Thursday, July 3, 2008

2 Charity Hospital Op-Eds

This Op-Ed by Richard Moe, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation appeared in the July 3 edition of the Times-Piayune.

A year ago, USA Today told its readers about a feisty Mid-City resident named Bobbi Rogers. Back then, Ms. Rogers was excited about getting started on the renovation of her flood-damaged house. Today, she's dismayed because her home, now beautifully refurbished, is threatened with demolition.

The threat to Ms. Rogers' home -- and many other structures in her neighborhood -- arises from a plan to build a new Veterans Administration medical facility and a 424-bed teaching hospital to replace Charity Hospital, which has been shuttered and moldering since Hurricane Katrina. The plan, which was recently given the go-ahead by Gov. Bobby Jindal and Secretary Alan Levine of the Department of Health and Hospitals, would destroy 150-200 homes and businesses.

In other words, people who saw their homes swamped by rising floodwaters could now see them flattened by roaring bulldozers.
The seriousness of the threat led the National Trust for Historic Preservation to include Charity Hospital and the adjacent historic neighborhood on its 2008 list of America 's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

The listing spotlights our alarm over the possible loss of "Big Charity," which is New Orleans ' premiere example of Art Deco design, and a major part of the Mid-City Historic District, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It also reflects our concern that plans for constructing the new medical facilities are being pushed too fast, before all the facts are in.

As mandated by a resolution of the state Legislature in 2006, an assessment of the Charity Hospital building is currently being carried out under the direction of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana; the final report on the structural condition of this important landmark is expected to be released by mid-August. The information in this report should be a major factor in -- not an afterthought to -- any decision about the need to construct new hospitals.

Similarly, the destruction of part of the historic Mid-City neighborhood and the displacement of its residents should not be contemplated until there has been a full and open discussion of the reasoning behind a decision that will impact hundreds of families. Up to now, most New Orleanians -- including the owners of property within the proposed footprint of the new hospitals -- have learned about the project primarily through the media. That's wrong. When residents are facing the threat of removal from their neighborhood, they shouldn't be expected to comply meekly, with no explanation of why they are being uprooted.

The National Trust urges the New Orleans City Council, the city's Office of Recovery and Development Administration, the Regional Planning Commission, LSU and the VA to open up the process. When site selection and facility design proceed in a manner that is contrary to established guidelines for historic preservation and environmental reviews the public is understandably left with the impression that federal, state and local agencies are merely going through the motions of compliance.

We all deserve better than this. Specifically, we deserve meaningful discussion of alternative sites within New Orleans, a rationale for the choice of the Mid-City location and a discussion of the extraordinary size of the proposed footprint.

No one disputes that New Orleans needs top-quality, 21st-century facilities for health care, medical education and research. But meeting this need doesn't have to involve the needless sacrifice of a historic neighborhood whose residents have already demonstrated their determination to put Katrina behind them and rebuild their lives in the area they love. If the new medical facilities are truly needed, there are viable alternative sites for them -- sites that won't force people to choose between shiny hospitals and familiar homes.

This letter, written by the Executive Vice Chair of the Foundation for Historic Louisiana, was sent to various state officials including Governor Bobby Jindal and printed in June 5 edition of the Times-Picayune.

The Foundation for Historical Louisiana, pursuant to its charge in HCR 89, has recently hired the firm of RMJM Hillier to do an independent assessment of Big Charity Hospital. RMJM Hillier is an internationally renowned architectural firm that specializes in both preservation and state of the art healthcare design. Due to be completed by August 21, this in-depth evaluation will be the first study to determine the structural integrity of this building and the possibilities of restoring and renovating Charity to a first rate medical facility.

Charity Hospital has been a part of Louisiana’s architectural, cultural and medical heritage for 272 years. Last week the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the hospital and its adjacent neighborhood as one of America’s 11 most treasured and endangered sites. Since its closing there have been several assessments of the hospital, but only to determine the monetary amount of damages to be reimbursed by FEMA. There has been no study to determine the viability and reuse potential of this monumental landmark. That is until now.

The Foundation has worked diligently to fulfill the charge unanimously passed by the 2006 Legislature in House Concurrent Resolution 89. HCR 89 provided no appropriation, thus the study is being funded by the Foundation for Historical Louisiana and donors. We are proud to have been chosen to lead this fact finding mission to provide the first independent assessment of the building and to determine its viability for any future medical use. With the cooperation of the State Office of Facility Planning and LSU, RMJM Hillier has begun this critical evaluation to gather the full data.

We ask that all decisions concerning Charity Hospital and/or a proposed new hospital, which will demolish over 25 blocks of historic homes and businesses in a National Register of Historic Places neighborhood, be put on hold until we have the results from this assessment of a Louisiana icon. Our findings will be issued to the full Legislature, LSU Board of Supervisors, State Office of Facility Planning, and Louisiana Recovery Authority by August 21, 2008.

Should you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at 225-445-3800.

Sandra L. Stokes
Executive Vice Chair

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