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Landrieu says Charity conversion into ‘Civic Center’ dead

3rd September 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

In an exclusive, Mayor Mitch Landrieu essentially admitted to The Louisiana Weekly that the effort to covert Big Charity into a new City Hall/Judicial “Civic Center” complex is dead. The decision by the Civil Court bench to oppose a redevelopment of the former Art Deco Hospital complex renders the proposed Civic Center without a critical funding source.

The Civil District Court judges have long argued that they do need a new courthouse — just not one inside Big Charity. They desire their own, separate facility on a vacant plot at Duncan Plaza.

When asked publicly by this newspaper at a Downtown Rotary Club event about Chief Judge Michael Bagneris’ proposal to build a stand alone CDC Courthouse, Mayor Landrieu looked out over the crowd of prominent business people and asked to raise their hands if they thought building the judges a new courthouse is a priority.

The room erupted in laughter with only one hand going up in the crowd of a hundred. “See — that’s not a priority,” the Mayor simply stated.

But, apparently, as far as the judges are concerned, neither is converting Big Charity into a new municipal complex.

Landrieu who specifically never said that the “civic center” project is beyond all rescue, did confess, just three weeks after announcing the restoration idea to great fanfare, “The Civic Center is not a priority over building fire houses and community centers…The judges had a chance to build something glorious.” Thanks to their opposition, that’s also “not a priority now.”

Landrieu explained that he had originally signed a letter on the Judges’ behalf with the purpose of constructing a joint City Hall/CDC municipal complex somewhere in the downtown area. The Civil Court Judges then used the letter to convince the State Supreme Court to allow them to raise their court fees from the typical $1,300 per case to the State Average of $1,500 in order to fund a courthouse alone.

Landrieu said he made it clear to the CDC bench that he wanted a joint venture, and it was only under those circumstances that he would support the judges’ efforts.

That however, is not how Chief Judge Michael Bagneris remembers the motivation for the letter, arguing that Landrieu’s language called for a “judicial” complex.

He also says that, “The Judicial Committee of the Supreme Court would not even agree to an increase until we specified where to build the Court House.”

Only after the former site of a State Office building and the State Supreme Court on Duncan Plaza, as the site of their new courthouse, did the state judicial committee agree to the court fee hike, according to Bagneris.

Because of the mandated location, the CDC could not help fund a conversion of Big Charity even if the judges wanted to, he argued, and they do not.

Bagneris believes that such a redevelopment of Big Charity is financially and architecturally impossible. Yet the Chief Judge never adequately explained why the concept of a fiscally-possible joint municipal complex, constructed on another location, ranks as a bad idea

State law gives the City of New Orleans responsibility for housing the Civil District Court, and the Mayor noted, “I know their building is falling apart. So is City Hall. [Mayor Chep] Morrison built a complex. That’s what I was talking about doing…We need to work together.”

Two Visions
Judge Bagneris contends that the CDC cannot operate effectively without its own building, its own separate space.

The Mayor argues the opposite. He wants agencies of local government to bind together their resources—cohabitating for the greater municipal good—and in doing so, bring new life to a key landmark from the Huey Long era.

Bagneris and his fellow CDC judges say the Mayor’s Civic Center Project is a physical impossibility, citing structural reasons why a 1930s era hospital could never be revamped into a useable courthouse. They see it as a shortsighted proposal from a jurisprudence standpoint.

Bagneris voiced a desire for a judicial building where “50 years from now lawyers will not be saying, ‘What were they thinking?’”

“That’s what I think every time I walk into the CDC.” And, it’s what he believes will be the reaction of attorneys if Big Charity is converted into a purpose for which the bones of the structure are ill-suited.

“Judges and parochial officials of CDC agree that it is a good idea to bring Charity Hospital back into commerce,” Bagneris stated. “However, the Charity Hospital building is unsuited to accommodate a 21st-century courthouse. The National Center for State Courts, which is the gold standard for advising the judiciary in this country, has so indicated.”

