Friday, April 30, 2010

A Gray Day

This morning, a bulldozer appeared inside the VA footprint and workers continued salvage on 319 S. Tonti, a small two-bay shotgun that was renovated post-storm - and lived in until about a month ago.

A New Website and Resource

The VA Footprint Booklet of historic properties is now online at a new web site.

It gives an idea of the over 100 properties that were deemed "contributing properties" to the Mid-City National Register Historic District.  It's a data set that's critical to having an informed discussion about what's at stake in the footprint.

At least one of the properties shown has now been demolished - I haven't confirmed whether 319 S. Tonti was demolished later in the day yesterday.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


As the demolitions got under way in earnest this morning, a group gathered for a press conference at the home of Wally Thurman just over a block down S. Tonti Street.

The Times-Pic noted the press conference in a piece later in the day today - and also reveals that only 5 homes are actually being moved under the VA moving program - not 8 as we've been told for some time.

Demolished: 325 S. Tonti

319 S. Tonti (the little pink shotgun from yesterday with white spandrels at the right of the photo above) appears to be next in line for razing.

Press Conference this morning Inside the Footprint

Media Alert: Press conference Thursday April 29, 2010, 10:30 a.m.

Purpose: Delay demolition of more Lower Mid-City houses so they can be moved

Where: Home of Wally Thurman, Lower Mid-City Resident, 217 S. Tonti Street

Contact: Betsy Stout, Louisiana Landmarks Society,, 504-906-6088

I'll note that there is in fact a significant, concerted effort (and has been for about a month now) to move houses out of the VA footprint beyond the eight in the VA moving program.  A number of major local and national non-profits are involved.  So, for any skeptics reading, know that this isn't simply an attempt to delay for delay's sake.

Demolition Slated to Move to Cleveland Avenue Today

In a piece noting that four properties total could be demolished today, the Times-Pic lays out data on property acquisition inside the VA and LSU footprints:

There are 194 parcels in the VA site. As of early March, the date of the latest summary released by the state, 178 properties had been appraised, with the 16 remaining appraisals begun; 160 initial appraisals had been reviewed, with 144 approved and 91 offers made to owners. Of the offers made, 37 had been accepted, with 54 still in process. The state had completed nine closings.

The state site comprises 245 parcels. As of the March report, 213 had completed appraisals, with 32 not yet complete; 198 appraisals had been reviewed, with 163 approved and 120 offers made to owners. Forty-seven owners had accepted offers, with 73 outstanding. The state had completed seven closings. 

Nine out of 194...and 7 out of 245.  There's a lot of ground that remains to be covered, especially in the VA footprint where the site is to be cleared by the end of July.

Here's a look at 2410-12 Cleveland Street, one of the four properties that might be demolished today.  As of about 4:00 p.m. yesterday, the crews had not even begun salvage work on the property:

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Sea green, suddenly boarded up as of today

This one.

It's one of the 8 homes mentioned for moving from the VA footprint, so hopefully it's being prepped for a move to another lot in Mid-City.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Greek Revival Camelback

This home, one of my favorite houses in the footprint, is included in a new booklet printed by the Foundation for Historical Louisiana showing and describing over 100 historic homes in the VA footprint.

I was very happy to work with a number of energetic volunteers in creating the publication - it was quite an undertaking, and I spent far more of my spring break than anticipated on the project. 

It has since helped to spur a concerted effort to move as many homes from the site as possible.  Whether that happens remains to be seen - a number of major non-profits and local stakeholders are now involved in the discussions.  I'm hopeful that something positive will result.  And even if not, at least we tried.

Friday, April 23, 2010

More from the City Council Website

Authorized Street Closures on VA Hospital Footprint

The Council passed Ordinance Calendar No. 27,938, introduced by Councilmember Head, to authorize the closure of streets to be utilized as part of the site used in the construction of the Veterans Administration Medical Center and establishing reporting requirements for the City to report to the Council on the use of funds on the VA hospital project.

Brenda Breaux, Chief Deputy City Attorney; Julie Catellier, VA Medical Center Director; and other representatives of the VA hospital project appeared before the Council to present information on drainage plans and analysis and traffic impact study findings.

