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Lawsuit Aims to Prevent Razing of New Orleans Historic District

May 22, 2009

By Shawn Kennedy

In 2008, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed New Orleans’ Charity Hospital and the neighborhood surrounding it, the Mid-City Historic District, on its list of America’s most endangered historic places. Now, the Trust is taking its protective efforts a step further.

The 2008 winner in the housing category was Mountain Dwellings, in Denmark, by BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group).
Photo © Walter Gallas/courtesy National Trust for Historic Preservation
The Mid-City Historic District is rich in iconic New Orleans architectural styles, such as Creole cottages and shotgun houses.
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On May 1, the Trust filed a lawsuit against the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), claiming that their involvement in a plan to bulldoze part of the historic district to make way for two new hospitals is illegal and immoral. One of the facilities will be owned by the state and will serve as a Louisiana State University teaching hospital. It is being partly funded by FEMA. The other facility is to be built by the VA. The projects were jointly announced last November, with the enthusiastic support of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

The lawsuit, filed in a federal district court in Washington, D.C., holds that the governmental agencies violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to adequately analyze the impact of the medical complex on the Mid-City district, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The two projects would mean the loss of 165 homes within 15 square blocks, according to the Trust.

“Historic properties are within the scope of NEPA and must be considered in the environmental review process,” says Elizabeth S. Merritt, deputy general counsel for the Trust. “They avoided the requirements of the process by splitting the review into phases rather than evaluating the impact of the entire development.”

The Trust is not suing the state or LSU because they do not have a “legal responsibility to comply with NEPA,” according to Merritt.  Only federal agencies are required to comply.

Spokesmen for FEMA and the VA declined to comment, citing a policy not to publicly speak about active litigation. According to Michael DiResto, a spokesman for the state of Louisiana, the state is confident that the two agencies are fully compliant with federal law. “This attempt to interrupt these critically needed projects is both untimely and without basis,” says DiResto.

While not widely known outside of New Orleans, the Mid-City district is rich in iconic New Orleans architectural styles, such as Creole cottages and shotgun houses. Since the neighborhood was identified as the probable location of the new hospitals, preservationists and community advocates have rallied against the plan and urged the state and the VA to consider alternative options.

The LSU facility would replace the university’s former teaching hospital, Charity Hospital (1939), designed by Weiss, Dreyfous and Seiferth. The Art Deco-style building suffered severe flood damage during Hurricane Katrina and never reopened. (Read more about Charity Hospital in our June 2009 feature story.) The proposed new facility is being designed by the local firm Blitch Knevel Architects and Seattle-based NBBJ. FEMA is providing partial funding for the $1.2 billion, 1.1-million-square-foot project as compensation for the loss of Charity Hospital.

The $925-million VA facility, already funded by Congress, will replace a VA hospital that also was damaged beyond repair by Katrina. The new, 1-million-square-foot facility is being designed by Studio NOVA—a team of architects from NBBJ’s Columbus, Ohio office and two New Orleans firms, Eskew+Dumez+Ripple and Rozas Ward Architects. Construction is scheduled to start in 2010. 

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