Retired teacher Colin Brady used to say he had found the perfect place to live.
The house he built on Sixth Avenue in Covington was not only close to St. Tammany Parish Hospital but also within a few blocks of a nursing home and a funeral parlor. All he needed was for the city to build a sidewalk, he joked, so he could easily move from one to the other.
But Brady and his neighbors now find their proximity to the public hospital less than ideal as it gears up for an expansion that will include a three- or four-story addition and three new parking lots.
The neighbors woke up one morning late last year to find crews clear-cutting a wooded area near Harrison Street and Sixth Avenue for one of the lots.
Continuing construction work there has shattered the tranquility of the neighborhood, according to Scott Freeman, who said crews start as early as 7 a.m. and don't finish until after 5 p.m.
The hospital's permit allows work from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. On weekends, work can go from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., within the decibel levels set by the city's noise ordinance.
"It shakes the pictures sideways in my house," Freeman said.
Neighbors worry the large amount of fill material brought in for parking lots near the Tchefuncte River will increase the risk of flooding in an area that experienced two major floods in 2016. They also are bracing for more traffic in a neighborhood where hospital parking already has made it difficult to get in and out when employees are arriving and leaving work.
Melissa Hodgson, a spokeswoman for the hospital, said the expansion is needed to meet western St. Tammany Parish's rapidly growing population. Hospital occupancy is consistently at 85 percent, she said, and parking can be filled to capacity on busy days.
The new addition will allow the hospital to add private patient rooms, which Hodgson said is a priority. But the hospital has to address parking first because the new building will be constructed where a 200-space lot is now located.
The hospital will move an outpatient rehabilitation center by the third quarter of this year and demolish the existing rehab building to provide space for one of the new parking lots. Two other lots, including the 48-space lot that has neighbors stirred up, are under construction now.
Neighbors have worried that the parking lot near them will be used as a construction staging area for the new building, but Hodgson said that is not the case. Instead, the new lot will be used as parking space for construction workers so that they will not take up spaces needed for patients and employees. It won't be used for construction equipment, which needs to be closer to the site, she said.
Hodgson stressed that the hospital has met all applicable federal, state and local requirements.
Covington City Councilman Larry Rolling, who met with neighbors and city officials last week, said the hospital "did everything by the book" and, in his opinion, has been a good neighbor.
The construction projects are being carried out on the hospital's own property, he said, and no rezoning was required.
But Rolling said he understands how the residents feel. A traffic study was not required for the construction projects, he said, but he wants all parties to get together before the new addition is built to see what can be done to help the neighborhood.
The hospital has not yet gotten permits for the new hospital building.
Residents have suggested that the city consider some better signage to help drivers avoid dead-end streets. They've asked for a sign at the Eighth Avenue end of Harrison Street that says "Local Traffic Only" and another at the Seventh Avenue end that says, "No Through Traffic" or "No Outlet."
Freeman and others also are asking the city to consider a bigger change: closing off Seventh Avenue at Harrison Street to traffic and extending Van Buren Street. That would allow the neighborhood to have its own ingress and egress, and keep hospital traffic on Harrison, Freeman said.
Rolling said that idea is a possibility. But the city would need to do more research on the feasibility of the plan and perhaps see if the hospital would partner with it to make such a change, he said.
Rolling also noted that not everyone in the neighborhood likes that idea, and he has heard from at least one resident who opposes it.
Brady said he and his neighbors are not against the hospital. He called it a vital part of the community that generates tax revenue and jobs.
But Freeman said the city also has an interest in protecting the value of residential property. He's seen the value of his home drop twice in the last 30 days on Zillow, he said. And the only thing that has changed over that period, he said, is the construction of the parking lot.