With a cold wind streaming across Tulane Avenue and snow covering the grounds of the old Charity Hospital, a group of about 20 people stood in front of the shuttered medical center's entrance on Dec. 11. The group was protesting the closing of Charity and the city, state and federal government's decision to build a new medical campus, estimated to cost $2 billion, adjacent to downtown New Orleans. The plan, a collaboration between Louisiana State University and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, represents the largest investment in the area since the levee failures, and proponents hope it will spark economic renewal in the city.
The group formed a circle and marched around, shouting their opposition to the government's plans, but with a small audience, the effort petered out after only a few minutes.
Though there was a series of public meetings concerning the proposed development, these protesters represent those who feel the public never had a say in the decision. Derrick Morrison and Brad Ott, co-chairs of the Committee to Reopen Charity Hospital, point to agreements signed by the city, state and VA a year prior to the public meetings as proof the only site truly considered for the campus was the one proposed by the city, state and VA, despite there being alternative sites.
"I went to all of those meetings, but those meetings were a sham," Morrison says.
City Councilwoman Stacy Head, whose district includes the proposed site, remains ambivalent about the effect of the public meetings, and whether or not the public really had a chance to weigh in on a project that will take at least five years and $2 billion to complete.
"I think the proper number of meetings were held," Head says. "I guess what I should really say is I don't know, because I'm not part of the decision-making group. Whether they were ... truly going into this with an open mind, I don't know."
Do the skeptics have a point? What was the purpose of those public meetings, which took place well after city officials had made commitments to the VA to acquire land and clear it for construction? Was the decision already final before the public meetings were held?
Whenever a federal agency contributes money toward a construction project, federal laws — the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act — require the agency to hold public hearings on the plan. In the case of the LSU/VA medical campus, the VA is employing its own appropriated federal dollars, the city is using Housing and Urban Development grants and LSU will use FEMA reimbursement funds for storm damages to the old Charity Hospital. According to the federal acts, the basic intent of the meetings is to allow citizen input on site selection.
The public meetings began on June 26 in a packed Grace Episcopal Church on Canal Street. Bill Rouselle, a local political consultant and chair of the public hearings committee, opened the discussion by saying, "I want to make sure that people understand it's not a done deal."
But, long before this first meeting, the city, state and federal governments had already planned for the future medical facilities.
Walter Gallas, director of the New Orleans field office for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, attended most of the public hearings, which concluded in October, and thinks the meetings met the legal intent of the laws — but not the spirit.
"We really think it was a foregone conclusion as far as LSU and the VA, and the city supported it and pushed really hard to get the result that they wanted," Gallas says. "We knew what they wanted a year ago, so that announcement made just before Thanksgiving (Nov. 25) could have been made a year ago."
Gallas is referring to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the city and the VA that was agreed upon in November 2007 and the two previous cooperative endeavor agreements that led to the drafting of the MOU.
In April '07, the state's Division of Administration and Mayor Ray Nagin signed the first cooperative endeavor agreement. The document mapped out the boundaries of the proposed 34-acre VA site — bounded on the north by Canal Street, east by Galvez Street, south by Tulane Avenue and west by Rocheblave Street — and also stated LSU had begun the process for acquiring a site southeast of the VA for the new Medical Center at New Orleans. The agreement stated the support of the Regional Planning Commission, which had passed a resolution regarding the site the month before, as well as including a letter of support addressed to the VA and signed and endorsed by the mayor, Councilmembers Arnie Fielkow and Head and representatives from Tulane University and LSU Health Sciences Center.
The next agreement came three months later and was again between the state and city. What differentiated this agreement was money. The city would obligate $79 million in a combination of city funds and federal community development block grants; the bulk of the monies, $75 million, would come from the feds to secure the land for the proposal. The next step was to get the VA on board.
Ed Blakely, executive director of the city's Office of Recovery and Development Administration, says the city needed to make this kind of offer because the VA was looking at other sites. Blakely says VA representatives came to New Orleans and told him if the site didn't match their conditions, then the hospital would go elsewhere.
"I knew of other locations, like in Florida, that [were] just spectacular," Blakely says.
In the November '07 MOU, the VA agreed to suspend the site selection process for a new hospital as long as the city met its obligations regarding the proposed 34 acres in downtown New Orleans, part of lower Mid-City. The MOU also alluded to the public hearings by stipulating the understanding would only take place after all the required studies — including but not limited to environmental, traffic and historical impacts, as well as architectural and engineering requirements — were completed.
Blakely — who has been involved with a number of large urban projects including the Presidio Trust, a retired military base in San Francisco that became a national park — says there is nothing unusual about the MOU or having a proposed site before public hearings.
"Yes, there always is," he says. "You're required to have a preferred site."
Pam Perkins, general counsel for the state's Division of Administration and a participant in the public hearings, doesn't think the MOU should weaken the public's confidence in the hearings.
"The purpose of the hearings is to allow for the consideration of impact that would be created by the decision on site selection, and also discuss ways to analyze alternatives, how well those alternatives will work and also to discuss how to avoid, minimize or mitigate any impact," Perkins says, reciting the mantra taken directly from the National Historic Preservation Act. "Those are the magic words."
Gallas responds that the meetings revealed there would be significant impact on the buildings that are part of the Mid-City National Register Historic District. He adds that an environmental assessment of the plan acknowledges the damage the plan proposes.
"For example, that there would be 165 historic buildings on both sites that would be demolished and people would be displaced," Gallas says. "But they said, 'Given all the mitigation we're doing (which includes providing grant money for rehabilitating historic buildings outside the proposed site), there's no significant impact.'"
Most of the proposed site falls within Councilwoman Head's district, and Ott, from the Committee to Reopen Charity, expresses disappointment with the New Orleans City Council. He feels the council could have held its own public hearings because the proposed plan is a land-use decision.
"My gosh, even the public housing demolition had a City Council public hearing," Ott says. "Here there was none."
According to Head, who says she advocated for another site for the campus, there was little the council could have done, short of shutting down the plan altogether. She says LSU and VA officials, state legislators and a lack of response from the governor's office made it clear that it wasn't the council's decision.
"But I want to be sure that I stress that if the project goes as promised, and we have a new LSU and VA, it is worth any price we have to pay. ... And in the process, the council will advocate for fair payments and packages to the property owners," Head says.
Perkins points out that some significant changes came about because of the public hearings. For one, both LSU and the VA were able to select the sites they preferred for construction, and the state is in favor of saving the old Charity Hospital by making the building available for other nonhospital use as well as providing grants for restoring historic properties outside of the proposed footprint. But Blakely contends the public hearings only concerned the VA, and old Charity was never part of the program (Perkins says the public meetings were meant for both the VA hospital and the LSU hospital).
As for the loss of the historic homes, Blakely doesn't see it as a deal breaker.
"No, jeez, I've been involved in projects where we've moved over 1,000 (houses)," Blakely says. "The federal government does this all the time, so this is a relatively clean site."
Disclaimer — Victory Real Estate Investments, on behalf of the VA, approached Gambit Communications owners Clancy and Margo DuBos to discuss the potential sale of the Gambit Weekly building should the Lindy Boggs hospital site be selected as the location for the new VA hospital. The Boggs site was not chosen.
Disclaimer — Victory Real Estate Investments, on behalf of the VA, approached Gambit Communications' owners Clancy and Margo DuBos to negotiate the potential sale of the Gambit Weekly building should the Lindy Boggs hospital site be selected as the location for the new VA hospital. The Boggs site was not chosen.