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Landrieu drops plans to create civic center at former Charity Hospital

16th June 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Charles Maldonado
The Lens

Mayor Mitch Landrieu has drop­ped an ambitious $300 million plan to convert the old Charity Hospital building into a civic center housing City Hall and the Orleans Parish Civil District Court. Landrieu said Wednesday that a lack of state funding and a skyrocketing construction budget led him to cancel the plan.

“The plans do not pencil out to build a new Civic Complex or to relocate to a new building. My plan is to invest FEMA and capital funding into reasonable repairs of the buildings that will make them more efficient and safe,” Landrieu said in a statement. “Simply put, we cannot afford the project at this time, given our other critical needs.”

Landrieu was counting on a $100 million allocation from the state to help pay for the Charity transformation. He requested the money during the 2013 legislative session and received a commitment of only $13 million in the state’s capital budget. This year, the budget didn’t contain any money for the project. In addition, the statement said, the city’s budget estimate had increased by nearly $130 million.

“Due to increases in our construction cost estimates for the project and to properly repair the building’s foundation as well as its damaged limestone façade, our estimates for the cost of the project have grown by more than $100 million – up from $270 million to $397 million or more,” the statement said. Landrieu did not say how much it will cost to repair the current City Hall instead of renovating Charity, but a report by NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune said an earlier estimate of that option came to about $44 million.

The turnaround comes after a long public fight between Landrieu and the Civil District Court judges, who wanted to build a new courthouse on a patch of state-owned land on Duncan Plaza. When Gov. Piyush Jindal did not sign off on the Duncan Plaza property, the judges accused Landrieu of hardball tactics to get his way on the civic complex.

Under a 2010 state law, the Judicial Building Commission — made up of the Civil District Court’s judges — can charge higher court fees to put toward a new courthouse fund. The fund will be used to issue and pay off bonds for construction. The law, which only authorizes a “new facility,” also has an August 15 deadline to solicit bids for construction. After that, the money must be used to repair the current courthouse.

House Bill 916, which cleared the Legislature this year and is awaiting Jindal’s signature, extends the deadline by a year and removes the word “new” from the law, also allowing the courthouse to move into a renovated facility.

The commission has yet to identify a site or come up with more than $100 million it would need for a standalone courthouse. Last year, the New Orleans BioDistrict, a bonding authority, voted against issuing bonds on the commission’s behalf after the Landrieu administration, including BioDistrict board member Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin, lobbied against it. Civil District Court Chief Judge Kern Reese said the commission is looking for another bonding authority to issue the debt.

Though Landrieu’s statement said the city plans to renovate both buildings and keep them in the same location, Reese said the commission is still looking at alternate locations. The Civil District Court building is adjacent to City Hall.

“We can take a rest, but that’s all,” Reese said. “We only have a year.”

State leaders shied away from putting money toward the project because of the rapidly increasing costs, said a spokeswoman for the state’s Division of Administration.

“While we were committed to providing funding for this project, recent cost estimates by the City far exceed original projections,” Meghan Parrish said in an emailed statement. “As new plans are considered, we hope to continue working with Mayor Landrieu and the City of New Orleans to find an appropriate use for this site.”

New Orleans activist and journalist Jack Davis, who fought vainly to get LSU back into “Big Charity” rather than building a new hospital across Claiborne Avenue, said he’s disappointed that the mayor’s efforts fell through.

“It’s too bad. I’d love to see Charity Hospital get new use,” he said. “You’ve got to have something big. If you’re not going to have a hospital, the mayor’s plan was the best so far.”

Davis also serves on the board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“The National Trust has remained interested in Charity Hospital,” he said. “It put Charity on its 11 most endangered places list shortly after Katrina, and would probably be interested in plans to renovate it.”

This story was originally published by The Lens, (thelens­nola.org), an independent, non-profit newsroom serving New Orleans. The Louisiana Weekly enjoys a partnership with The Lens.

This article originally published in the June 16, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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