The street closures will apply to areas of Cleveland Avenue, Palmyra Street, Banks Street, South Miro Street and South Tonti Street, all generally bounded by Canal Street on the northeast side, South Galvez Street on the southeast side, Tulane Avenue on the southwest side and South Rocheblave Street on the northwest side.

District "B" Councilmember Stacy Head said, "It is in the interest of the New Orleans community that we move forward on this new medical center, representing progressive economic development in the City which will create jobs and increase the accessibility of healthcare for our citizens. We also need to assure equitable treatment of those displaced and use environmentally sensitive actions during this time of relocations and demolitions by the City."

After more than an hour of public comment from residents and members of the business community, and in order to address the concerns expressed by many residents, the Council passed Motion M-10-193, which was introduced by Councilmember Midura.The Motion mandates that the City receive monthly reports from the State relative to the status of demolition, acquisition and relocation activities in relation to the VA hospital project, and that during the presentation of these reports, there be opportunity for public comment.

District "A" Councilmember Shelley Midura said, "We recognize the importance of this project moving forward, but we want to ensure that all citizens are treated fairly throughout the entire process, including demolition, acquisition and relocation activities. This Motion will provide for that, as well as give residents the opportunity for public comment on these issues."

It's good to see that residents will have opportunities for public comment as their homes are being demolished.

More from the Times-Pic as well.

None of the sources tell precisely when the streets will be closed (or if they are now closed) and precisely what that means.  There are still people living inside the VA footprint, so I'm concerned about how this plays out on the ground.

The Street Closure Ordinance Passed

Yesterday, after minimal input and debate.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Council Meeting Tomorrow

Thursday, April 22


City Council Public Hearing

When: Thu, April 22, 10am – 12pm

Where: City Hall, 1300 Perdido St, New Orleans, LA

Description:  For the first time, the City Council is holding a public hearing that addresses the proposed LSU/VA medical complex. At issue, is whether or not to allow the closure of streets on the VA footprint, despite the fact that most residents still live in the neighborhood.


Saturday, April 17, 2010

What about the World War I Monument?

We've overlooked this little slice of parkland that hangs like a pendant from the intersection of S. Galvez, Tulane, and Banks.   It contains a World War I monument, an old flagpole dedicated to the same memory, a few benches, a stone wall, a few bushes, and a giant palm tree.

It's difficult to tell from the LSU plan whether the greenspace and monument will survive construction. It seems to be greenspace of some sort on the LSU Footprint map, but it's unclear.

S. Galvez Blues

Friday, April 16, 2010

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Watching Like a Hawk

Take a look.  Here's a shot of 323 S. Tonti Street today.  Note the number of colonnettes holding up the porch roof.

Now - look at this photo of the same property from just about a week ago.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Camelback on Tulane

One we've overlooked until lately.

After Today's Meeting

Interestingly, I think the historic preservation aspect of the opposition to the LSU/VA Hospital changes from today forward. 

I think the emphasis has shifted. 

Though it's too late, the right people are now interested.  Some olive branches may be in order.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

My Letter to the Editor of the Times-Picayune

Pared down by the editors, here's how it appeared in today's paper:

April 13, 2010, 1:11AM

I moved to New Orleans in the summer of 2007, in large part because I find this place unique. A significant part of that uniqueness stems from the city's distinctive architectural jumble that has emerged after nearly three centuries.

I object to the plans to demolish a sizable swath of the city's architectural heritage in lower Mid-City to make way for the proposed LSU and VA hospitals. While the return of medical services is an admirable goal, the plans are an assault on what sets New Orleans apart. The use of expropriation to seize properties is also disconcerting.

In the past nine months, I've spent a good deal of time "inside the footprint" of the proposed hospitals. I've seen every single camelback, shotgun, Creole cottage, raised basement home and hybrid. I've talked with many of the residents who returned post-Katrina, only to face a moratorium on repairs and ongoing uncertainty about demolition.

