Oh, when the bulldozers go marching in

Philip Langdon, New Urban Network

After all that New Orleans has suffered in the five-plus years since Hurricane Katrina, who would think that yet another of the Crescent City’s character-rich neighborhoods — one that had recently been repaired with federal dollars — would be ripped apart, this time at the behest of the state and federal governments?

It’s shocking, but an enormous volume of gratuitous destruction is under way in a city better known for celebrating than subverting its architectural character. New Orleans is at this moment sacrificing a distinctive working-class neighborhood to land-hungry medical institutions that insist on huge footprints for their future campuses.

Since last spring, more than 60 buildings, many of them charming little shotgun houses that contribute to a National Register historic district, have been demolished so that a new Veterans Affairs hospital can be built on 30 acres cleared of its inhabitants.

Another 60-plus houses, mostly of historic vintage, have been hauled out of the neighborhood, many of them shorn of their roofs so that they can be transported through the streets and plunked on sites elsewhere in New Orleans — this, too, for the sake of a land-hungry VA.

And on an adjoining 37 acres in this Mid-City New Orleans neighborhood, more than 10 structures have been demolished to make way for the state-owned University Medical Center.

You can track the trail of destruction daily at a blog called “In the Footprint”, started by Brad Vogel, a Tulane University student who was appalled by the massive governmental assault on a neighborhood that is worth protecting. By the time the VA and University Medical Center sites are ready for hospital construction, a total of 265 buildings may be gone, 165 of them buildings that contribute to the National Register district.

“It was dense housing, especially the VA site,” says Sandra Stokes, vice chair of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana. “Now it is just football fields of vacant land. Thirty acres is alot of land. It’s the contrast between the density of the neighborhood with the historic houses and the vast emptiness that’s there now that is gut-wrenching.” You can see the historic houses documented.

How could such a thing happen? The short answer is that just like Wall Street firms, medical institutions often grab what they want, even when others are harmed by their actions. In New Orleans, the obsolescence of the old VA hospital and the damage done to Charity Hospital by flooding in 2005 helped to instigate planning on a scale that resembles the worst of the urban renewal era.

It was decided that the state, by establishing a sprawling medical center contiguous to the new VA, would be ushering into existence “BioDistrict New Orleans,” a medical and science corridor that eventually could encompass 1,500 acres. “The massive endeavor inevitably will require more land acquisition and the demolition of historic buildings — a prospect that enrages community advocates and preservationists,” the Christian Science Monitor reported in an article available.

“There is no sugarcoating the shameful, irresponsible and needless destruction of the 27 blocks of neighborhood fabric,” New Orleans architect Gaither Pratt declared Dec. 8 on the Pro-Urb listserv. “New hospitals are needed, but they could have been done on a much smaller footprint (8-12 blocks?) in an area without existing homes & businesses, or even as a renovation in the existing Charity Hospital building.”

Pratt, like others, deplores the reliance on “expropriating land from citizens and property owners without the power to fight back.” What makes the situation even more galling, he says, is that “It is not even clear that the state will have the funding necessary to build the new LSU hospital, which may leave 15 blocks of Moonscape in downtown New Orleans.” After all, Louisiana is caught in the same fiscal distress that afflicts nearly every state government, thanks to the dismal national economy.

Preservationists, including the National Trust and the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, have been fighting to save at least part of the neighborhood for a long while. Recommendations late last summer by David Dixon of Goody Clancy Associates in Boston have made some impact, as I’ll explain later. But the basic situation is grim.

“There were always supposed to be two hospitals on one side of Galvez Street,” Stokes says, but the administration of former mayor Ray Nagin allowed the hospitals to expand into additional territory. Stokes is dismayed that the Obama administration, despite its endorsement of smart growth and urbanism, allowed the VA to move forward with such a destructive plan.

“That is backed by HUD financing,” Stokes told New Urban News. “Our federal government says it is not going to do this anymore, yet the federal government is involved. There were many letters to Shaun Donovan,” secretary of Housing & Urban Development.

Renovated with federal grants

On June 28, an “administrative complaint” was filed against HUD, charging that HUD has improperly allowed $75 million of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds for land acquisition and relocation for a stand-alone VA hospital. The complaint noted that many of the houses being removed or demolished “were completely renovated, post-Katrina, with new roofs, new wiring, new plumbing, new sheetrock, new paint, etc.” Some of that work was done using federal money through Road Home grants.

The complaint, filed by attorney Mary Howell and supplied by Stokes to New Urban News, is worth quoting at some length:

This Project is having profound and devastating effects upon Complainants’ historic neighborhood, which is being destroyed, and seeks to impose a suburban type, sprawling medical complex on a predominantly residential/mixed use, low-income, mostly African American neighborhood. … The Project abandons downtown New Orleans and the traditional downtown Medical District, with potential long-term, negative impacts to the City, and mimics the worst aspects of “urban renewal.”” The Project is simply the wrong design in the wrong location. HUD money has been key to the development of this project.

