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Worried Sick 

The proposed LSU/VA hospital will bring badly needed health care and jobs to New Orleans, but those benefits will come at a price.

A billion-dollar hospital construction plan to cure New Orleans' health-care shortage and spur economic development has some preservationists, homeowners and business owners worried sick over the fate of a Mid-City residential neighborhood. Officials admit that a recent public hearing on the 77-acre medical project did nothing to allay fears of massive demolition of historic homes and the undue dislocation of area residents, amid post-Katrina housing concerns. 'I don't know who to be upset with," says area homeowner Gaynell Thornton, who attended the Nov. 29 meeting on the proposed LSU/VA facility, a joint project of the LSU Health Sciences Center and the federal Veterans Administration. 'I'm not upset with the hospital. But somebody " the mayor, the governor " somebody should let us know what's going on."

Sitting in the winter sun in front of her family's modest one-story house on 2313 Palmyra St., Thornton chats with a neighbor and a visitor about the home she has owned for 10 years. The racially mixed neighborhood seems peaceful despite the tap-tap of hammers from a house renovation across the street.

'I love this area," Thornton says.

During Katrina, her family was rescued from neck-deep water by boat and evacuated, she says. They fought their way back home.

Now, she worries that the fair-market value she would receive from a hospital buyout would not be sufficient to help her buy a new house elsewhere in New Orleans. She says her concerns mount with news reports of contentious projects elsewhere in the city and New Orleans' long legacy of neighborhood development fights.

Her neighbor, Barry Green, 2320 Palmyra St., says he was a young boy when LSU bought his mother's downtown home in 1974. He says there are other locations nearby for the LSU/VA facility that would not uproot his Mid-City neighborhood. Like Thornton, Green says he was unimpressed by the panel of experts assembled for the state-sponsored hearing late last month for the redevelopment of the Medical Center of Louisiana in New Orleans, formerly known as Charity Hospital.

Proponents of the hospital expansion say they don't blame the residents for being upset.

'My impression was they were arrogant," says Green. 'You could give questions, but you couldn't get any answers."

The 'no-answers" format angered others, too. Developer Hal Brown, 61, a New Orleans native, compared the hearing to 'trying to talk back to a television set."

Walter Gallas, local director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, says the proposed hospital 'footprint" could destroy scores of architecturally significant homes and landmarks eligible for protection under the National Register of Historic Places. He adds that the recent meeting did not inspire any confidence that the hospital development would respect the neighborhood's historical treasures. 'The decision has been made by the powers that be with no neighborhood input at all," Gallas says.

Government officials say there is a long process ahead, including a review of historical sites. Meanwhile, hospital executives and government panelists expressed frustration that the meeting has gotten that process off to a rocky start.

Dr. Larry Hollier, chancellor of LSU's Health Sciences Center, emphasized that LSU merely provided its auditorium for the forum. 'My faculty and I were all disappointed that the people who asked questions were not able to get direct answers," Hollier says.

That should not happen at future meetings, he says.

'LSU is deeply committed to an open exchange of information related to the development of the new academic medical center in New Orleans," Hollier says. 'We realize that while this will have a great economic boost to the city, some individual landowners might be disappointed, but the state has committed to a fair and equitable treatment of those [individuals]."

Hollier says he has met with preservationists. 'We would like to see the best resolution of all of these issues within the constraints that will be taking place."

Ezra Rapport, chief operating officer and chief development officer for the city's recovery office, also panned the meeting format. 'I don't think it was a good model of community participation," Rapport says.

The state Office of Facility Planning and Control advertised the forum in Nov. 9 editions of The Times-Picayune as an opportunity for 'residents, business owners and other concerned parties" to 'receive information" on the massive redevelopment of the Medical Center of Louisiana in New Orleans. Amid a raft of last-minute speaker changes, a decision was made to take questions on the hospital expansion " then try to return with answers at a later meeting, sources say.

Although his office was the host of record, Jerry Jones, director of the state Office of Facility Planning and Control, blamed FEMA for the tempest. 'We are actually waiting on FEMA because they are the lead federal agency," Jones says, adding that FEMA was supposed to appoint an 'action officer" to lead public participation in the proposed hospital project. 'This is their show. People are out there thinking what they want to think and that's unfortunate."

