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Charity Redux

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Sep 07 2012

For Release Friday, September 7, 2012

Roberta Brandes GratzNEW ORLEANS – A bad decision is rarely made better over time; more likely, it is made worse.

This is the case with Louisiana State University’s decision, within weeks of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, not to reopen Charity Hospital in New Orleans, although it could have been patient-ready within days. Instead, LSU – with the federal, state and city governments complicit – decided to develop a new, oversized medical facility separated from its former downtown location by an elevated highway. To build the new, sprawling, 424-bed medical center would require demolishing a renewing middle-income neighborhood and displacing hundreds of residents and businesses.

Since then, things have gone from bad to worse. The financial costs, legal complications and health care challenges continue to mount. At this date, not enough money is available even to build the new University Medical Center, one that some experts considered over-scaled from the start.

Now, financial woes are even more serious, with serious state budget cutbacks to the whole statewide system of 10 hospitals, of which Charity was a part, and with Gov. Bobby Jindal’s decision to decline federal money that would come from expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Jindal has also announced a series of facility closures and cutbacks as well as plans to engage private providers to cover care for which the Charity system was once nationally famous. Jindal’s budget cuts are also causing a shake-up in the hospital system, with resignations by people who don’t agree with his strategy, which some consider overly drastic.

“He’s hell-bent on privatizing the formerly public system,” observed one critic.

New legal complications and financial costs are being added to the mix. Some 500 to 600 home and business owners in the Mid-City neighborhood were forced from their properties to make room for a new Veterans Administration hospital and the UMC, Charity’s replacement. Many of those residents and business owners claim they were underpaid for the property they were forced to vacate. Some had the wherewithal to sue the state. Between 30 and 50 eminent domain cases have been filed on behalf of claimants, according to attorney Randall Smith.

“Some people have called the situation a land grab by LSU,” Smith told Susan Buchanan of The Louisiana Weekly last month. LSU’s new Medical Center will use only about a third of the land taken from home and business owners. Planned originally for parking and green space, this land is available for future, for-profit development by LSU.

During the vigorous fight to save Charity Hospital, opponents of the new plan warned that the city could be held liable for jury awards, because of the complex deal then-Mayor Ray Nagin struck with the state. Regardless of whether it’s the city or the state that must pay in the end, it will add to everyone’s budget woes.

One case so far makes those claims look winnable for property owners. The Pallas Hotel case, brought by Smith, was settled this spring. The state had seized the property, valuing it at $4.5 million. A jury valued it as $10 million. It is on appeal now in the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal. If the court agrees, the state will owe another $5 million plus interest, the owner’s attorney fees and trial expenses.

The 1950s Pallas Hotel was “structurally sound but in need of renovation,” Smith argued. After extensive and expensive asbestos removal, the hotel was imploded and demolished last month. There are no plans to build on the site.

Many more homeowners would have sued if they could have afforded to, said civil rights attorney Mary Howell, a leader in the effort to save Charity Hospital. “Very few ordinary people can afford to challenge their home being taken,” Howell said. “They can’t afford the attorney’s fees, appraisal costs and long delays of litigation.”

Problems have also arisen with the historic homes the city agreed to move instead of demolish. Those moved dwellings were compromised from the start.

“The city’s goal was to move 100 houses, and about 80 were eventually moved,” noted Sandra Stokes, leader of the Save Charity fight and board member of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana. “To do that,” she said, “second floors, roofs, side extensions and a portion of the rear of several houses were amputated to make them 60-foot long and to make moving possible under utility lines.”

Some still sit unrepaired and unsecured, with no roofs, and stripped of the historic ornamentation that gave them a special status.

Meantime, LSU has scaled back its planned services in the new hospital because of budget woes. “By using Charity,” Stokes added despairingly, “we could have saved $283 million in construction costs alone, and construction could have been finished in three years, provided true economic development years earlier and revitalized the downtown the empty hospital now sits in.”

Charity was once renowned as a teaching hospital. Since its closure, healthcare services and teaching programs have been dispersed to other facilities.

That bad decision seven years ago has meant the loss of a hospital respected for its high level of charity care with no replacement for it, the destruction of a reviving working class neighborhood and the loss of irreplaceable historic structures and local businesses – and the new losses keep coming.

Roberta Brandes Gratz is an urban critic and author of The Battle For Gotham: New York In the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, 2010, Nation Books. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to

One Comment

  1. Michael Rouchell
    Posted September 7, 2012 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    Some of the houses that were relocated were Arts and Crafts styled houses that featured masonry and stucco work porches and facades, including the typical masonry pier that forms the base to tapered box columns, all of which had to be stripped off before the move, resulting in wood framed shells devoid of their character.

    The McDonough School was also moved to make way for the UMC, and in the process, the building was elevated off its basement level, and everything below was demolished. The School remains on its dollies, amputated at the knees, and waiting for a new site and foundation.

    As if that weren’t enough, the City’s Master Plan made the recommendation that the Claiborne Expressway be removed. A transportation study on the removal of the Claiborne Expressway claims that it can be removed with minimal impact to travel time. This is achieved by enhancing and maintaining the connectivity of the city’s street grid. Unfortunately VA/UMC, with its superblocks, may have made the Claiborne Expressway demolition no longer an option.