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New Orleans’ Third Crisis: Suburb-Style Hospital Plan

Roberta Brandes Gratz / May 06 2010

For Release Sunday, May 12, 2010

Roberta Brandes Gratz

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 columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Mark Hinshaw
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    The truly tragic part of this story is that in numerous other cities throughout the country, large hospitals have learned how to become good neighbors, building up not out, placing parking in structures not surface lots, and integrating housing, services and shops around their edges — thereby mending neighborhoods rather than tearing them apart.

    Unfortunately, many hospital boards and administrators continue to be obsessed with building free-standing, monumental fortresses that only serve the perceived efficiencies of the institution. With thoughtful planning, both the needs of the city and the medical facility can be met. Apparently, no one at LSU cared enough about their city to make that happen.

  2. Mike Suthelrand
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    A poorly written opinion, at best, and a one sided uninformed, unedited critique, at worst.

    Hmmmm, I wonder if there could possibly be another side to this story?

    As the saying goes, there are seldom any monuments created to honor the critics!

  3. Thomas Hofer
    Posted May 13, 2010 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    This article is excellent. I fully intend to forward it wherever I can. Thomas Hofer

  4. S. Jacobs
    Posted May 13, 2010 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Ms Gratz article is wrong on many points. While any process involving government exercizing its power to acquire real estate will alienate some and that process should be safeguarded against abuse, the hospital project has more positives than negatives. The “struggling downtown core” is such because of a lack of JOBS, which the Charity -VA-LSU-Tulane medical corridor will create in a scale not experienced before in New Orleans.The area of the development has not regenerated in large part and is isolated from retail services and jobs because it is not where businesses want to locate. It is surronded by an Interstate, a housing project, and a prison on three sides.
    The ONLY way this area and its immediate surroundings can be successfully “densified” (in her words) is to have a large cohesive development big enough to provide a critical mass of jobs and service activity to support neighborhoods around it. Her evident disdain for and the context of use of the word “profit” indicates that any commercial development for “profit” is bad in some way. If Ms. Gratz really knew the situation she’d understand that the poor people living near the development will actually have jobs brought to them as well as services and retail that has been leaking to neighboring Jefferson parish for DECADES.BTW – I’m a New Orleanian.

  5. Gregg Swem
    Posted May 13, 2010 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    I have read much about the neighborhood in question–how the residents have taken remarkable strides to rejuvenate their homes and businesses only to fear all would someday be lost with the proposed medical complex. I have seen the ill effects of urban renewal in Louisville, Ky., Montgomery, Ala., Richmond, Va., and other cities. A friend recently returned from a visit to New Orleans and reported how the general atmosphere of the city seemed to be upbeat and optimistic. Let’s not wipe out another older neighborhood where folks have struggled to make it an attractive and comfortable place in which to live.

  6. Posted May 14, 2010 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    mix the brains and planning of physicians and politicians and the result is disaster.

  7. Neal Peirce
    Posted May 20, 2010 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    Comment received from famed New Orleans planning advocate, William Borah:
    Increasingly it becomes apparent that the only way the LSU/VA hospitals are going to be stopped is that an influential federal official recognizes that these hospitals are a disaster of seismic proportions, and that they should be halted until the administration can review the developments to see if their location and construction is in the best interest of the city. As (Mayor Mitch) Landrieu inherited the hospitals from (outgoing Mayor Ray) Nagin, so Obama inherited the developments from Bush.
    It is important to remember in these desperate times that the Johnson administration strongly supported the Vieux Carre Riverfront Expressway. An elevated six-lane highway that had the overwhelming support of local and state politicians, to say nothing of the New Orleans business community and its daily mouthpiece, the Times-Picayune. It was a Lyndon Johnson highway, and when the Nixon administration came to power it took a hard look at the expressway, sending James Braman, Assistant Secretary of Transportation, to New Orleans to hold meetings with highway proponents as well as opponents. Transportation Secretary John Volpe listened to Braman’s conclusions that the highway would forever separate the city from its river and irreparably harm the Vieux Carre, a National Historic Landmark On July 1, 1969, Volpe canceled federal funding for the highway, ending the Interstate threat to the old city.
    If the Obama Administration believe in sustainability; if it supports transparency, if it believes in citizens involvement in the planning process, if it cares about the preservation of historic neighborhoods, and if it opposes auto-oriented suburban-style development in the inner city, it will halt the federal government’s involvement in the LSU/VA hospital developments and take a hard look at these projects to see if their construction is in the best interest of the city, as well as the nation. If the Nixon Administration can do it, why not the Obama Administration?