Additionally, Bagneris pointed to the comments of Robert Boyle, an architect with the nationally renowned architectural firm of Tate, Snyder, Kimsey. After reviewing Landrieu’s outline for redeveloping Charity, he stated, “Having spent more than 30 years as a student of justice architecture and the past 20 years focusing on courthouse planning and design, I can state with total comfort that the Charity building is totally incapable of being converted to function as a courthouse. I could not with good conscience recommend that New Orleans consider investing and renovating the Charity Hospital for use as a courthouse. Even with unlimited source of funds and time, it will still be a BAD OPTION.”

The architectural dispute between the Mayor and the CDC has to do with the internal support beams of the Avery Alexander Charity Hospital Building. Every 20 feet or so, there is a support pillar. According to the judges, that would prevent the construction of courtrooms with a 32-foot open viewing perspective required for juries to have an unobstructed view of court proceedings. “There was a case in Florida where a poll blocked a juror’s view, and the courthouse was declared unconstitutional,” Bagneris recollected.

Yet, the Foundation for Historic Louisiana’s original proposal to reconstruct Charity Hospital for medical purposes specifically addressed the support poll issue, allowing for the creation of larger spaces on the lower floors. That proposal, including the maintenance, shoring, and asbestos remediation, put the price of a new state-of-the-art hospital inside of Big Charity at $250 million.

The Mayor argues that a civic complex would cost considerably less, at $207 million, yet the judges maintain even with the $40 million in FEMA money committed to the physical reconstruction of Big Charity, the sum of money granted by the federal agency for City Hall reconstruction, and the increased judicial fees, the city would lack enough money to build the “Civic Center” complex at Charity Hospital without an increase in taxes.

And, the taxpayer, argued Bagneris, would shoulder the burden for a building that would still have hundreds of thousands of square feet of unused office space—even when the parish and CDC facilities are relocated within.

Instead, the Chief Judge proposes building a $100 million facility along the lateral lakeside of Duncan Plaza Park. He argues this location has several advantages. “[There is] Ease of Access & Desirability. It is in a desirable location. It is across the street from the present court site. There are several public transit lines which service this location.”

Moreover, Bagneris cited the transferability of the property. “Duncan Plaza is state-owned property, which would be utilized to primarily house State Court judges along with our parochial officials who are essential partners in our court system. Building on property owned by the State, will provide various long-term options for the court to ultimately secure the most cost-effective transfer of this property.”

And, he pointed out there would be “no cost to taxpayers” under the CDC proposal. “The Court’s plan would be funded entirely by user fees, such as filing fees. This means the taxpayer would not be burdened with higher taxes as a result of this plan.”

“This is a design for the 21st century and beyond. The court’s plan incorporates the standards outlined by The National Center for State Courts and includes all of the essential design and construction components required for a 21st century courthouse, particularly the structural and technological components. One practical aspect of the court’s plan is to rectify one glaring omission in the current building design, i.e., the creation of jury deliberation rooms. We are the only trial court in America that doesn’t have this essential component for the administration of justice. Additionally, the CDC plan incorporates other necessities, such as attorney/client conference rooms.”

Yet, Bagneris ignores one fundamental question: If Big Charity is the wrong place for a joint City Hall-CDC complex, why not build a joint facility at Duncan Plaza, if the location is so great?

The CDC judges did propose that a new City Hall could be built on the same stretch of land on Duncan Plaza. They just do not wish to help fund it. The Mayor has pointed out that if the judges pool their $125 million potential bondability of their increased court fees along with the FEMA dollars allocated to City Hall (outside of the $40 million dedicated specifically to Charity), together the city and the courts COULD afford to jointly build a State of the Art Joint Court/City Hall Complex on the property at Duncan Plaza without raising a dollar in taxes. If there is a separate City Hall erected without the CDC fees, the City Council would have little choice but to raise taxes to fund its construction.

When asked if the alternative to a battle with the Mayor translates into the CDC judges agreeing to a joint building, if pooling the money for one state-of-the-art, purpose built complex at Duncan Plaza beats staying in their crumbling courthouse, Bagneris replied, “It should be emphasized that the Judges and parochial officials of CDC are not engaged in a battle with the Mayor. We are fighting for the citizens of New Orleans.”

