The debate over New Orleans’ Charity Hospital took a sharp turn in May, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court challenging federal approvals of two new hospitals that would supplant 165 properties in the historic Mid-City district. Caught in the crossfire is the fate of Charity Hospital itself, an art deco icon damaged by Hurricane Katrina and shuttered ever since.
The long-brewing battle is the result of a $2.2 billion project announced in 2007, in which the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Louisiana State University (LSU) targeted a 67-acre area northwest of Charity’s current site for new construction. The campus would include the VA hospital, already funded by Congress, and the LSU academic medical center, funded in part by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) compensation for Katrina’s damages to Charity, which had been the school’s teaching hospital.
To carry out the plan, NBBJ and New Orleans firm Blitch Knevel Architects were named as LSU’s architects, while Studio NOVA—a collaboration between NBBJ and local firms Eskew+ Dumez+Ripple and Rozas Ward Architects—were hired as the VA’s architects. Though the groups originally said they were co-locating the hospitals in order to share facilities, current plans show separate parking, transportation access, and energy plants, because LSU has not yet gained sufficient funding to move forward. Each hospital is oriented along a central spine, with critical services at 22 feet above grade to allow operation to continue in case of a major flood.
The problem, as preservationists see it, is two-fold: First, the plan effectively abandons Charity, leaving little hope for reuse of this New Orleans landmark—and one of the longest continuously running hospitals in the nation. Second, as the Trust’s lawsuit claims, the VA and LSU failed to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) regarding the historic properties that would be razed to make way for the project.
According to NTHP deputy general council Elizabeth Merritt, the agencies prepared an environmental assessment (EA), rather than a full-blown EIS. “The crucial difference between an EA, which the agencies prepared, and an EIS, which the lawsuit contends they should have prepared, is that an EIS would have to be premised on the acknowledgement that the destruction of historic properties is ‘significant,’ and would have to consider alternatives that would avoid, reduce, and mitigate that significant impact,” said Merritt. Moreover, the NTHP believes the 37 acres sought by LSU is twice the amount of land needed, since much of the space has been reserved for buildings that may not be constructed for decades.
Though the VA will not comment on pending litigation, Don Orndoff, director of the VA’s Office of Construction and Facilities Management, said that the National Trust fully participated throughout the historic review process. “The NTHP suggested many of the mitigation measures ultimately adopted as stipulations in the Programmatic Agreement,” he said.
Plans to salvage neighborhood structures include the adaptive reuse of the SOM-designed Pan American Life Building, the Dixie Brewery building, and five shotgun houses, to be used as transitional homes for veterans. The agreement allows for relocation of 20 additional houses, and for a preservation and rehabilitation grant program to which the VA, state, and city will contribute a combined $1.4 million over three years.
The National Trust has meanwhile advanced an alternative plan, whereby the VA hospital would occupy the site currently planned for the new LSU development, and Charity Hospital would be rehabilitated for LSU. Last year, local NTHP affiliate Foundation for Historical Louisiana commissioned a $600,000 study by architecture firm RMJM, which found that Charity is structurally sound, and proposed a retrofit that would save taxpayers $283 million for the same million square feet of LSU programming.
A version of this article appeared in AN 12_07.08.2009.