Bobbi Rogers and her husband Kevin Krause moved to New Orleans in 2006 to help the city rebuild after the levee failures. As volunteers with the nonprofit group Phoenix of New Orleans, the couple gutted houses in Lower Mid-City and quickly fell in love with the area. They bought their own renovation project: a flooded, century-old, neo-classical camelback with a side hall. After two years of 80-hour workweeks, a state historical preservation grant and a construction loan, they moved into their home in March 2008.
The couple meticulously restored their house's past grandeur — from the stately columns to the cypress doors and pine floors. They wanted this to be home for their 5-week-old son, Nicholas.
Now the state wants to tear it down.
The state plans to bulldoze more than 150 houses to make way for the $1.2 billion LSU/VA medical complex. Many of those homes helped Mid-City earn its place on the National Register of Historic Places. The LSU/VA project represents progress and economic development, but that doesn't mean the state should raze historic architecture in a city that, less than five years ago, lost so much of its history. Sadly, the state has approached this issue with an appalling combination of arrogance and indifference.
When the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) determined that the LSU/VA project would destroy historically significant homes, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs agreed to pay $600,000 to move some of the houses off the VA hospital footprint. That's a woefully inadequate figure. SHPO operates the house-moving program, and it deemed only 55 single-story houses out of 110 qualified for moving. Two-story homes, like that of Krause and Rogers, aren't even eligible.
Worse yet, only eight homeowners are even considering the program — thanks to its onerous conditions. The program provides $40,000 to move a house; homeowners must bear all costs above that. Moving a house is dicey — size, condition and stability are all factors — and it's difficult to know if $40,000 is enough, says Patricia Gay, executive director of the Preservation Resource Center. Moreover, displaced homeowners must move eligible homes to lots in Mid-City owned by the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority — many of which are not in desirable locations — and they must pay $2,500 in closing costs for the new property. That's just too many hurdles for people who are being uprooted.
Before destroying more of the city's architectural history, the state should expand the moving offer to include all owners of architecturally or historically significant homes in the LSU/VA footprint. The state also should find and buy lots across Canal Street from the medical complex, so displaced homeowners can truly stay "in the neighborhood." The decision to build the LSU/VA complex has been made, but the real work is just beginning. The state should start this thing right.
"I'd love to keep my house if there was a real offer and a real lot," Rogers says.
It's time for the state to put such an offer on the table — for all owners of historic homes.