“We want to give the citizens an efficient, functional state of the art courthouse, such as those enjoyed by all of our neighboring parishes. We believe our citizens deserve no less. Furthermore, the national trend is for the courthouse to be a stand- alone structure. Such a structure represents independence and impartiality, the cornerstones of a great judicial system. A courthouse should evoke the same type of respect and reverence that one has when they enter their place of worship. It should be recognized that the legal community and the real estate community have agreed to increase fees dedicated to retiring bond indebtedness for the CDC plan. This means that these user fees are specifically earmarked for retiring the bond indebtedness solely for the courthouse construction as envisioned by the CDC plan.”

That still leaves a collapsing city hall and a deteriorating Big Char­ity building, without the resources to revamp or rebuild either. If Big Charity is not converted into a Civic Center, and Bagneris’ complaint is that there is insufficient dollars right now to do such a project, how will any developer be able to afford the shoring and asbestos remediation on the $40 mil currently allocated, plus reconstruction costs?

“The Court,” said Bagneris, “cannot address matters that are within the purview of the City. “

As for what will become of the physically deteriorating City Hall and current CDC property, he counters, is not the CDC’s problem. “The City owns the property and this question is best answered by the City.

State law says the City is responsible for housing the courts. As to what happens if the Mayor simply says that he will block the bonds from the Biodistrict, and if the judges continue to refuse to be part of the Charity-Civic Center project, would the CDC be on its own?

Bagneris said no. “First, it should be noted that the Biodistrict is not a City agency, but rather a State Agency. As long as the State of Louisiana and the Court agree to a transfer of the Duncan Plaza site, there should be no problem with proceeding with the Court’s plan. The court’s detailed plan can be viewed at http://www.or­leans­cdc.­com/­CDC-Building­Site/­Home­.­html.”

And, that is the other argument that critics of this new proposed courthouse for the Civil District Court point out. The CDC does not have the ability to issue its own bonds. So, the Judges approached the nearby Biodistrict with a proposal. Use our fees to provide the district with a funding source. In return, use your state-rendered right to issue $100 million in bonds to pay for a new courthouse for the CDC.

These critics, including the Landrieu Administration, complain that the Biodistrict’s bonding capacity was only intended to be utilized for Medical and Research related projects, not for a new Civil District Court House. They argue that this project will limit the overall bonding potential of the Biodistrict.

Bagneris countered, “It should be noted that the Biodistrict included a new courthouse on the Duncan Plaza site in its Master Plan which was developed circa 2004 and predates the current debate. Also, as part of its mission, the Biodistrict was created to help stimulate economic growth. No one debates that the courthouse serves as an economic engine. With regard to its bonding capacity, the court is aware that the Biodistrict has already received positive responses from bonding houses that are highly rated and globally renowned.”

As for the unanswered questions of a future for Big Charity and the crumbling City Hall, the CDC Judges are quick to say they do not consider themselves at odds with the Mayor. As Landrieu has said of other agencies in the city, if you are not seeking overall solutions, you are part of the problem.

“In my mind, what is necessary in 2018 to hand off the city,” in a condition better than he inherited upon becoming Mayor, “requires slaying some sacred cows.”

“We must come up with a course of action that everyone will follow for a long period of time,” he said for his multifaceted plan. “When I was in the legislature, my reputation was one of a mediator, a conciliator. Now I have a reputation as a fighter.”

That’s because, he said, eight years after Hurricane Katrina, “We are only half way home…We must understand our success is not a fait accompli. We’re trying to do what no city has done in 50 years…take a hard look at ourselves, [and] build the city we always could have been instead of what we were.”

“None if that is possible, if we don’t continue to reach out to one another,” he emphasized, and in Landrieu’s mind, a joint project to repair an iconic structure, centered in the middle of the new Hospital district and the CBD, is just the sort of economic shot-in-the arm that the entire area—and the entire city—needs.

Otherwise, Charity may not be redeveloped for years, if ever.

Bagneris and his fellow Bench judges disagree. “With the growth of the medical district, there will be demand for housing and other purposes. We want Charity to be redeveloped. Just not like this.”

This article originally published in the September 02, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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