New Orleans reached another milestone on its road to recovery last week when the Veterans Administration announced it would locate the new VA hospital next to the proposed LSU teaching hospital downtown. The city's business and political leadership had united behind the project — and the site selection — like no other post-Katrina undertaking.
Proponents of the LSU/VA initiative say the two institutions will share several nonmedical functions (parking, laundry and others) and create a tremendous synergy between the VA hospital and the medical schools at LSU and Tulane. The two hospitals also will anchor a larger New Orleans biomedical district, which will foster major research and development efforts and produce thousands of well-paying jobs downtown. All of that will put New Orleans back on the map as a major national center for medical education, research and treatment.
As is always the case, however, progress comes with a price. In this case, the price to be paid is one of the city's historic neighborhoods.
The footprint for the two hospitals lies between Canal Street and Tulane Avenue, from Claiborne Avenue to South Rocheblave Street. South Galvez Street will separate the LSU campus from that of the new VA hospital. The entire 70-acre site sits in a national historic district, and federal law discourages — but does not prohibit — using federal dollars to adversely impact historic sites.
More than 150 homeowners and small businesses will have to relocate to accommodate the project, and some are vowing to fight the decision to locate the two hospitals at the chosen sites. History suggests that, while federal law gives them the right to challenge the VA's decision-making process, the decision itself is unlikely to change. At most, opponents may slow down the project.
Lawsuits aside, there's a bigger picture here that Mayor Ray Nagin, LSU officials (read: the state) and the VA need to keep in mind: While they promise the plan will promote a greater good, they will be destroying a neighborhood to achieve that goal, and therefore they need to proceed with great deference to the people and businesses that will be uprooted.
In some cases, this problem can be solved by simply throwing money at it. Businesses will need more than just enough cash to move; they will need the equivalent of business-interruption funds and incentives. Homeowners will need not just money to move their historic homes to adjacent neighborhoods, but also funds to improve those homes at the new sites. The city, which promises to provide key infrastructure improvements to the LSU/VA campus, likewise should invest in street, sidewalk, sewerage, drainage and lighting improvements in the adjacent neighborhoods so the displaced residents and businesses will enjoy the same upgrades pledged to the new hospitals. Wherever possible, architecturally significant homes should be moved to nearby sites, and reusable materials from homes that will be torn down should be salvaged. The loss of a neighborhood doesn't have to be a total loss. It could actually improve the neighborhood right next door.
In addition, the city, the state and the VA should do everything possible to incorporate significant historic structures, such as Deutches Haus on South Galvez Street and the old Dixie Brewery on Tulane Avenue, into the new campus. That may not be as difficult as it sounds, because both landmarks stand on the edge of the respective medical campuses. The VA has already pledged to seek suggestions on how it might do that. Those suggestions should be taken seriously.
The announcement last week also represents what may be Mayor Ray Nagin's last chance to leave a physical legacy. The city has pledged $79 million toward acquisition of the VA site, and the concerns outlined above should guide the administration in its negotiations with neighborhood residents and businesses. To do this right — and on time — Nagin needs to do the one thing he has not done in the past six-and-a-half years: follow through on his promises.
"I'm not sure we all fully grasp the magnitude of what is happening today," Nagin said last week at the news conference announcing the VA's site selection.
Here's hoping that by now Hizzoner does grasp that magnitude — and that he doesn't somehow blow the biggest opportunity he's been handed since Katrina.