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A Biotech Disaster in New Orleans?

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Mar 24 2011

For Release Thursday, March 24, 2010
Citiwire.net

Roberta Brandes GratzIf you want to understand why New Orleans will remain a troubled city longer than it has to, don’t look at the disasters that have befallen it. Look at the big projects it pursues in an erroneous effort to recovery from them.

Since Katrina, an intense controversy has raged around the misguided, excessively large and overly expensive plan to build two new hospitals on 67 acres instead of retrofitting the hardly-damaged Charity hospital and Veterans Administration hospitals sooner and cheaper. (Citiwire, May 2010).

But out of the spotlight has been an even larger, equally questionable plan in the same Mid-City neighborhood. It’s to develop a BioDistrict on 1500 acres. The two new hospitals are included here, along with a very densely populated, economically and socially integrated community, reborn nicely after the storms. Several hundred restored, occupied homes are threatened. The homes on this footprint are the same quintessential New Orleanian predominantly-shotgun cottages, many two family, that are being lost from the footprint of the hospitals. Mid-City is the largest National Historic District in the city.

The BioDistrict is meant to attract bio science-related businesses from around the country — the same ones almost every city competes for — and to build new dense housing similar to some already built five-story brick apartment houses nearby sitting atop parking garages, a style so antithetical to New Orleans it stuns the eye.

Until recently, the public, especially Mid-City residents, have been oblivious. Concern is increasing. This is understandable.

In 2005, shortly before Katrina, the district was quietly established by the state legislature, given powers that override the city, enables it to tax, to plan, to landbank and, in partnership with other state agencies like Louisiana State University, to expropriate private property. It even gives it the power to annex areas outside of the 1500-acre footprint, such as yet rebuilt public housing projects. Accountability is elusive, to say the least. With a $2 million grant from the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the BioDistrict is charged with coming up with a Master Plan for the The District.

“We already went through the extensive citywide Master Plan process,” one frustrated resident noted, too nervous to give her name. “This area is already in the Master Plan passed by the City Planning Commission and City Council. Why are they doing this again?” The BioDistrict went before neither the City Planning Commission nor the City Council.

BioDistrict head James McNamara doesn’t actually answer this question, other than to say “we have to plan what we want to become. The community isn’t used to doing this.” But, in fact, it did do it. It is as if the citywide Master Plan never happened.

McNamara, whose business and political connections are extensive, claims “it has been an open process, very transparent.” Residents assert just the opposite and note that “he has said different things at different times and when we asked him if he would support shrinking the footprint to save our neighborhoods, he said no.”

This post-legislation “public process” is unlike any legitimate process run by an elected government body and comes well after the legislation was passed and the boundaries and powers are law.

“This is not a new idea,” McNamara protests. “The BioDistrict was started in the 1990s.” So, one may ask, if it doesn’t work the first time, enlarge it?

Exactly, observes one astute New Orleanian. “This city is always 20 years behind the time,” she says. “Maybe it made sense back then before all these research companies were just developing but now they’re successfully located in a few major cities.”

One can’t fault anyone in New Orleans for thinking out of the box to diversify a city economy too dependent on tourism, oil and shipping. But one medical leader suggested that the way to do that is to first attract the talent, the companies, the research grants and then build around that.

The BioDistrict is real estate masquerading as economic development. Real estate follows economic development; it does not create it. Economic activity must come first. In fact, New Orleans’ existing medical district is filled with vacant and underused buildings that could be retrofitted for new medical-related uses if the demand was really there.

At one point, East Baltimore had been sited as a model for New Orleans. No more. The long-planned projected $1.8 billion effort to transform 88 acres in East Baltimore, into a world-class biotech park and new urban community complete with new amenities is, a decade later, stalled for years to come.

Interestingly, East Baltimore stands in total contrast to New Orleans’ handling of both the medical district and bio district. With enormous support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the impacted East Baltimore community was involved every step of the way. Extraordinarily progressive relocation policies were followed. Displaced residents are living in better neighborhoods and their children are going to better schools.

Unexpected problems attracting biotech firms are reportedly among its difficulties. And that was only 88 acres.

One has to also ask why the goal of new dense, multi-story housing in part replacing already dense, compact single, two and three-family housing. New residential apartments are already proliferating in New Orleans’ downtown adjacent to the existing medical district without a negative impact on existing neighborhoods. Warehouse conversions, renovations and new construction are happening all over the city. In fact, the central business district is the fastest growing residential district in the city without a state agency driving the trend.

Excessive-scaled, enormously expensive clearance-based projects never work. They are planned during a time and economy that never exists when implementation time arrives.
Empty sites exist in many cities today where planned mega- projects never materialized.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see a fate here that resembles the many urban renewal schemes of the 1960s and 70s where acres and acres of empty land in many cities still wait for promised pipe dreams to materialized.


Roberta Brandes Gratz is an urban critic and author of the newly published The Battle For Gotham: New York In the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, 2010, Nation Books.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted March 25, 2011 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    Thank God for the development! Most of the “neighborhoods” being destroyed were the haven of drug dealers, prostitutes and thieves.

    As a Mid City resident for over 8 yrs you speak from the perspective of a fancy hotel in the French Quarter…not of a resident who has watched the transformation of a Haiti-like area of mostly falling down houses to radical changes where the “displaced” residents, (mostly renters) are being given up to $40,000 cash towards purchasing a home in the same zip code. Others are having their entire house moved and improved..in an incredible way they could never otherwise afford.

    Balitmore is no New Orleans. New Orleans is a city where culture and creed is more important than simply greed. A place where a young generation are drawn to like ants to a picnic..where for the first time in over 200 yrs development is happening all over..communities rebuilt and not all expensive condos in the Central Business District like you attempt to portray.

    You are summarizing a world only partly true..partly because you do not have the real or total picture. If you see the real real estate stats you will begin to understand the complex nature of New Orleans and hopefully not dumify growth under the pretense that slums and buildings and people falling down..from drugs, bullets or to pick up their remaining underwear is some sort of romantic world.

    The Biotech world is working…and working well here. The Cancer Center as part of it is almost complete..Tulane and LSU continue to draw more professionals in droves…and when they are done studying, many are staying to call New Orleans home.

    Unlike Detroit, Baltimore and other scary cities, New Orleans and specifically Midcity continues to thrive..slow steady steps of positive progress.

  2. Iris Lindberg
    Posted February 23, 2013 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    As a researcher at LSUHSC (23 years) who relocated to Baltimore (UMB) after Katrina, I found your article very interesting. I agree that the destruction of mid-City for the creation of a 20-year too late biopark is a disaster waiting to happen. The critical mass of NIH-funded scientists has disappeared from the city (in large part due to mismanagement following Katrina) and there is now ample vacant laboratory space at LSUHSC (I can’t speak for Tulane). So who is going to occupy the new research facilities? NIH has 6% funding cutoffs at present- they will certainly not be supported by NIH. Will the State step forward? if so, why is Jindal now cutting funding to the Med Center?
    The footprint of this effort should be reduced immediately.
    The large open field next to Hopkins in East Baltimore shows that even in a city with as much research strength as Baltimore- Hopkins is #1 in the nation- it is not the time to build a large biopark.