Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Making the Case for Charity Hospital

One week ago, I was fortunate enough to join a group of advocates for the re-opening and re-use of Charity Hospital before a committee of the New Orleans City Council.  Here's the link to the video of our testimony. 

Council member Jon Johnson deserves credit for seeking information on the Charity issue.  He was not a member of the Council earlier in the process, and it was refreshing to find someone genuinely willing to listen.

I spoke in my capacity as the Ed Majkrzak Historic Preservation Fellow with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  My remarks focused on the gaping hole the proposed Lower Mid-City hospitals would leave in the already vacant Central Business District (including the existing Charity and VA Hospital complexes) and on the needless destruction of a neighborhood in a National Historic District.

I should note that I blog here in my personal capacity, not in my role with the Trust.  The views expressed here are solely my own, even if they align with those of the Trust at various points.


Arborists from Tree Medics of Metaire addressed a live oak bough that was preventing this home at 325 S. Galvez from moving off of its site and down the street toward a new location.  Several more homes rolled downriver off the VA Footprint site today.

"The resulting design plan envisioned a footprint that would fit nicely in Glendale, Ariz., or any American suburb where the unifying design element is the surface parking lot."

John Maginnis talks Lower Mid-City hospitals in today's Times-Picayune.

He rightly praises Mayor Mitch Landrieu for taking a more constructive and engaged approach in the matter than predecessor Ray Nagin.

However, this statement - "But he felt community pressure not to allow LSU and the state to have their way razing and replacing everything on 70 acres in the middle of town" - reveals the real problem. 

Even if Landrieu does force LSU to come up with a better design for the LSU side, even though he did support the house moving on the VA side, 70 acres in the middle of town will still be razed and replaced.  The state and LSU will still ultimately have their way even if the window dressing is shifted slightly.  Landrieu felt the intense community outcry, but he didn't respond and act with similar intensity on the leadership side. 

I'm sure he and his staff view his responses as the "reasonable, middle ground" solutions - and the house moving, for example, is admittedly a major undertaking.  I'm sure they're tired of "obstructionist" advocates who are never seemingly satisfied with any measure.  But here's the thing: a mere "balanced" response by the city's leader is not a sufficient response when the harm he seeks to redress or avoid is dramatic, long-lasting, avoidable, and clearly wrong in many ways.  It requires more than we've seen thus far.

There are no plans to move the over 50 historic homes in the LSU Footprint at this time.  Even if the design on that side of the project is superior, it's still slated to involved outright demolition of many properties that contribute to the Mid City Historic District.

Additionally, the solid VA Hospital building "island" out in the Mid-City neighborhoods will still break up the street grid and distort the neighborhood even if the LSU Footprint's design is revised to avoid those problems.

In short: Yes, Landrieu has reduced the pain in a number of ways - and he should be recognized for it - but that's little consolation when the city is still having a major surgery performed in the wrong location.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

228-230 S. Tonti Street

Coming Soon

To an historic home near you.

Brought to you by: Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act


Crews started in on some fine homes along Banks Street today, preparing them for moving.  Unfortunately, that means tearing off some of the most distinctive parts of the building above the roofline.

On Palmyra, the crew donned suits as it entered a new building.

Heavy machinery moved in on Cleveland Avenue to take out the porch of the 4-bay shotgun that once sported corinthian columns.

Monday, September 27, 2010

One Year Inside the Footprint

Today marks one year since I began blogging here at Inside the Footprint.

I never saw myself continuing the venture for such a long time.

I will say that while I still feel compelled to report on the happenings in the Footprint, it's difficult to continue the project these days.  Each subsequent visit leaves an increasingly bitter aftertaste.

If nothing else, though, there will be some record at close-range of the project's impact on an historic neighborhood.  And perhaps some future decision-makers will happen upon it and be dissuaded from making a similarly egregious mistake.

A Different Angle on the House Moves

Siri Colom provides another view of some of the recent house moves in her Flickr album.

This shot is especially riveting - a moment I didn't catch.

A Sense of the Senselessness

One of the key things to keep in mind when assessing the LSU/VA Hospitals project is that the site is located squarely within the Mid-City National Register Historic District.  That's not a mere local historic district.  It's a nationally recognized district - one that highlights the fact that the historic architecture in the district is important not only to the city, but the entire country.