It further charges:

The City’s application for these funds includes significant, material misrepresentations and omissions, including false and misleading information regarding citizen participation or rather, the lack thereof, for this project. Additionally, the city’s application appears to have been materially altered, without appropriate authorization. … Despite these fundamental infirmities, the Project is proceeding and federal money is being spent to advance the project.

The complaint says that around January 2009, Louisiana Solutions LLC, acting as agent for the City, submitted to the Louisiana Office of Community Development an application for CBDG funds contending that the “National Objective” would be “Prevention/Elimination of Slums or Blight.” Of course, it’s hard to claim blight when federal funds had been used a short time before to fix up many of the houses in the supposedly blighted area.

The “slums/blight” claim apparently encountered resistance within the bureaucracy, because according to the complaint, a few months later a second supposedly “original” application changed the national objective from “slums/blight” to “”Urgent Need.”

The results of the administrative complaint? “They keep shuffling it, saying they will respond, but there has been no response to date,” says Stokes.

There’s more in the complaint, but let’s turn to what might be called the bright side of the hospitals debacle: The city, rather than see such widespread destruction, allocated $3.2 million mainly to the moving of houses on the VA site. “The goal was to move 100 houses,” Stokes says. A recent report indicates that 81 houses may actually be moved by the time the relocations are completed at the end of December.

Two houses were moved by the state historic preservation office in the correct manner — i.e., intact, according to Stokes. Unfortunately, New Orleans’ new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, who is a huge improvement over Nagin, “had a very short window to get the houses off the site,” Vogel observes. For expediency’s sake, roofs, most of them decrepit, according to the Monitor, are taken off, and new roofs are added later. “Structures with living space extending past 60 feet are shortened to allow them to be hauled.”

As of Dec. 8, the fate of a 17-room mansion that once belonged to S.W. Green, a prominent New Orleans African-American, remained in question. The house stands alone in a now-desolate landscape. According to a Times-Picayune article, Green “began building the mansion in 1928, only to see it burned during construction, reportedly by members of the Ku Klux Klan who did not want to see a black man live in such an opulent home.”

At least the houses hauled to new locations are being saved. A much-loved, architectural stand-out of a brewery, which had discontinued operation, was to be saved and reused, either for a resumption of brewing or for other purposes. But now there’s talk that the state may have the Dixie Brewery demolished after all.

A school from 1879 that was rebuilt after Katrina is scheduled to be razed, says Stokes. Vogel adds that, in one of the many ironies of the misbegotten New Orleans project, “it’s a charter school with a focus on architecture and construction. The children will be moved to a school in modular units, far from that site.”

A tight community, unraveled

And the neighborhood’s residents? “This is a community that lived in each others’ houses, ate in each others’ houses, showered in each others’ houses,” Stokes says. As a result of the mutual aid after Katrina, “it was a tight community.” That population is being scattered, much as was done during urban renewal, which sundered many social ties, with ill effects.

The report that Goody Clancy produced at the urging of Mayor Landrieu has produced a number of beneficial changes. Chief among them, according to a Times-Picayune article available here, are these:

• Instead of having seven blocks of surface parking, the University Medical Center will have two parking decks and a limited volume of surface parking. The parking decks will have retail spaces on their ground floor, facing Tulane Avenue.

• Towers for patients along Canal Street will be pushed back from the street to allow private retail development. However, this is contingent on gaining legal clearance for retail use. The state used eminent domain to acquire land, and there are questions on whether retail is a “valid public purpose” for land acquired by that means.

• Until the blocks that were originally intended for parking lots are needed for  other uses, they will be kept as green space. Stokes acknowledges that “it is better to have green space than surface parking,” but the resulting open land will still create a divide between the central business district and the hospital complex. “Why,” she asks, “are they taking twice as much land as we need?”

Probably the best aspect of the entire controversy, says David Dixon, has been the willingness of Mayor Landrieu to weigh in on a development issue that in previous administrations would have been left to state officials.

“The city should take responsibility for the quality and character of any major development and community-building efforts, whether they’re sponsored by a private developer or by the state or federal government,” Dixon says. “The current mayor is doing this. It’s a night-and-day difference from the previous administration. This is probably the first mayor in New Orleans who has been willing to take on LSU and the state government on an issue like this.”

Dixon’s perspective is useful. But when so much of what the state and federal governments and the earlier city administration have done amounts either to negligence or outright harm, the hospitals project comes out, on balance, as nothing less than a catastrophe. “This has been a colossal planning fiasco,” says Jack Davis, a Congress for New Urbanism board member and smart growth advocate who lives in New Orleans.

Both the state and the Obama administration need to do much better.