The “dead district” surrounding the shuttered Charity Hospital building on Tulane Avenue could get a breath of new life from a strategic plan that will seek to promote development in a long-neglected corner of downtown New Orleans, with an eye toward filling gaps in crucial areas like transit and affordable housing.
The Greater New Orleans Foundation on Wednesday launched an effort to gather public input for a report that will ultimately serve as a master plan for the area, dubbed the Spirit of Charity District.
Officials pledged to involve residents of the area through meetings, surveys and one-on-one conversations to learn their views on what the redevelopment effort should focus on.
The planning process will play out over the next two months as the LSU Real Estate and Facilities Foundation wraps up the process of picking a developer for the former Charity building itself, which has been vacant since the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
No specific plans have been released, but proposals by would-be developers during a previous attempt at putting the site back into commerce included mixes of housing, commercial or governmental uses, and retail.
The planning process, which will likely result in the creation of a tax-increment financing district to redirect the revenue created by developments back into the area, should focus more on the “big picture” rather than just the hospital itself, Greater New Orleans Foundation President and CEO Andy Kopplin said.
The goal, said Kopplin, who was the city's chief administrative officer for several years under former Mayor Mitch Landrieu, is to create “a place characterized by equitable and inclusive development.”
The exact boundaries of the district could change during the planning process, but Kopplin said the focus now is on the area bounded by Poydras Street, Loyola Avenue-Basin Street, Bienville Street and Claiborne Avenue.
While that area includes City Hall, the Civil District Court building, some Poydras Street high-rises and Tulane Medical Center, much of it was in need of rejuvenation even before Katrina. Many buildings are rundown and vacant, with little that would draw in people who don’t work there.
The foundation’s report is aimed at being a high-level “thematic” strategy to guide the district’s redevelopment, rather than getting into what should be done with specific properties.
Those involved in the study will have no say in what ultimately becomes of the huge Charity building, and the study likely won’t deal specifically with other thorny issues such as whether City Hall and Civil District Court should be moved to new homes.
Kopplin said the ultimate goal of the master plan will be to bring in new development while also addressing pressing needs in New Orleans such as providing affordable housing, improving the transit system and ensuring equitable access to jobs.
Exactly how that will play out will depend, in part, on what people say is needed.
The first of two public forums to discuss the district's future will be held on the evening of July 25, though the location has not been set.
In the meantime, the plan is to send groups out on the streets to talk to people in the area and conduct surveys. A storefront will also be set up on Elk Place to take walk-in suggestions, Kopplin said.
The idea of the Spirit of Charity District stems from a recommendation by the Urban Land Institute, which was brought on to help guide the current attempt at redeveloping Charity and which suggested a master plan should be developed for the wider area. The LSU Real Estate Foundation tapped the Greater New Orleans Foundation to lead that effort.
The local foundation has been meeting with groups active in the downtown area and involved with the issues it hopes the district will address, including the city’s universities, advocacy groups such as Ride New Orleans and HousingNOLA, and business groups like the New Orleans Business Alliance, GNO Inc. and the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region.
One of those closely watching what happens to the redevelopment of Charity and the surrounding neighborhood is preservation leader Sandra Stokes. Stokes — who led a study that said the state could have reopened Charity as a state-of-the-art hospital and saved the lower Mid-City neighborhood from demolition for the new University Medical Center — said it’s important that the area be revitalized.
“If we do not put in something that activates the area after 5 p.m. and on weekends, we’re dooming it to further desolation,” Stokes said.
The master plan will be complete in mid-September, likely after a developer is chosen for the site but well before any concrete proposals for how to reuse Charity are complete.
The three development firms chosen as finalists by the LSU foundation have not been involved with the "big picture" planning process so far, but they will be invited to attend the meetings to listen to what people want to see in the district and will be given copies of the final report, Kopplin said.
While the goal is to start seeing the first fruits of the planning process within a few years, Kopplin said the overall plan would take decades to realize.