FEMA spokesperson Ronnie Simpson has a different take: 'We didn't get a formal request for participation in this endeavor until eight days after the event had taken place." Jones' letter requesting FEMA's participation is dated Nov. 20 and stamped as received by the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP) on Nov. 30 " one day after the meeting. FEMA plays a small role in the hospital project, Simpson says.

Jones, the state's facilities officer, says the state still has several options with regard to developing the hospital. 'And if [the public] has ideas, we want to hear them. We are in desperate need of health care in New Orleans, so we don't want to spend too much time studying the problem. The real problem is a lack of adequate health care and a lack of medical education."

Neighbors and preservationists invariably express support for improved health care. But they worry about adverse effects from what LSU calls 'the largest post-storm urban renewal project in New Orleans."

The heart of the joint LSU/VA medical project is an academic teaching hospital, says LSU's Hollier. The facility will train more than 2,000 area medical students from LSU and Tulane, Xavier University, Dillard University and elsewhere.

The development includes a 'Level One" trauma center, 68 psychiatric beds and a crisis intervention unit " all sorely needed facilities in a city reeling from violence and high rates of mental illness and substance abuse post-Katrina.

The 77-acre project contains two 'components" that span separate but adjacent swaths of land in the Mid-City neighborhood, Hollier says.

From her Palmyra Street porch, Thornton and her neighbor, Green, describe the project with two memorable euphemisms: the 'LSU Side" and the 'VA/city side."

The LSU side is bounded by South Galvez Street, South Claiborne Avenue, Canal Street and Tulane Avenue. The 43-acre site will be owned by the state and the LSU Health Sciences Center and is closest to the downtown medical district.

The neighborhood on the LSU side is sparser, less intact and contains more blighted property. Landmarks include Deutsches Haus on South Galvez Street. There is also McDonogh No. 11 School, 2001 Palmyra St., a gray-blue painted structure built in 1879. Architectural historians note several architecturally significant or distinctive structures in the area.

Thornton's family and her neighbors live on the decidedly more vibrant 'VA/city side," so named because that area will first be acquired by the city (not the state) and then transferred to the federal government for construction of the VA Hospital. That transfer to the feds is not a done deal. The 34-acre site is bounded by South Galvez Street, Rocheblave Street, Canal Street and Tulane Avenue.

The biggest eyesore on the VA side is the old City Hall Annex on Canal Street near Rocheblave Street. The most widely recognized landmark is the closed Dixie Brewery, 2401 Tulane Ave., which the Preservation Resource Center describes as 'a huge building with brick round arches and the suggestion of a mansard roof atop the tower."

Gallas, who was appointed New Orleans field director of the National Trust in anticipation of a 'cultural disaster" post-Katrina, says preservationists are ready to defend what the trust considers Mid-City's historical treasures.

At the same time, opposition will be measured against the city's obvious health-care needs, especially for the indigent, post-Katrina. 'That's what makes this a tricky case, because nobody is going to say we don't need quality medical care," Gallas says.

Hal Brown, 61, a developer of small projects and a native New Orleanian, says he left the city to attend graduate school at UCLA after graduating from historically black Xavier University, then returned home from California in 2004. He has restored two homes (2601 Palmyra St. and 223 South Dorgenois St.) that were damaged by 4 feet of Katrina floodwaters; both now sit brightly painted on the VA side.

Brown says he was unimpressed by the hospital plans he saw at the public meeting in November. 'There was a seeming utter disregard for the critical shortage of housing in their siting plans, rather than pushing those siting plans into areas where industrial uses have become obsolete," Brown says.

Most of the area targeted for development has about 80 percent renters. New Orleans should be striving to match the national average of 67 percent homeowners, up from 47 percent pre-Katrina, Brown adds, noting that restoring the neighborhood's old homes would be compatible with the hospital's mission of housing medical students, faculty and staff. 'There is a lot of architecturally beautiful housing in that area, and nearly all of it should be [restored]," Brown says.

Overall, the hospital raises hopes as well as fears. 'The hope is that this will be a major economic planning stimulus, with high-paying jobs and a backbone for the biomedical corridor," Brown says. 'If done right it can really help revitalize the core of the old city."

LSU estimates the project will create 6,000 construction jobs, 2,000 permanent jobs and facilitate $1.5 billion in the downtown Medical District. Brown agrees that the project also will bring middle-class jobs back into Mid-City, especially on once-bustling Canal Street. He says the project's promoters should be 'bending over backwards to minimize the negative impact on architecturally significant housing, including picking those houses up and moving them somewhere else."

