aug 2010
Issue Date: 
Thu, 2010-07-15
Page Number: 
David Dixon of Goody Clancy and Associates is advising the City of New Orleans on how to prevent an urban debacle — the wiping clear of 25 blocks in Lower Mid-City New Orleans to make way for new medical institutions on two huge superblocks. If his suggestions are taken to heart, the city may yet avert or soften the ill-conceived hospital plan.

Because of the peculiar politics of New Orleans and Louisiana, plans had long been moving forward to demolish a large swatch of historically significant houses and build a new Veterans Affairs hospital and a Louisiana State University medical campus on their land.

Urbanists in New Orleans were dismayed by the proposal, which would raze what the National Trust for Historic Preservation describes as “more than 250 homes and businesses, 150 of which are historic properties.” Many of the threatened houses, in a working-class neighborhood, had been rehabilitated since Hurricane Katrina, outgoing Trust President Richard Moe emphasized in a May 28 letter asking President Obama to intervene.

Jack Davis, a CNU Board member and sometime architecture writer who lives in New Orleans, told New Urban News that historic urban fabric — charming, diminutive wooden houses, the kind that delight visitors to New Orleans — would be lost. A total of 27 city blocks would be replaced by two superblocks — one for the VA, the other for a University Medical Center complex to be associated with LSU. Seven of the blocks closest to New Orleans’ central business district would be turned into parking lots. The ability of people to walk between downtown and the area on its periphery would be eroded.

Although the City Council and the City Planning Commission have already approved the closing of streets on the site the VA intends to occupy, the battle is not over. A new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, took office May 3. In mid-June he called for a 45-day review of designs for the University Medical Center — the $1.2 billion, 424-bed successor to Charity Hospital, a state-run institution which had operated a few blocks away, in the central business district.

Landrieu instructed the City Planning Commission to have Goody Clancy — the Boston firm that is managing the city’s master plan process — conduct “an architectural peer review to improve the design.” Moreover, he acted to delay the closing of streets in the area designated for the University Medical Center.

Dixon, chief of urban design at Goody Clancy, told New Urban News he would “give the mayor and the Planning Commission enough information so that they can establish what the city’s legitimate interests are and what can be achieved in furthering site planning, design, parking, streetscapes, and sociability.” His report was expected to be submitted by the end of July.

“Every aspect of the project has been outside of the city’s control,” Dixon pointed out. In contrast to most cities, in New Orleans, decisions by the state that affect the city’s physical character are customarily not challenged by municipal government.

Dixon said he is “not going to put definitive counterproposals on the table,” but will tell the city about best practices regarding “neighborhood character, human sensibilities,” and related issues. He credited Landrieu with boldness in breaking with custom and advocating the 45-day delay.

Opponents of demolition, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, have urged HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and the Obama administration to deny federal support for the hospitals project as currently proposed. Davis pointed out that the federal government may end up paying for much of the undertaking, with $900 million from the VA (US Department of Veterans Affairs), $475 million from FEMA, and $79 million from HUD (in part to demolish houses, some of which have been handed down within families for generations). Two of the 27 blocks contain existing buildings that are to be reused by the VA.

One victory for preservationists has been a decision by state and city governments to try to save the old, unoccupied Charity Hospital, which was damaged in flooding by Katrina but is considered solid enough to be reused. Suggestions for reuse have included a new city hall, school, courts, a combination of those, or bioscience companies, says Davis. 

Richmond hospitals try to fit in
The massive demolition and pedestrian-unfriendly development envisioned by hospitals in New Orleans stand in contrast to what progressive health organizations in other cities, such as Bon Secours Health System in Richmond, Virginia, are beginning to do. In early June, Bon Secours teamed up with the City of Richmond and its Redevelopment & Housing Authority to sponsor a charrette in Church Hill, a neighborhood where the Bon Secours Richmond Community Hospital is the largest employer.

The charrette, involving University of Miami Architecture Dean Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, architecture professor Joanna Lombard, and Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., was meant to explore “how a critically important corridor (Nine Mile Road and 25th Street) could be revitalized to strengthen a neighborhood,” according to Dougal Hewitt, senior vice president of Bon Secours.

This was latest of a series of charrettes Bon Secours has held, looking to fit its facilities into city or suburban settings in ways that create an appealing overall environment. In January 2009, Bon Secours had Plater-Zyberk lead a charrette to guide the growth of its five-year-old St. Francis Hospital in suburban Midlothian, Virginia. The St. Francis plan calls for building a new medical office building in a way that reinforces the main street.

In November 2009, Bon Secours had Andres Duany lead a charrette on future development of its St. Mary’s Hospital campus in Richmond’s West End. “The town center concept is a theme in each of the charrettes,” Hewitt said. Bon Secours has embraced techniques such as using liner buildings to cloak parking structures.

The recent charrette in Church Hill came up with ideas such as:
• Continuing infill retail development, which would benefit from recent sidewalk and lighting improvements. New buildings would aim to create more consistent street-walls and in some instances define court-like spaces.
• Bolstering the juncture of 25th Street and Nine Mile Road with a library expansion, a new grocery store, and construction of a traffic circle. Funding is in place for the roundabout, one of the first visible results to come from the charrette.
• Façade and other building improvements for the hospital.
• Creating gardens, to act on interest in urban farming.
• Enhancing public housing by creating private spaces for residents and adding streets connecting the housing with the surrounding community.