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Charity Hospital in New Orleans

The wounds of Charity Hospital's closure 13 years ago were still fresh, and frustration and skepticism over what many described as a secretive planning process were common themes at a meeting Wednesday night aimed at creating a master plan for the neighborhood surrounding the shuttered building.

The meeting — the first of two aimed at gathering input into plans for a proposed "Spirit of Charity Innovation District" to revitalize the rundown area — offered the dozens who attended a chance to air complaints about problems facing the whole city, including a lack of affordable housing, inequitable economic development and barriers to transportation.

'Big picture' revamp: Master-planning process for area around former Charity Hospital kicks off

But the session also served to highlight criticism of the process to pick a private firm to redevelop Charity itself, as well as distrust that whatever plan for it is eventually adopted will do anything to alleviate those citywide ills. 

Charity was "a place designated to serve the most vulnerable communities, and that needs to be the place where this process is starting from," housing advocate Rebecca Levy said.

Two parallel processes are moving forward. The LSU Real Estate and Facilities Foundation, which the state chose to oversee this attempt at redeveloping Charity, is nearing the home stretch of picking a firm to put the giant building back into use.

The LSU Real Estate and Facilities Foundation has selected three developers — the same groups that were picked in an earlier attempt to redevelop Charity — as finalists and asked them to submit proposals by Aug. 20. Those will be evaluated by a committee made up of state Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne and officials from LSU, its foundations and medical schools.

On Thursday, the foundation released portions of the submissions from the three firms that landed them on the finalist list. Three other firms also applied, though their names and submissions were not released.

The documents released are essentially resumés for the development firms. They only hint in general terms at what their final proposals will look like, offering no details about what mix of uses might eventually fill the former hospital building. 

At the same time, the Greater New Orleans Foundation is leading the master planning process for the district around Charity.

The second process was supposed to be the focus of Wednesday night's meeting, but many of those present wanted to talk about the other one.

"We hope the (second) process gives the (chosen) developer a clear sense of how passionate the people of New Orleans and the region are about Charity Hospital, so as they're thinking about plans they continue to have" its original mission in mind, said Greater New Orleans Foundation President and CEO Andy Kopplin, who is leading the neighborhood planning effort. 

Though representatives of the potential developers and LSU were at the meeting, Kopplin emphasized that the session was not initially intended to touch on the future of Charity itself.

"We don’t have authority over anything," he said. "We don’t own the building. We’re not the city. We’re not the state. We’re not LSU."

However, organizers decided to designate one of several round tables specifically for people who wanted to share concerns about what will happen to the storied building.

"Folks are really feeling it's difficult to plan a district around an asset as big as Charity Hospital without knowing what it's going to be used for," said Janet Hays, a longtime critic of the planning process for Charity.

Speaking for the group focused on the building, Hays ticked off a list of concerns: that the public has been left out of the decision-making process, that the building and district may end up as luxury housing, and that "what's happening is a done deal."

"We want to make sure the public benefits (to developers) don’t outweigh the benefits to the public," she said.

Hays' group proposed using Charity for providing services to the homeless and as a mental health center, an idea she pushed the last time state officials were considering how to redevelop the site.

Others, including Levy, criticized the idea of any for-profit development at Charity.

Ultimately, the aim of the effort being led by Kopplin is twofold: to create a master plan for the mainly rundown blocks surrounding the former hospital and to serve as a vehicle for tax-increment financing that could redirect tax revenues back into the district, for the redevelopment of Charity or other purposes.

Both the master plan and the financing mechanism would identify needs — such as affordable housing, transportation and jobs — and earmark portions of the district's revenue stream for specific purposes, Kopplin said.

Charity was closed after its basement flooded during Hurricane Katrina. Rather than reopen the building, state officials decided to build a new hospital — University Medical Center — on the other side of South Claiborne Avenue.

Several proposals to redevelop the 1 million-square-foot building have been made since then, including a suggestion to move City Hall and Civil District Court into the building, but none has come to fruition.

A second meeting on the proposed "innovation district" will be held on Aug. 10, and organizers said they would likely have more detailed information then. In the meantime, they'll meet with leaders of businesses and institutions in the area to discuss what should be in the plan.

A two-day meeting about the issue of homelessness in the area has also been planned for September.

In addition, canvassers have been sent out around the downtown area to survey people and get their thoughts, and a storefront on Elk Place has been set up for those who want to walk in and offer their views. 


Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​