State officials could soon begin the latest effort at finding a way to redevelop the giant former Charity Hospital building on Tulane Avenue in New Orleans.
The state is expected to start seeking consultants to guide the process this summer. It then likely would be at least another year before any work begins at the site.
The plan for finding a way to reuse the building, which has been vacant since its basement flooded during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, remains on the same general track as was laid out by officials in Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration shortly before his inauguration in January.
Exactly what will be done with the 20-story, 1 million-square-foot structure, revered by many for its art deco architecture, will be determined by the recommendations of the consultant and the ideas put forward by potential developers, said Jacques Berry, a spokesman for the state Division of Administration.
The state is looking to the process the city used to secure a developer for the former World Trade Center building on Canal Street — which resulted in plans to turn the vacant property into a Four Seasons hotel — as a guide for its own process, said Mark Moses, director of the state’s Office of Facility Planning and Control.
The state is open to a range of options that would include leasing the building to a private developer, entering into a partnership with a developer or selling it outright. But whichever route is taken, officials say they expect the historic building to remain.
“I think our expectation is that any developer would maintain the integrity of that building, both inside and out,” Moses said.
The first step in the process will be hiring a consultant able to provide expertise on what kinds of uses might work in the building and to reach out to the relatively small pool of firms capable of taking on a project that size.
While the state is expecting the consultant to look at how the massive structure — and potentially several other nearby properties also owned by the state or LSU — should be used, the expectation is that the final project will involve a mix of uses.
“Practically, it’s just too large for a single use,” Moses said. “We expect that any developer or any project that goes forward would be a multi-use function.”
Charity was abandoned after it flooded during Katrina. Although some preservationists and health care advocates argued that it could and should have been restored as a medical center, its main functions were moved to an interim site while the new, $1.1 billion University Medical Center was constructed several blocks away on the other side of South Claiborne Avenue.
For a while, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration hoped to buy Charity from the state and use the building as a governmental center that would include both City Hall and Civil District Court. But that plan foundered for lack of funding from two key sources. The court’s judges, who were supposed to provide some of the money for the conversion, opposed the plan, and the Legislature declined to give the city money it would have needed for the project.
After that proposal hit a wall, former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration called for developers to submit their own ideas for the nearly 80-year-old building. Five plans came back, including ones that envisioned buying or leasing the hospital and turning it into a mix of apartments, hotel rooms and retail space or using it for biomedical facilities. Another proposal called for using the property as a mental health center, though it offered few concrete details on how that would be carried out.
Berry, the Division of Administration spokesman, said the decision to restart the process was, in part, an effort to cast a wider net.
“I don’t think it was fair to the taxpayers to take up the previous opportunities,” Berry said. “I don’t think it would give the taxpayers what they were looking for.”
While the state is hoping to move quickly, there is no specific timeline in place. The best estimates suggest it could be 18 months before any construction begins and that remediating and redeveloping the property, which has been virtually untouched since the storm, could be a lengthy process.
“We are very interested in getting that building back into commerce through any means that it takes,” Moses said.
While the state faces a $700 million shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1, the administration is not counting on a sale or lease of the property as a way to pare that deficit.
In part, that’s because the process of selecting a consultant and developer and finalizing a deal is expected to extend past the next fiscal year. But it also shows a contrast with the Jindal administration, which often patched holes in its budgets by promising to sell state properties.
That tactic was criticized as a short-term fix to recurring, structural problems with the state’s finances, and it sometimes backfired when the state was unable to sell the properties it put on the block.
“You can’t use land sales to balance the budget,” Berry said. “We don’t work that way.”