The mitigation factors U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon raised, which The Times-Picayune cited in its editorial, are laughable. Taking photos, salvaging a few architectural elements and moving eight to 12 homes still permits destruction of hundreds of historic properties.

Destruction of the neighborhood lakeside of Galvez Street is completely inappropriate.

As seen after the razing of local federal housing complexes, areas cleared optimistically for major development using expropriation sometimes end up sitting vacant. It would make more sense, as has been suggested all along, to locate the VA Hospital riverside of Galvez Street and reopen the LSU facility within the existing Charity Hospital building.

I'm not suggesting New Orleans put itself in a glass case, preserved for all time. But we need to recognize when changes are too extreme. When a proposed change stands to alter a fundamental characteristic of the city, it needs to include recognition of its harmful impacts and a meaningful effort to mitigate them. That's never been present in the LSU/VA Hospital push. Instead, there's been a consistent attempt to get away with as little effort at historic preservation as permitted by law.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

"Apparently, the salvage company is starting selective recoupment next week..."

That's what I've heard.

I'm very curious as to how the salvage company will proceed as it attempts to procure historic elements from structures inside the VA footprint.  People continue to live in the homes in that footprint.

S. Tonti in the Morning

Note the elaborate stalactite brackets on the two homes in the distance.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Parking Lots

Humid Beings A CityBusiness piece, reproduced at Humid Beings without sufficient context, focuses in on the many acres of surface parking lot that will come with the current design for the proposed hospitals in Lower Mid-City.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

My Response to the Times-Picayune's Editorial in Favor of Destroying Lower Mid-City

Here's my point-by-point response to the Times-Picayune editorial board's piece today praising a ruling in favor of building hospitals in Lower Mid-City:

Rebuilding of streets, police stations and other public spaces is finally in full gear almost five years after Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaches. But one of the most vital construction projects for the city's recovery has remained on hold.

That's odd.  If getting the VA and Charity hospitals back on line was a vital construction project, you think the people in charge, to start, would have rebuilt in the existing Charity Hospital building - something that was feasible structurally, would have cost less money than the Lower Mid-City option, and would have been completed more rapidly.

It's also interesting that the paper's desire for rebuilding and renewal didn't extend to those who live in or lived in Lower Mid-City.  A City Council moratorium barred residents and owners inside the footprint from even effecting simple repairs to their properties for months.

It may at last get back on track, though. A federal judge's ruling last week rejecting preservationists' arguments against two proposed hospitals in Mid-City is a significant victory for New Orleans and the rest of the metro area.

So, a significant victory includes destroyed a swath of homes built of first growth cypress with distinctive, endemic New Orleans architectural characteristics that are easily movable?  Victory is forcing people out of their homes after they returned following Katrina and restarted their lives?  Victory is further reducing the city's already shaky tax base?  Victory is employing state expropriation (eminent domain) against private property owners when alternative sites are available?  Victory is thrusting a peninsula of development appropriate to the CBD north of South Galvez Street into what is a National Register Historic District and what is clearly neighborhood?

The decision, by U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon, removes an obstacle to construction of a new 200-bed Veterans Affairs hospital and a nearby 424-bed state teaching hospital near downtown New Orleans.

If LSU can even pay for its portion, as the folks at Save Charity Hospital have pointed out repeatedly.  And Judge Fallon forgot to mention just how much of the roughly 70 acres of land will be used for surface level parking lots wholly inappropriate to New Orleans.  Getting the hospitals back on line is an admirable and worthy goal.  But the good that will come from the endeavors is not the only factor worth weighing in the balance when arriving at a way forward.  Throughout the process, the absurdly inflexible insistence on the Lower Mid-City site has been baffling.

The long-planned hospitals are urgently needed to treat veterans, as well as the sick and the indigent, and to train new doctors and health care professionals. Just as important, the facilities are expected to anchor a biomedical district that could attract thousands of jobs and become a vital economic engine for our region.