There are indications that both the state and the city plan to make whatever accommodations they can. LSU estimates that delays cost $10 million a month, or 1 percent of the project cost.

Meanwhile, the Veterans Administration has not formally selected a site for the VA side, pending an environmental review. The LSU portion of the development hinges on the VA moving forward.

'We're still in the preliminary stages because VA has not formally announced its preferred location," says Rapport, of the city's recovery office. 'Once they do that, then the environmental process kicks in."

The federal review process, known in development and preservation circles as 'Section 106" (a reference to the section of the governing federal law that requires such a review), includes consideration of all historic properties in the entire development area. The review is expected to begin in 2008.

While the review may lead to some modifications, Rapport does not equivocate on the city's sweeping redevelopment plans for the neighborhood on the VA side. 'We think our view is the long view. There is no question if the process proceeds there will be the clearing of that site. There are rules for compensation [of property owners] and relocation [of historic structures]. The whole area will be revitalized."

When asked about objections to the choice of sites, Rapport says, 'There were lots of discussions about where the hospital wanted to be sited. They wanted [facilities] clustered. Lots of thought went into [siting]."

Asked about parking availability, Rapport says there has been no design yet of the hospital's individual facilities, just 'the footprint."

LSU wants construction to begin by the end of 2008, with doors opening in 2012. Until then, more hurdles (and public hearings) lie ahead for both sides of the project.

For example, FEMA has to evaluate 20 buildings in the existing Medical District. 'There's a lot of moving parts to this," says one source familiar with the expansion. 'There's a lot of bureaucratic b.s., too."

Rapport says residents, businesses and property owners in the affected area will be kept in the loop. 'There are multiple levels of notification. There is even a notice that a notice will be coming to make sure everybody will be aware of their rights."

But on the VA Side, residents remain wary.

Across the street from the Thornton family home, Bobbi Rogers, 32, and her husband Kevin Krause, 40, formerly of Phoenix, Ariz., work on renovating their two-story, side-hall camelback home. With the front and back doors of the house open, you can stand on Palmyra and peer through their hallway to Banks Street, a block away.

The couple came here to establish the Phoenix-NOLA (310 S. Broad St.) volunteer group after Katrina. They bought a house on the VA side in April 2006.

'We hope to be in by the end of January," Rogers says, cheerfully.

The couple say they did not hear about the VA/city proposal until June 2007. 'By then we had already obtained a construction loan," Rogers says, adding that the first communication they received from the city about the LSU/VA facility was an email from City Council Member Stacy Head in July. And an attorney for the state canvassed the neighborhood over the summer, advising residents of an imminent buyout on the nearby LSU Side. 'People thought this was going to happen immediately, then " silence," Rogers says.

Word of the expansion has had a chilling effect on neighborhood recovery efforts, postponing individual plans to rebuild or renovate storm-damaged homes, but Rogers and Krause are forging ahead on their home.

Rogers delights in recounting how records at the Williams Research Center in the French Quarter show that their house was built between 1895 and 1906. Later, another couple bought the house with insurance proceeds from the death of their son, a serviceman killed in the Battle of Midway in the Pacific during World War II.

But history is only part of the charm.

'I like this house because of the neighbors," Rogers says. 'We met everyone as they were moving back in. And we helped them move back in."

Too busy to worry about a hospital development, she hurries off to answer a ringing phone. From somewhere outside, behind the house, comes the sound of a saw cutting into wood.

click to enlarge The Deutsches Haus was rebuilt after being inundated with - Katrina floodwaters, but now it may lose its Mid-City home - because of plans to develop an LSU/VA medical center. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • The Deutsches Haus was rebuilt after being inundated with Katrina floodwaters, but now it may lose its Mid-City home because of plans to develop an LSU/VA medical center.
click to enlarge LSU Health Sciences Center Chancellor Dr. Larry Hollier is - one of many leaders watching the LSU/VA proposal take - shape as various city, state and federal agencies, - preservationists and the public all try to contribute to the - process. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • LSU Health Sciences Center Chancellor Dr. Larry Hollier is one of many leaders watching the LSU/VA proposal take shape as various city, state and federal agencies, preservationists and the public all try to contribute to the process.
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