The map above shows you the rough outline of The Footprint superimposed against the backdrop of the Historic District.  Here's the original of the map courtesy of the PRC.

It's also important to remember that the design of the proposed hospitals is very much sprawling suburban in style - the buildings do not rise more than about 7 stories high.  They also feature, especially on the LSU side, acres of surface parking lot.  They would look appropriate in, say...Iowa City.  But not in the heart of New Orleans.

Taken together, it's not difficult to see the senselessness of the plan.  Not only is the site unfortunate, but the plans by LSU and the VA make it all the more unfortunate because they fail to do all they can to minimize their impact on the city, its cultural legacy, and its historic street fabric - the thing that makes the city different from every other American city and the reason we have a National Register Historic District in the first place.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

"The oldest house in the footprint"

In the spring, Mr. Bill Reeves dug into the history of this distinctive creole cottage at 228-230 S. Tonti Street.  It dates to 1860, and is thus one of the oldest structures, if not the oldest, in the entire Footprint.

Unfortunately, the building does not have a sill.  Sitting directly on a slab (possibly indicating that it was moved from an even older part of the city) means it cannot be moved within Builders of Hope's parameters.  Thus, the house is slated to be demolished soon.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Corner Store Demolished



It's unfortunate that several of the oldest buildings in the VA Footprint do not have sills - they're directly on slabs, likely moved from even older parts of the city at some point in the past.  Buildings on slabs aren't in the cards for the moving operation.

It's another reminder of the abysmal site selection brought to us by the Nagin-Blakely team.  Quintessential parts of the New Orleans historic street fabric are being sent to the landfill unnecessarily.

The Dust Problem in the VA Footprint Site

On Tuesday evening, I went to a neighborhood meeting put on by the VA regarding the VA Footprint.  A few neighbors from the residential area peripheral to the Footprint showed up.  One of their chief grievances: the staggering amounts of dust that was being blown around and off of the site.

Several complained about having to clean off cars daily to drive them.  Two individuals asked for compensation for cleaning out their air conditioner.

Personally, as my post that day indicated, I'm familiar with the dust bowl aspect that has now come to dominate the site.  A sandy soil mixture is piled onto any lots that are cleared, and this has proven to be the genesis of much of the dust.

It's difficult to capture, but here are a few photos that convey some of the problem:

Another One Bites the Dust

Yesterday, by late in the day, 200 S. Miro Street had disappeared.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

When Bees Attack

This post over at the Builders of Hope blog relates an interesting tale from the VA Hospital site.

Demolitions Continue Today Even as Houses Move

Despite the many sets of tires lined up in the first photo, demolition of a number of properties continues in the VA Footprint, including this yellow 2-bay shotgun at 2327 Palmyra Street, which used to look like this. 

Crews also started removing the roof on 2314-16 Cleveland Avenue, the house known for its distinctive Corinthian columns.

Crews also entered the old creole cottage-style corner store at Palmyra and S. Miro - for the first time since I've been walking the Footprint.

The roof on 325-27 S. Galvez was almost entirely off as of this morning; the porch was in the process of being removed.

The 2-story home at 218 S. Miro - which used to look like this - has been reduced to rubble.

The safe driving school business on S. Galvez has also finally relocated to another site outside the Footprint.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation Weighs In


The National Trust continues to oppose the deeply flawed plan for the VA hospital in Lower Mid-City—a suburban-style plan that displaces what was a viable historic neighborhood containing well over a hundred historic homes and businesses painstakingly renovated since Hurricane Katrina. Despite our objections to the VA’s overall plan, we support moving as many homes as possible from the VA footprint to other nearby historic neighborhoods in the city, rather than seeing them demolished and dumped in a landfill, and we commend Mayor Landrieu for his leadership in initiating this effort. The National Trust has provided technical assistance to Builders of Hope, and we remain willing to provide whatever assistance we can to ensure that as many homes as possible are saved. Faced with the choice of demolishing or moving houses, we believe that moving them is a better, more sustainable option. However, we continue to believe that the destruction of this historic neighborhood could have been easily avoided if better planning had occurred at the outset of this process.

A Compromise

So continues the constant process of hybridization of New Orleans homes and architecture.  This raised basement house on S. Miro had its understory cut out in preparation for a move to a new site.