The key word there is "could."  Destroying all of the projects in New Orleans and replacing them with lesser quality buildings could improve New Orleans.  Or, as we now see, they may never be replaced because times change and funding realities can worsen.  If you want to see the devastating effects of "could" in a situation similar to the one in Lower Mid-City, see how New London, Connecticut looks after it used eminent domain to eliminate homeowners like Susette Kelo for development by Pfizer...that never materialized.

Preservationist groups have said that instead of building a new teaching hospital, the state should rehabilitate the old Charity Hospital building. The ruling this week came on a lawsuit filed by one of those groups, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which argued that the fast-tracked planning process for the new hospitals violated the National Environmental Protection Act. That law requires a complete vetting of construction projects financed with federal money but gives agencies some leeway on how they set up the planning process.

Building in Lower Mid-City also leaves the existing Charity and the VA campuses in the CBD vacant...even more vacancies in an already drafty downtown.

Judge Fallon concluded that months of planning meetings and the documents produced in that process satisfied the federal requirements. He noted that the government satisfied requirements to consider various sites early in the process and that it evaluated the project's environmental impact. Significantly, the judge noted that "had the agencies been required to wait for all relevant information, the (preliminary environmental assessment) would not have begun until recently, thus further delaying the return of medical services to the New Orleans area."

The federal requirements, the laws in place related to historic preservation-based objections to development, have no teeth.  They are blatantly, by design, toothless when it comes to stopping projects, especially those initiated by unelected federal agencies.  There is process, yes, but meaningless process.  Fallon's concern reveals the Catch-22 that often serves to defeat attempts at preservation: the judges note that construction couldn't get underway if all parties waited for the outcome of the full, unsegmented studies.  But then, once construction has progressed far enough, it would be inconvenient to stop the project.  Effectively, the judge chooses development, normatively, as his preferred outcome.

Considering that more than four years have passed since Katrina hit and the floodwalls failed, additional delays would have been a harsh blow to our region.

And again, if the delay in providing services was such a hassle...why didn't the powers that be go with the old Charity renovation option, as State Treasurer Kennedy suggested?

The necessity of these hospitals does not negate their disruptive impact on residents who live in the area where they will be built. That's especially painful for property owners who rebuilt after Katrina and are now having to relocate. But the broader public interest in developing a new medical district clearly justifies the construction of the hospitals. As they acquire property for the project, government officials need to make sure residents are treated fairly and are adequately compensated. In his ruling, Judge Fallon said the government made adequate plans to mitigate effects on residents, businesses and historic structures -- and that's important.

The broader public interest?  Public interest, perhaps.  But since expropriation (eminent domain) is in play, the U.S. Constitution is in play, specifically the 5th Amendment: "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."  Public use got stretched to public purpose, and then the Kelo case weakened the protection even more, by essentially permitting a government entity to engage in a taking for the benefit of a private entity.

While the state and federal entities pushing the hospital plans appear to be public entities, the Constitutional provision on takings highlights just how fundamentally takings can harm individuals - it shows why expropriation should not be used if there are alternatives available (and if it's unclear that the fiscal picture will even permit the proposed project to be built).  Government shouldn't use a bunker buster bomb if negotiation will do the trick, so to speak - even if a few holdouts raise the price, let them.  Or build in a smaller footprint to begin with!  Build vertically instead of horizontally.

"These" hospitals?  No, just hospitals.  The proposed hospitals in these particular locations are not the crucial aspect, it's just hospitals of some sort - veterans and indigents would get care just as well if the hospitals were located elsewhere.

I also question whether the compensation to be provided to those whose property is seized (like the owners of the Pan-Am building that was already seized via expropriation even as price negotiations were underway) will even be just.

And finally, adequate plans to mitigate harsh effects on residents, businesses, and historic properties?  I'm sorry, that's rather ridiculous, especially when it comes to historic properties.  The mitigation measures that Fallon outlines are laughable: taking digital photos of the properties to be demolished and providing a pittance of cash to move homes (only eight homeowners even considered it due to the conditions and there was barely enough allotted to move 20 homes out of over 100 historic structures in the VA footprint alone).  Destroying over hundreds of properties eligible for listing on the National Register, many of them quintessentially New Orleanian is a travesty that the city will likely look back on with sorrow some day when it realizes the joint hospitals project was in part yet another pie in the sky panacea.  Lower Mid-City is a motley jumble of architectural styles and densities - the kind of thing residential developers try to recreate in new urbanism developments.  It exudes the one-of-a-kind feel that makes a person know he or she is in New Orleans, not somewhere else.

