Filed Under:  Health & Wellness, Local, News

Downtown hospital construction accelerates after slow start

6th August 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

Husband and wife Justin and Christy Pitard, who opened Avery’s Po-Boy’s on Tulane Ave. in March, are waiting for thousands of construction workers to start building the University Medical Center and the adjacent Veterans Administration hospital. This summer, the Pitards are listening to workers drive piles into the 70-acre, Tulane-Graver site that was vacated for the hospitals. They anticipate a brisk sandwich business in the fall.

“We’re expecting around 1,000 workers on the UMC site in September,” said Paul Miles, research analyst with the Louisiana Division of Administration, last week. Preparation work on the 424-bed UMC, the successor to Charity Hospital, began six months ago. The facility’s ambulatory care building, inpatient towers, and diagnostic and treatment center should be ready by the late 2014.

The UMC is affiliated with Louisiana State University, and the UMC Management Corp. Board will operate it, near a hospital being built by the federal Veterans Health Administration. Certain clinical, diagnostic and treatment functions will be shared. The hospitals will have separate laundries but can share them if needed. Parking will be separate.

At combined cost to build of over $2 billion, the two hospitals will provide a jolt to the local economy. Planners view the facilities as a way to provide needed post-Katrina care and to enhance the city as hub for medical education and research. The hospitals will be “academic anchors” for LSU, Tulane, Dillard, Xavier, Southern University of New Orleans and Delgado Community College, according to LSU.

The UMC is bounded east and west by Canal St. and Tulane Ave. and north and south by South Galvez St. and Claiborne Ave. The VA hospital site is bordered east and west by Canal and Tulane and north and south by South Rocheblave and South Galvez.

Critics of the UMC, however, wanted the old Charity Hospital revived and the Tulane-Gravier neighborhood saved.

Last week, Sister Vera Butler at the Rebuild Center at St. Joseph’s Church on Tulane Ave., said “we’re seeing scattered construction–with cranes, trucks, other equipment and lots of dust—and we hear noise all around us. But because of construction fences, you can’t really tell what’s going on.”

To make way for the UMC alone, 49 residential and 28 commercial buildings were demolished, eight historic houses were relocated and 127 lots were cleared, Miles with the DOA said. About seventy families displaced by the UMC were relocated.

Meanwhile, “one historic school building, McDonogh No. 11, is currently staged on site for relocation,” he said. The state is working with the city to find a permanent site for the school.

On the entire medical campus, “City funding paid for about 80 homes to be moved from the UMC and VA sites,” said Ryan Berni, spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu. “The state moved some buildings under a separate State Historic Preservation Office program.”

In addition to the eight houses relocated from the UMC site, 76 houses were moved from the VA hospital area, the DOA said.

Sister Vera said the old neighborhood suddenly vanished. “You had people living here whose grandparents had grown up here,” she said. “But they’ve now gone to Gentilly, Jefferson Parish and out of state. It’s a scattered, broken community now.”

Artist Michelle Levine, owner of Mondo Murals & Design and a former Tulane-Gravier resident, was forced out and now lives in Jefferson Parish. “Before the storm, developers were buying up old houses in the area and leaving them vacant,” she said. “After the storm, some Tulane-Gravier home owners used their federal Road Home and other recovery money to rebuild. Some of them were elderly.”

Levine continued, saying “there were a few community meetings about the new hospital but all along the plan was to tear down the neighborhood.”

Before Katrina consultants for LSU studied the idea of replacing Charity Hospital, the university’s teaching facility, with a new complex. In early 2007, a business plan to that effect was presented to the Louisiana Legislature’s joint budget committee.

Sister Vera said “a few neighborhood meetings were held in 2008 and 2009, and conversations were going on but it was difficult to get any concrete information. There was never a point person you could go to. You couldn’t find out who to ask, who to call.”

The area’s historic houses and affordable rents are gone. “The shotguns in Tulane-Gravier were as nice as anything in the Marigny or Bywater,” Levine said. “And rents were reasonable. In addition to seniors, a lot of service workers–with jobs in hotels and restaurants in the Quarter and downtown–lived there and biked to work.”

Levine said she was surprised to see billboards showing smiling, young people sitting by a pool when she was getting ready to move. “I wondered if those people would be the next residents,” she said. The ads promoted new apartments for medical students.

Several years ago, when it appeared that Tulane-Graver housing would be torn down, residents were scared but some wanted the money. “My neighbor, who owned what was basically a shack next door, was very excited about the idea of a buyout,” Levine said.

But in the end, “the payouts for homes weren’t enough so that people could buy a comparable house elsewhere,” Sister Vera said. And Tulane-Gravier had some of the city’s lowest rents at a time when rentals across town were escalating after Katrina, she noted.

As for the July 22 Pallas Hotel implosion to make way for the campus, Jim MacQueen, director of PNOLA Build, a lower Mid-City nonprofit, said “I watched it and thought it was well handled. The demolition team did a good job.” The implosion was postponed several times over many months so that asbestos and other hazardous materials could be removed.

Levine said “the Pallas Hotel had bad juju way before the implosion,” meaning the place had a bad aura. The Tulane-Gravier neighborhood coped with drug dealers and prostitution, and blight grew after Katrina–making crime worse.

At the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, President Matthew Morgan said, after a board meeting last Tuesday, “we’re concerned about the expropriation and loss of housing in Tulane-Gravier and about some derelict properties that remain around the medical campus site. We’re also concerned about the loss of through streets in the area. In particular, people want Bank St. back.” Bank St. runs through Mid-City and into Tulane-Gravier.

Meanwhile, three structures on the UMC site that are being used during construction will be torn down eventually, Miles said. “The buildings are scheduled for demolition towards the end of the construction phase,” he said.

Skanska USA, based in New York City, is managing the UMC’s build. To watch construction on a live web cam, check out www.earthcam.com/client/skanskamapp/umc.

Justin Pitard at Avery’s Po-Boys said construction got off to a slow start on the campus this year. “We were a little worried after we opened our restaurant in March,” he said. “But we now have repeat customers from the workers who have been here. In the August heat, they’re not ordering whole po-boys with fries on the side like they did in the spring, but we’re optimistic about this fall.” Other small businesses in the vicinity will also benefit from the hospitals, he said.

As for the former Dixie brewery, which closed after Katrina, Pitard has seen workers on the roof of that Tulane Ave. building in the VA hospital footprint. “The exterior of the brewery will hopefully remain, pending a structural integrity study—which I understand has been done,” he said.

This article was originally published in the August 6, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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