"it seems to me a one-year period is time people cannot afford to waste"

In this piece, Congressman Joseph Cao spoke about the existing FEMA appeals process, which takes a year on average:

"If children are waiting for a school to reopen, or ill people are waiting for a hospital to reopen, it seems to me a one-year period is time people cannot afford to waste," he said.

That's interesting...coming from a Congressman who has failed to show any empathy for the people of Lower Mid-City who are being displaced by the proposed hospitals, and who has not supported the RMJM Hillier plan for re-opening Charity Hospital - which could have restored medical care to New Orleans more rapidly and for less cost than the current plan to build hospitals in Lower Mid-City.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Dusty Day Update

The VA Footprint took on a dust bowl feel today as wind picked up and blew sand and dirt from the many barren, cleared lots across the site.

Crews demolished outbuildings behind the S.W. Green house at 219 S. Miro Street.

This lady, who resides at the house on the left, took her child out for a bit as the houses up the street were prepared for moving.

Despite appearances, crews will actually move the bottom floor of this formerly two-story home on Cleveland.

A set of four houses is slated to move off the site tomorrow, including this one.

A Site to Keep an Eye On


As some observers have noted, and as the entire LSU/VA Hospitals experience has shown me, it's truly difficult for the average citizen to get a handle of what his or her government is doing.  It's even more difficult to stop the various government entities from doing what you don't want them to do.

Throw enough money, bureaucracies, levels of government, expropriation petitions, and shifting, euphemistic acronyms at a historic neighborhood, and you will ultimately get your way.  That seems to be the lesson.

You'll even get the rather ironic and gung ho support of the Downtown Development District as you abandon downtown New Orleans, leave the massive Charity Hospital complex and the existing VA Hospital complex vacant, and push out beyond the CBD to build sprawling suburban-style medical facilities where they do not belong.

The sad thing in all of this is that I really don't have a problem with the overarching purpose of many of the development organizations involved.  I do have a problem with the wanton way in which they have decided that some people in the community and some parts of the city itself simply don't matter.  If medical and biomedical development was targeted intelligently, as it should be, at the many, many existing vacancies in the CBD, there would be far less opposition.

Louisiana Weekly on the Charity Petition and House Moving


"On Thursday, September 16th, Dr. Charles C. Mary Jr. applied the 10,000th signature on the petition calling on New Orleans Mayor Mitchell Landrieu to support the reopening of the landmark "Big" Charity Hospital."

The Latest Door Hanger - VA Neighborhood Meeting Tonight

The first question is especially appropriate - I ask myself the same thing every day as I step into the Footprint - "WHAT'S GOING ON AROUND HERE?"

I ask it both on the surface level - as in, what's new today?  But also on a deeper - "this is absurd" level.

The latter sensation is especially true as deconstruction moves along even though people continue to live in properties in the VA Footprint.  For example, this one at 328 S. Miro (white door below) is almost entirely surrounded by heavy construction activity all day long.  I was somewhat amazed to see a resident pop out of the door this morning.

Shades of Off-White: Scenes from Yesterday

Monday, September 20, 2010

Moving to Cleveland

A Better Map of the Footprint

Or Footprint and its component footprints, to be more precise.

Visitors to the site have always been searching for maps of the VA and LSU Footprints, and until I created the linked Google map today, there's never been an adequate representation on the blog.  I've replaced the old sidebar link, so clicking on the colorful icon at the top of the sidebar will now take you to the map hyperlinked above.

Notes for anyone who uses Streetview feature on the map...

1. The shots are from a moment in time that's closer to the immediate aftermath of Katrina.

2. The City of New Orleans imposed a moratorium on even repairing properties in the Footprint for a period post-storm in anticipation of the proposed hospitals.

3. The Streetview shots do not at all reflect the many changes in the VA Footprint due to demolitions and house moving that have transformed the area in the past four months.

Treading in Dangerous Waters

Today's Times-Picayune piece demonstrates just how fundamentally flawed the plans are for the proposed UMC Hospital, in what I've long called the LSU Footprint.

Mayor Landrieu, at the very least, called for changes to the UMC design, and some of those changes - adding street-level retail space, maintaining at least some of the Mid-City street grid and reducing the amount of surface parking on the 34-acre University Medical Center campus - would be positive.

