When LSU abandoned the 1930s-era Charity Hospital in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it touched off a heated debate about the future of public health care in New Orleans. That debate ended with the decision to build the massive new LSU-VA hospital complex in Mid-City, but another equally divisive question remains: What to do with Big Charity?
At one million square feet, the iconic Art Deco-style edifice on Tulane Avenue remains the largest piece of blighted property in New Orleans. Big Charity is iconic not only for its distinctive architectural features but also because it symbolizes what was once the state's unshakable commitment to public health care. Thousands of doctors and nurses learned their professions and honed their skills there, and hundreds of thousands if not millions got high-quality medical treatment there.
No one with a sense of history advocates tearing down Charity. Its architecture, size, history and location make it a prime, if neglected, piece of real estate. But the question remains: What should we do with it?
Other questions follow: Who gets to decide Charity's fate? How much will it cost to restore — and who will pay that cost?
Those questions are just now coming to the fore, more than eight years after Katrina.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu has had ideas for redeveloping Charity since he was a candidate for mayor in 2010. Back then, he spoke in general terms about the need to repurpose much of the area between Canal and Poydras streets, from Loyola Avenue to Claiborne Avenue. That footprint contains City Hall, Civil District Court, Duncan Plaza, the main library, Charity, the former VA Hospital, and other buildings. Some of them, like Charity, are in disrepair. Others, like the office towers on Poydras, are fully functional. All occupy valuable real estate.
Since his election in February 2010, the mayor has refined his vision. He now proposes a new "civic complex" at Charity, one that includes a new City Hall and a new Civil District Court (CDC) building. The present City Hall and CDC, which abut one another at Loyola and Poydras, were built as a civic complex in the 1950s. Once shiny and new, both buildings today are rundown.
No one disputes the need for a new City Hall and a new courthouse, but for some the agreement stops there. While Landrieu wants to recreate the "civic complex" concept at Charity, the CDC judges want their own, stand-alone building in Duncan Plaza, on a site formerly occupied by the Louisiana Supreme Court and the State Office Building, both of which have been demolished. The disagreement between the mayor and the judges has gotten heated.
"Consolidating City Hall and Civil District Court into a civic complex revitalizes the Charity Hospital building and repurposes a civic icon," Landrieu told Gambit through a spokesman. "A consolidated City Hall with a Civil District Court will reduce operating expenses and improve efficiency and quality of workplace for the workforce."
The judges, speaking through Judge Michael Bagneris, don't have a problem with the concept of a civic center, but they do have a problem with moving into Charity. Bagneris chairs the Judicial Building Commission, which state lawmakers created last year to study ways to build a new local courthouse.
"It's unsuited for a courthouse," Bagneris says of Charity. Among other things, the judges say Charity's ceilings are too low and its large structural columns would create "blind spots" (and security problems) in every courtroom. They cite a report from architect Robert Boyle of the Las Vegas architecture firm Tate Snyder Kimsey to support those claims.
"[Charity] is totally incapable of being converted to function as a courthouse," Boyle wrote to the judges on May 20. "I could not with good conscience recommend that New Orleans consider ... Charity Hospital for use as a courthouse."
Landrieu counters that Charity "provides possibilities for a large floor layout. We are confident that the building can be refigured to accommodate the judges' needs." Landrieu is joined in that opinion by local developer Pres Kabacoff, who has suggested that a new CDC be built on open space next to Charity, on the hospital's Gravier Street side, which would give the new courthouse its own separate entrance. The judges reject that idea.
In addition to the issue of Charity's suitability, the two sides also disagree as to which proposal would be easier to finance.
The judges recently turned to the New Orleans BioDistrict for assistance. The BioDistrict, which state lawmakers created in 2005 to promote the city as a biosciences center, has broad authority to sell bonds and to act as a developer. Bagneris says the BioDistrict could serve as a conduit for financing as well as a construction manager. However, the district's 15-member board, which includes four members appointed by the mayor, has yet to approve the idea.
Landrieu adds that building a new courthouse “is not in line with the BioDistrict’s mission.” Lee Reid, attorney for the BioDistrict, disagrees. Reid says the BioDistrict’s board has the authority to decide what its mission is — and which projects fit within that mission.
Meanwhile, the Building Commission, which Bagneris chairs, has obtained approval from the Judicial Council of the state Supreme Court to raise filing fees at CDC — to pay for construction costs of a new courthouse in Duncan Plaza. The judges say this ensures the new courthouse won't burden taxpayers.
"He (Landrieu) wrote a letter, Nov. 22, 2010, in which he states that Duncan Plaza is the site that the city thinks is appropriate for the new courthouse," Bagneris says.
Landrieu does not deny writing the November 2010 letter. Asked if the mayor reneged on that endorsement, a Landrieu spokesman said in an email: "The Landrieu Administration supports developing a civic complex and not a stand-alone courthouse. We have yet to see the judges' financial plan that demonstrates that they can build a new courthouse. We have a financial plan for redeveloping Charity Hospital as a civic complex and funding associated with Charity and Charity only."
The judges say they have a financial plan. They say it's the mayor who lacks an objective financial plan.
"We went to a national accounting firm, CohnReznick in New York, who came in and worked with ValueSpark Capital, a local firm, to deal with number crunching," Bagneris says. "They indicated that this job is very, very doable, and that we have the revenue streams to retire the bonds." As of press time, however, the CohnReznick report was not on the court's web site.
Bagneris says the judges also have spoken with Oppenheimer & Co. about financing the new building. The judges gave Gambit a copy of a letter from an Oppenheimer executive expressing strong interest in the project. "While we understand from public information sources that the project site location has been the subject of a number of discussions, it is our opinion that the Judicial Building Commission decision to locate the project at the 'Duncan Plaza' site appears to be the most viable from a financing perspective," wrote Ralph L. McGinley, managing director of Oppenheimer.
When asked about the judges' studies, Landrieu replied through a spokesman, "The city has performed a professional analysis of the Charity Hospital building, including a financial and engineering analysis. The judges have not shared the referenced reports with the city."
That kind of back-and-forth pretty much sums up the dialogue, if you can call it that, between the mayor and the judges these days. Most of the debate has occurred via the news media.
Politically, the issue is at a stalemate. Landrieu has not formally accepted the state's donation of the Duncan Plaza site, and he has not budged from his position in support of a new civic center at Charity.
For their part, the judges remain resolute in their opposition to the Charity site. "We wish the mayor well in terms of repurposing Charity," Bagneris says. "We understand the impact it could have. But we're not going to allow the judiciary to be sacrificed on the cross of political expediency."
Even if a new courthouse and a new City Hall were built at Charity, they would not fill the complex's one million square feet of space. So what else could locate there?
Ironically, a report last week by WWL-TV's Meg Farris revealed that part of Charity may be redeveloped as a medical center — even though LSU insisted it could not be reused as a hospital post-Katrina.
According to WWL-TV, several local doctors and Kabacoff are working on a plan to turn Charity into a world-class center for brain treatment. Dr. Nicolas Bazan of LSU's Neuroscience Center of Excellence has led a team of physicians researching the use of hyperbaric oxygen tanks to treat a wide spectrum of brain-related injuries and conditions. The station reported that the doctors and Kabacoff have met with local political and community leaders to discuss the idea.
Referring to Charity, Bazan told WWL-TV, "That tower can allow the development of incubators specific for neurosciences, because if you develop companies around these issues, you need operating rooms and specialized equipment for brain research. ... For even part of this to happen would be extraordinary for New Orleans and for the region."