The Veterans Administration, which committed to building a new hospital in New Orleans shortly after the storm, welcomed the court's ruling. Many New Orleanians are thankful for the federal government's resolve in that project.

Yes, the VA.  What if the VA builds at its site...only to have LSU fail to procure sufficient funding for its site, which is closer to the CBD, the essential part of the plan that would make the VA hospital part of a peninsula of inappropriateness out into Mid-City instead of an island.  What if only an island comes of this?  It's great that the VA plans to continue to call New Orleans home.  But the lure of economic lucre - and jobs for private companies, a key reason that many government leaders support the plan (not really a public purpose for takings analysis, it seems) - should, again, not be the only consideration.  And there has been little consideration throughout this process for keeping a valuable, if intangible, part of New Orleans intact - a part of its imperfect, unique, indomitable soul.

The state also has been working toward the new teaching hospital, and that effort has overcome several obstacles recently. An impasse between Louisiana State University and Tulane University over governance of the new facility was resolved in August. In January, a federal arbitration panel awarded $474 million for storm-related damage to Charity Hospital. The money will go toward construction of the new hospital and will greatly reduce what Louisiana will need to borrow to complete the estimated $1.2 billion project.

One more time...if this whole push was truly about getting a hospital re-opened to get care to indigents and veterans, why not use the arbitration award the moment it came down to refurbish the existing Charity Hospital?  The Ahab-like obsession with staking out an incongruent white whale in Lower Mid-City smothered all other efforts at compromise.

Now Judge Fallon's ruling puts New Orleans "one step closer to re-establishing a system of first-class health care for all its citizens," as Mayor Ray Nagin said.

C. Ray Nagin, font of all wisdom.  Quoting him, a public official with "worse than Bush" poll numbers, apparently lends an extra note of credence and gravity to the op-ed.

That's a major -- and long-awaited -- development.

It is a long-awaited development.  One that could have come sooner had thoughtful minds prevailed.  One that can still happen without destroying Lower Mid-City and using the weight of government to force people from their homes.


In the photo above, the house at the far left, 325 S. Tonti, and the house at the far right, 319 S. Tonti, are both in the pipeline for demolition in the near future - as early as April 8 for at least one of them.

While 325 S. Tonti is interesting architecturally and likely easily restorable, 319 S. Tonti appears to be presently occupied (or recently occupied), making it all the more disheartening that a perfectly usable property with character is going to be destroyed.  Further, both properties are relatively small and more easily movable than some in the footprint.

The hole out front in the street appeared on Thursday this past week.

One of the reasons I decided to move to New Orleans was the place's incomparable presence as a city.  A major component of that uniqueness is the crazy, interesting, diverse architectural environment.  It's hard for me to understand why the VA site has ever been in play - it pushes a peninsula of parking lot-clad development out far beyond the CBD into what is very clearly a neighborhood area with historic homes, an area that was designated a National Register Historic District, an area that didn't recover from Katrina as well as some areas in part because the City Council placed a moratorium on the activities necessary to revitalization.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Demolitions Loom in the VA Footprint

At this point, I'm aware of 5 letters of notice sent out to local state legislators regarding requests to demolish 5 different properties inside the VA Hospital footprint.  Permission to demolish, it seems, cannot be granted until 30 days after such letters are sent out per Louisiana law.  Three of the letters were sent on March 8, 2010, and two were sent on March 16, 2010.

Four of the properties involved are contributing historic properties to the Mid-City National Register Historic District.  One is not on that list.  Two of the contributing historic properties slated for demolition are currently being lived in, to my knowledge, and the houses, small shotguns, are in great shape.

Essentially, it's possible that demolitions in the VA footprint could begin in the upcoming week - the machinery is certainly in motion.

Evening in the VA Footprint