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No contradiction to CDC complaint on Big Charity

9th September 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

The opposition of the judges of the Orleans Civil District Court to converting Big Charity into a “Civic Center”—a proposed municipal center encompassing both the CDC and City Hall—has driven the project to so low on the Mayor’s priority list that the project is effectively kaput—for now.

Sandra Stokes of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana noted to this newspaper that her organization has not investigated the judges primary architectural complaint, that it is too expensive to recon the support structure of Big Charity, which the CDC bench argued led to their primary opposition into the “Civic Center” project, though supporters and opponents have used the 2008 FHL study to help make their case.

In an interview with The Louisiana Weekly, Stokes declared that those who have implied that her Foundation has investigated moving the Big Charity’s support columns, and the expense of doing so, are in error. She does not know how expensive it would be to create spaces wide enough for 32-foot courtrooms, yet she does not contradict the CDC judges’ main contention that creating wider rooms on the lower floors—by relocating the 20 feet apart structural poles—won’t be cheap. Whether it is too expensive to kill the “Civic Center,” Stokes would not speculate.

The Foundation for Historical Louisiana issued a report in 2008 calling for a $550 million restoration of the Avery Alexander Charity Hospital building instead of spending more than a billion dollars to construct the new LSU Hospital on top an historic Mid-City neighborhood. In doing so, the FHL hired RMJM Hillier to do detailed architectural studies of the complex, that subsequently have been used by both sides in the debate to convert Big Charity into new joint municipal complex called the “Civic Center.” Stokes said the studies dealt with a hospital conversion, not a municipal complex, though.

Allies of the Mayor (though not Mitch Landrieu or his senior Administration officials) have privately argued to this newspaper that CDC judges have no case when the complain that Big Charity could not be purpose converted into a judicial complex. In doing so, they cited the FHL study. However, Sandra Stokes said, these advocates were in error. Their assumption that FHL’s 2008 plan seemingly addresses the CDC bench’s concern, that the hospitals support columns could be moved to create a wider space for a 32 ft courtroom at an affordable price, was incorrect.

That question was never investigated in her foundation’s proposal to rebuild Big Charity into a modern hospital, despite the implication to The Weekly that it was. Nevertheless, the FHL Vice Chair added, personally she does not believe the Civic Center conversion to be a dead, despite the judges’ costs and concerns.

In last week’s exclusive article, (http://www.louisianaweekly.com/landrieu-says-charity-conversion-into-civic-center-dead/), CDC Chief Judge Michael Bagneris argued that the support columns within Big Charity spanned 20ft at every level. Courtrooms needed to exceed a 30-foot unobstructed view for the juries. Any obstruction, like a column, would subject the cases to possible overturns and mistrials, thanks to legal precedent requiring such an unblocked field of observation.

“A courtroom was declared unconstitutional because of this,” Bagneris justified as his reason that Big Charity could not house his court. That was far from the Chief Judge’s only concern. He advocated for a stand alone courthouse at Duncan Plaza for a variety of reason, while the Mayor wants a joint development along with a new City Hall. Despite the Judicial opposition, It is worth noting that Landrieu never actually said the “Civic Center” project was dead. The Mayor only indicated that it now at the bottom of his priority list, thanks to the CDC’s refusal to commit funds to the project.

Addressing the CDC Judges’ contention that the expense of moving the support polls in Big Charity to create a 32 ft courtroom makes the project unaffordablely expensive, and therefore impossible, Stokes simply stated, “I would not have any way to know how much moving support columns would cost….The FHL Study on Charity Hospital never looked at moving any of the support structures – in any part of the building.”

As to whether the Mayor’s project is affordable or feasible at this $207 million figure, she equally explained, “With the FHL study, we determined that the cost to gut the iconic building – and build a state-of-the-art hospital inside would be $550M. That figures included $128M in historic tax credits – calculated by the NTCIC using details of the FHL Charity Hospital concept plan. I could give you chapters on how we arrived at our cost estimates. I would have no way to know how Mayor Landrieu arrived at his figure—or could comment on its accuracy.”

That does not mean that the FHL Board member believes the Mayor’s basic vision to be a bad idea—at least the current vision. “The Foundation for Historic Louisiana, along with the entire community would love to see Charity Hospital reused. We are happy that officials have finally recognized that the building is structurally sound, and could be used for something as meaningful as City Hall, or a Civic Center, or anything for that matter. If they had acknowledged it sooner, maybe we wouldn’t have felt the need to demolish 30 acres of a historic neighborhood that was rebuilding after Katrina – and spend the $1.1B for the construction of a new hospital for Children’s Hospital, a private entity.”

Of course, the Judges themselves argue that Charity should be rehabilitated, just not as a courthouse complex. When asked directly if Stokes personally thought the Civic Center was a good idea, and whether the Judges fair in their claim that the “Civic Center” development would cause taxes to go up to enable Big Charity’s conversion, since it would cost more than $207 million, she replied, “I don’t know. I can tell you that our study was $550M for a new hospital inside the building, including historic tax credits.”

Both sides have used the FHL report in way that it was not intended. “We studied putting a 21st-century hospital using LSU’s dream programming inside Char­ity Hos­pital. We could not assume to know the numbers for building a court, or a city hall, or changing supports. That was not our charge – and not part of the study. It would take another study, outside of FHL’s, to make those determinations. These numbers do not translate from one source to another.”

Still with all the propaganda flowing from advocates and opponents of the project, “[K]nowing that,” she said her personal opinion remains, “ I don’t think the Civic Center Idea is over”.

More on the original FHL Hospital plan at http://www.fhl­.org/FHL/News/PresvAlerts/CharityHospital.shtm#CharResults.

This article originally published in the September 9, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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