From The Times-Picayune: Charity Hospital building's uncertain future worries many in New Orleans

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

June 12, 2014

By Richard Rainey

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After Mayor Mitch Landrieu's plan to turn Charity Hospital into a civic center collapsed under the weight of rising costs last month, fans of the art deco building on Tulane Avenue are left to fear the worst.

In less than three months, the state's obligation to FEMA to look for a developer for the abandoned 20-story limestone structure ends, opening up options that range from doing nothing to demolishing the 1930s-era landmark.

Neither of those choices appeal to any of the agencies or advocates involved.

"Truthfully, I don't see anybody thinking about tearing this down," said Sandra Stokes of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, a leading advocate to save the Charity structure. "And how can you go from making it our premier civic center to tearing it down? The leap is just too big."

But the end of Landrieu's proposal leaves Charity once again in limbo with no prospects to rejoin New Orleans' commerce anytime soon. The building has been vacant since flooding in Hurricane Katrina and the state's decision to build a new hospital.

Landrieu said this week that he plans to redirect some FEMA money he had slated to spend on the former hospital toward renovating New Orleans' existing City Hall and Civil District Court.

Under its accord with FEMA over the hospital complex, the state's Department of Administration agreed to complete a marketing study and spend three years shopping for a developer or a plan to revivify Charity. According to a May 21 letter from FEMA, that three-year period ends Sept. 7, "at which time (the state government) may dispose of Charity as it sees fit."

Stokes has disagreed with that timeline, arguing that the state stopped marketing Charity as soon as Landrieu began to consider it as a possible new City Hall. When the marketing stopped, the clock on that three-year period should have, too, leaving the state obligated to continue marketing Charity beyond the summer, she said Thursday (June 11).

"With the city's intense interest in this, it's obvious the building is reusable," Stokes said. "We just have to get it on to the public and private market and see what interest is out there."

A Department of Administration spokeswoman said the agency has no plans to demolish the building and that the search for potential developers will continue.

"As new plans are considered, we hope to continue working with Mayor Landrieu and the City of New Orleans to find an appropriate use for this site," the agency said in a statement.

Landrieu's $270 million plan to renovate Charity and relocate New Orleans' government and Civil District Court met its demise in May for several reasons, according to the mayor. Those included the state's unwillingness to pay $100 million toward the project and the Landrieu administration's underestimating of the ultimate cost of the renovations. Damage to Charity's façade and foundation drove that price north of $397 million, the mayor said.

Another factor that could guarantee Charity won't be torn down: a demolished building jeopardizes millions of dollars in tax credits that the site is now eligible for.

While the state mulls its options, the LSU System continues to act as Charity's caretaker, securing the building from vandals and airing it out to keep down mold, said Jerry Jones, LSU's director of facilities management.

When the marketing agreement runs out, Charity could become like any other unoccupied state-owned building and FEMA's involvement would be greatly diminished.

But Jones said he hoped a solution could be found soon.

"It's not a paint-and-patch job. It's a major undertaking. But because of its architectural significance to the city, it's worth it," he said.