But they're borderline meaningless in the big picture - the neighborhood is still being destroyed.  And I'm not using that word lightly.  When I say destroyed, I mean literally destroyed.  By the state government with the complicity of the city government.  And I know of no plan to move the houses on the LSU side, so at present, well over 50 historic homes (not just in my view, but as determined by the Programmatic Agreement for the hospitals) are headed for the landfill.  Like this one:

That brings me to the other aspect of the LSU Footprint that Bill Barrow managed to highlight as he confronted the city's Andy Kopplin and the Division of Adminstration's Michael Diresto: LSU is even now expropriating land only to have it sit or have it go to a private entity.  Not incidentally or accidentally, but purposefully.  Barrow noted the possible problem with the state's Constitutional Amendment, passed as a result of Kelo:

One challenge of creating more retail space is conforming to state laws that limit the private use of land that is expropriated for public purpose. Similar considerations could come into play if the project depends on federal mortgage insurance to back construction bonds.
The state appears to have no intention of slowing its land acquisition process, and its contractors have filed dozens of expropriation orders on parcels in the footprint. That could still leave several city blocks of empty, unused land, even if the street grid on those blocks is reopened.
Kopplin said the city believes that "auxiliary services" that are directly connected to the UMC mission -- pharmacies, medical suppliers, flower shops, restaurants -- should clear any legal obstacles.

I'm not so sure.  See Section 4 of Article 1 of the Louisiana Constitution as amended in 2006: Except as specifically authorized by Article VI, Section 21 of this Constitution property shall not be taken or damaged by the state or its political subdivisions: (a) for predominant use by any private person or entity; or (b) for transfer of ownership to any private person or entity.

There's also the added state constitutional requirement that in addition to being entailing a public purpose, the expropriation must be necessary: "(4) Property shall not be taken or damaged by any private entity authorized by law to expropriate, except for a public and necessary purpose and with just compensation paid to the owner; in such proceedings, whether the purpose is public and necessary shall be a judicial question." [bold and ital. mine]

I've noticed that the LSU expropriation petitions on file with the CDC clerk contain affidavits by some shameless figure named Kim Way from Columbus, Ohio asserting that the amount taken is appropriate for the project.

LSU should know that such actions are at the root of the nation-wide backlash against the Kelo decision, an opinion reviled by figures across the political spectrum.

Finally, why is the default in this situation an overwhelming deference to LSU?  It's evident again in the mistreatment of homeowners and operating business owners - like Cal at Broadmoor Auto Parts on Banks Street, which struggled as it was to come back after Katrina:

The Goody Clancy report also raised the idea of not expropriating land on the Claiborne side of the footprint if the parcel is now occupied by a working business. Kopplin said that issue has come up in the city-state discussions. He cited other public development projects in which a public entity agreed to a conditional purchase of private property, allowing a business or homeowner to remain on the land for a certain period of time until the parcel is actually needed. 

"I'm not saying that's going to happen in this case, but we're at least asking the questions," Kopplin said.

It should happen.  There's still so much uncertainty about whether LSU will be able to fund its proposed medical center that expropriation of properties to drive people and businesses out is truly sinister.  It's nothing short of un-American for the government to take property when it's not at all clear that the land seized will actually be used for a public purpose.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Have you ever played for a house moving before?"

*Photo courtesy of Steve Lemoine

Uncle Lionel Batiste, leaned up against a house on Conti in the shade with the rest of the Treme Brass Band, nodded and wheezed in the affirmative as I shook his hand.

Down the row, people dotted the stoops on each bracketed facade as the train of four old houses crept cautiously along toward their new locations on Bienville.  Batiste may have played for a house moving at some point, but this one was clearly out of the ordinary for the folks on Conti Street.

Orleans Shoring, one of the chief contractors involved in the moving process, brought a crew of employees down to the Footprint on Friday for a second line as the latest set of houses moved out.  The company had a film crew on hand to shoot a tv ad, and I can't say I blame them - the process makes for quite an unusual backdrop.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The End of the Frenchman Inn

[Click to Enlarge]

Working Backwards - A Day of House Moves

As of today, a total of 14 houses have moved out of the VA Footprint to other locations in the city, the bulk of them on lower Bienville near N. Claiborne.  (Captions, with luck, coming soon)