Wednesday, 22 September 2010 13:27

Charity Hospital In New Orleans Hits Goal, Will Landrieu Reconsider?

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By Christopher Tidmore, ctidmore@louisianaweekly.com

On Thursday, September 16th, Dr. Charles C. Mary Jr. applied the 10,000th signature on the petition calling on New Orleans Mayor Mitchell Landrieu to support the reopening of the landmark “Big” Charity Hospital.
The significance lay in the fact that Dr. Mary served as Medical Director of the hospital and is a former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare for the State of Louisiana.  Subsequently, his local clinic (www.maryclinic.com) has done landmark work with treating cancer patients from across the region and world.   
Dr. Mary’s decision to break with state health officials over the construction of a new teaching hospital over a Nineteenth Century neighborhood in Mid-City comes at a critical time instead of a reconstruction of a modern hospital within the “Big Charity” shell comes at a critical time for the Jindal Administration, facing a $450 million shortfall in the monies needed to build the new hospital and rising legislative opposition amidst a two billion dollar state budgetary deficit.   
The petition drive was initiated by advocates for re-opening The Avery C. Alexander Charity Hospital and supported by New Orleans musicians, Social and Pleasure clubs and artists who endorse the Foundation for Historical Louisiana plan by RMJM/Hillier Architects to retrofit and reopen “Big Charity” hospital as a state of the art facility, and save the lower mid city neighborhood from expropriation.
“Some of the best physicians ever produced came out of the Great Charity Hospital,” Dr. Mary explained to Bayoubuzz and The Louisiana Weekly.   It was a symbol of medical excellence and set the standard for decades for both trauma and neonatal treatment.   To construct another facility while leaving the current building dormant makes little sense to the man who once oversaw the entire state medical budget.
Dr. Mary has such affection for “Big Charity” that he gave his daughter Mignon the middle name “Charite’” and insisted that she be born at Charity Hospital when he served as director.  
“To just abandon Charity Hospital would be a sin,” Dr. Mary stated, noting the fiscal and psychological problems of transferring the main teaching hospital for the state so far away from the two medical school campuses currently next door to “Big Charity”, not to mention the fact that Dr. Mary worries that the state lacks the funds to build the new facility—leaving the people of New Orleans without a teaching medical center, and many without easy access to health care.
The Foundation for Historical Louisiana plan, as outlined at www.fhl..org, would bring the “Big Charity” facility on line, in less time, and at a savings of over a quarter billion dollars by the most conservative of estimates, while, as petition organizer Martha Owen explained “revitalizing the Central Business District, preserving the world class and renowned Medical District and restoring a 275 year tradition of excellence in patient care,” the tenure of Charity Hospital‘s and its antecedents’’ existence.
Supporters of the new medical center argue that for the state to remain on the cutting edge of medicine, the plan to gut and reconstruct a modern hospital within the shell of “Big Charity” is not enough.   The symbolic and operational structure of a new hospital is essential.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu, a supporter of the new LSU-VA hospital in Mid-City, but a critic of the current HHS 70 acre suburban-style hospital footprint, has said that his administration would consider the FLA plan if it received 10,000 signatures of support.  Hence, the importance of Dr. Mary’s symbolic signature.
The Mayor has been a critic of the current land clearances in Mid-City as offering insufficient opportunity to compensate homeowners or give them the chance to move their houses to other properties in Mid-City.
In June, Mayor Landrieu demanded that the state halt demolitions of historic properties in the VA footprint and the City partnered with Builders of Hope, a nationally-recognized property relocation contractor, to move residential properties in VA footprint. To pay for this program, the City has reprogrammed $3.2 million of the $79 million in D-CDBG federal recovery funds provided to the state for site acquisition.
The Mayor’s office has maintained, “that up to 100 residential properties in the Mid-City National Register Historic District can be saved and moved by the end of October with these funds”.  That would still leave 365 historic properties to be demolished, but it moves far more homes than former Mayor Ray Nagin ever committed to relocating.
(City Hall under his tenure and that of his NORA board gave lip service to moving properties off of the LSU-VA 70 acre footprint.   However, when a life long resident and war veteran asked to have his home, owned by his family for over 100 years--the sole residence he had ever known--moved to another site, the city offered the 82 year old man a property right next to Orleans Parish Prison.   It was the only one that NORA said it had available out of the more than 10,000 plots of land under the city agency’s control.)
Builders of Hope is leading the current house moving effort on behalf of the City. Its stated mission is "to increase the availability of high-quality, safe, affordable housing by saving and rebuilding homes that would otherwise be demolished".
"Builders of Hope is providing its revolutionary model for mass recycling of existing housing inventory slated for demolition due to large scale urban redevelopment," said Builders of Hope Founder and CEO Nancy Murray.
"Not only are we saving an estimated 4 million pounds of debris from the landfill, through the rescue and "green" rehabilitation of these historic homes, we are providing safe, energy-efficient and affordable workforce housing to New Orleans. The invaluable resource hidden within these historic structures is of vital importance both economically and environmentally. Mayor Landrieu’s commitment to save these homes is a precedent setting redevelopment model that other cities around the country should be inspired to follow."
Once moved, the Mayor promised that the homes will be “relocated to vacant lots provided by local non-profit organizations, rehabbed by the non-profits, and then will be sold at affordable prices.”
According to City Hall, local and non-profit partners that will be providing lots, rehabbing, and bringing these homes back into commerce throughout the city include Habitat for Humanity, Providence Community Housing, St. Bernard Project, Louisiana Land Trust, New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, Jericho Road, Preservation Resource Center’s Rebuilding Together, Neighborhood Housing Services, New Orleans Neighborhood Development Collaborative, and Neighborhood Development Foundation. The non-profit organizations have agreed to rehab the properties within 9 months of the relocation.”
Builders of Hope reportedly is also coordinating with the utility companies and various city agencies on site preparations.
The houses selected for moving are chosen in consultation with state contractors Durr and Jacobs, Builders of Hope, and must be able to withstand the move structurally. The properties must be residential and contribute to the Mid-City National Register Historic District. Additionally, many of the houses slated for moving were identified as the most significant historic properties by the State Historic Preservation Office.
"As you can see, it is taking large-scale cooperation and coordination of both public and private entities to make these moves happen," Landrieu concluded.
In the past, both as Lt. Governor and now as Mayor, His Honor has resisted attempts to reconsider the reconstruction of “Big Charity”, citing the new hospital complex “as the most important economic development project in New Orleans today”.  No word as yet if the Dr. Mary’s signature on the petition will lead to a re-evaluation of Mayor Landrieu’s support for the proposed Mid-City hospital locale, nor whether the hospital district authority or the legislature will be able to come up with added half billion dollars in the next two years.
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