For Release Sunday, May 12, 2010
NEW ORLEANS – As if this storied city has not been beset enough with disasters, the oil spill is actually its third man-made catastrophe after the levee failures during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Gaining little outside attention is the real second on-going disaster, a thoughtlessly cited, destructively planned hospital complex that promises to cripple New Orleans in many unrecognized ways.
Everyone in the city wants both hospitals it had before the storms – Charity run by LSU and the Veteran’s Hospital. But the city, through a decision-making process that was glaringly non-transparent, has approved a complex requiring the destruction of a tax-paying, historic neighborhood of homes restored with government money. The hospitals will form of a suburban-type campus, away from the already struggling downtown core, in a location that may make regeneration of the historic center close to impossible.
While Charity’s minimally-damaged, perfectly reusable historic downtown facility sits empty, LSU is being given at least twice the land it needs to build a new, car-dependant campus with considerable extra acreage for future profit-making commercial development that will compete with and further erode the fragile business district. Together with the VA Hospital, Charity will share 67 acres built on a platform 22 feet in the air. Streets disconnected from the grid with minimum pedestrian access, this suburban-style campus will be totally car-dependant and isolated from the existing city, which has been showing real healthy signs of regeneration.
To add insult to injury, this new complex was exempted from the very planning process that the city has been evolving over the last few years and is finally ready to approve. In fact, all real decisions have been made away from the public eye. While endless public meetings have been held on specific aspects, there has never been a thorough public discussion of alternatives, never a real examination of the true costs and benefits, never any proof that the money is really available to build both facilities, and surely never a full discussion of the impact on the shape of the city.
With this project, New Orleans will be on a path of perpetual subsidizing of a crippled center as new, car-oriented office buildings arise on the selected site, drawing more uses from downtown. It will have a second center as new development gravitates to this new zone. The battle for stability with be rough, if not impossible.
In the end, the city will spend more than it gets, the jobs will not be as local as promised, tax incentives will be needed forever. By the time the truth is clear, the destruction will have occurred, and New Orleans, like many other cities struggling today, will spend endless funds and decades rebuilding its urban fabric.
This is a classic city-killing project in the tradition of the much-discredited Urban Renewal Czar Robert Moses who, through his work in New York and consultancies around the country, helped reshape urban America. Moses was all about wiping out authentic fabric to build highways, big projects, separated uses. The cities where his rebuilding approach won out are today overwhelmingly the over-suburbanized cities now spending fortunes to reconfigure themselves into traditionally dense, vibrant downtowns and neighborhoods.
Ironically, New Orleans has been genuinely regenerating itself in the classic fashion described and advocated by urbanist author Jane Jacobs. The same resiliency and defiance that she celebrated and that has regenerated so many beleaguered city neighborhoods nationwide burst forth among this city’s populace after the storms. Local people took control, organized, sat around tables with planners to talk about what would be good for their neighborhood and the whole city — not leaving it to the leaders who, in the past, had failed them at best, and screwed up at worst. The energy, determination and savy is evident in small efforts and large neighborhoods all over the city. More than 200 civic organizations are attesting to capacity of citizens to be innovative and do the right thing, as Jacobs described.
Observers often fail to recognize that small initiatives add up slowly – but surely — to big change. One can’t go more than a block anywhere in this city without seeing remarkable rebuilding projects, new local businesses opening and old ones reopened even better, and new community efforts organized.
“This is not a recovery; it is a renaissance,” declared one resident. “The lessons we have learned, no one could teach us.”
These are the people in whom government leaders often have little faith, but Jacobs did when she famously said: “Never underestimate the power of a city to regenerate.”
What matters more than anything is more fundamental than the particulars. What matters is how one views the future of the city and how decisions are made. What matters is whether it is understood that suburbanized cities don’t work and that cities that have gone this route are now finding they must work to redensify, to recreate streets, to reintegrate separated uses, to repurpose valuable existing buildings once disparaged, to reweave the fractured urban fabric. But this does not seem to be what matters officially, in New Orleans.
The city does have room for two fully modernized hospitals – without destroying a regenerating neighborhood and crippling the larger city for decades to come. This is a classic Robert Moses anti-urban mistake from which it took cities like New York decades to recover.
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. Her e-mail address is Robert.Gratz@gmail.com.
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