Why is nobody nationwide paying any attention to the new disaster in New Orleans? Katrina was an act of nature. The oil spill was an act of stupidity. This third great disaster, however, is an intentional act by the old-boy network, and they’re winning. What’s at stake?
Ever heard about about when Robert Moses tried to ram an expressway through the middle of Greenwich Village in the 1960’s? This is every bit as egregious. The basement and first level of Charity hospital was flooded during Hurricane Katrina. “Three weeks after Katrina, then-Governor Kathleen Blanco said that Charity Hospital would not reopen, even though the military had scrubbed the building to medical-ready standards.” (see full story here)
Now, the power brokers (including the Veteran’s Administration) are trying to demolish 27 square blocks of the historic mid-city neighborhood around Charity. They’re proposing to replace it with a suburban-style medical complex that has nothing to do with the character of New Orleans or its urban setting.
Let that sink in a minute... 27 square blocks! That’s comparable to the portion of the Lower Ninth Ward that was smashed when the levee burst.* But unlike the Lower Ninth, where most of the houses were postwar ranchers, scores of houses within the path of destruction of the hospital abomination are actually listed on the National Register, and many others are excellent as well. And yet there’s no outcry. Matter of fact, outside of the city of New Orleans, other than Roberta Gratz’s excellent article on citiwire, there has hardly been a whimper.
How can this be happening? How is it that we are proposing to throw away excellent buildings... again... and replace them with something less? When will we ever learn that sustainability is just meaningless marketing fluff so long as we continue to throw things away so easily?
To understand how it’s happening, just follow the money. Billions of dollars will be spent on the projects, which include both a VA hospital and an LSU hospital on the same mega-site. How can a city that has been so battered in recent years turn its back on an influx of cash like that?
Most cities tend to focus on big silver-bullet projects they hope will save them. Everyone wants the “Bilbao Effect.” More often, they get the “Renaissance Center Effect” instead: a big project on which lots of money has been spent, but which doesn’t revitalize the surrounding neighborhoods. Detroit got the Center, but not the Renaissance. In short, it was false advertising... as it almost always is. Here’s why:
The cash influx lasts as long as construction is ongoing, but even that is deceiving. Roughly half of typical construction cost is materials. If your town doesn’t produce those building materials, then that money immediately leaves town. The other half is for labor and administration. Projects of this size ordinarily draw a lot of attention from companies all over the country, so it’s highly unlikely that most of the buildings will be built by New Orleans contractors. That means that a substantial portion of the labor and administration costs is leaving town, too. So only a small fraction of those big budget numbers will actually get plowed into the New Orleans economy. And it’s temporary... lasting only until the completion of construction.
After that, the city is left with the repercussions of the design that was built. Far too often, the design is corrosive, as it is here. There are several problems:
* Trading historic buildings that look like they belong in New Orleans for buildings that look like they could be anywhere seems more like an esoteric architectural discussion than an economic development debate. But consider the fact that New Orleans takes in over $5 billion from tourism. Now ask yourself this: do tourists come to a city full of buildings that look like they could be anywhere, or do they instead go to places with a strong identity? The answer is clear.
* The hospital projects create a completely unwalkable environment around them. We know the physical characteristics of walkable streets, and also of unwalkable ones. It’s no mystery anymore where people will walk and where they won’t walk. And this hospital district fails every test of walkability. Why should walkability matter? Several reasons. Ever seen a tourist destination where people travel from far away just to drive around? Of course not. The billions of tourist dollars New Orleans rakes in each year are a direct result of the high walkability it has created.
* It’s not just tourism, either. It’s true that hospital patients come from all around, so they’re highly likely to arrive in a car (or ambulance.) But as fuel costs continue to rise, walkable workplaces are going to become more and more important to both employees and employers. With the pace of urbanization in China and India, it’s likely that between them, there may be a billion cars on the road in those two countries in a few years that don’t even exist today. Imagine those billion cars competing with America’s 300 million cars for gas, all at a time that we’re having to go to more hostile places to find oil. Not much doubt where the price of gas is going, is there? It’s not so hard to imagine a near future when corporate recruiters include the caveat that “you can walk to work from a cool nearby neighborhood. Too bad for these hospitals that it’ll never happen there due to their physical design.
* Even if you don’t work in the hospitals, the “walkability shadow” their suburban design casts can still impact you if you live or work nearby. The coolest and most valuable places in New Orleans are almost always the most walkable, as they are everywhere. Unwalkable places, on the other hand, are almost never the coolest in town. It’s quite apparent that walkability is a significant threshold for coolness in cities all over, including New Orleans. It’s equally obvious that coolness is a huge driver of increasing values: cool places increase in value, while uncool places are much more stagnant, or even decline. So the walkability shadow cast by this design is also a coolness shadow and a potential value shadow as well. If the walkability shadow only extends 3 blocks all around the hospitals, that means over 100 square blocks of real estate values could be impacted. Add up all the real estate value on those blocks. Even if it’s only $5 million per block, that’s a half a billion dollars worth of real estate value on 100 blocks. So even if the walkability shadow only makes difference of a few percentage points in value, we’re still talking about a huge potential impact.
* The hospitals sever the grid repeatedly by cutting off a number of streets. This is a bad idea on several counts. Going from destinations on one side to destinations on the other require more time, gas, and therefore money. This may not seem like a big item, but consider this: If each of the 9 streets cut off currently carry only 10,000 cars per day (probably a low number) and if the average detour is only 2 blocks each way (also a somewhat low number,) then that’s 9 x 10,000 x (2+2) = 360,000 extra blocks that citizens of New Orleans will have to drive every day. At 350’ per block, that’s nearly 24,000 miles per day that New Orleans residents will have to drive out of their way because of cutting these streets... roughly the distance to go all the way around the world... every day! And at an average speed of 15 miles per hour (counting stopping,) that’s a waste of 1,600 hours per day by residents having to drive around this thing. New Orleans’ Living Wage is nearly $10/hour, which means that the impact of clipping the streets in terms of time wasted is $16,000 per day. That’s on top of the costs of driving.
I could go on, as there are many other detrimental aspects of these designs, but let’s listen to some of the locals who have been bravely fighting this monstrosity with very little outside support until now. Michael Rouchell is a local architect and preservationist who has been prolific in his writing, including this post on Roberta Gratz, this cost comparison of renovating Charity versus building new, and this overview of the whole sordid affair, which includes excellent illustrations.
Gate Pratt, another local architect who’s also fighting, suggested these resources as well: PreserveNation has weighed in on the issue, as has the Louisiana Landmarks Society. Save Mid-City Houses is a blog devoted to the fight.
Michael and Gate are two of a small but committed band of preservationists in New Orleans who have been doing the street-fighting, but they’re exhausted, and just about out of time. The Mayor just established a 45-day final review period, but if nothing changes, then the rumbling noise you’ll hear will be the bulldozers cranking up to level block after block of historic structures.**
The bottom line is this: the detrimental aspects of this design will cost the city more in the long run than the billions of dollars spent on its construction. Please help by lending your voice to the effort to save New Orleans from this mammoth act of disastrous short-sightedness. Say something! In 45 days, it will be too late.
Note: If any of the images above are useful to you, they’re available at high resolution for printing or download on my Zenfolio site. Just click on the image and it’ll take you there.
* “... comparable to the portion of the Lower Ninth Ward that was smashed...” refers to the portion that was physically smashed by the force of the water, not just flooded. This was roughly the first 3 blocks from the levee. At 10 blocks wide, that was essentially 30 square blocks.
** Michael told me this evening that only the LSU portion of the project got the 45-day review period. The bulldozers are already demolishing the historic houses of the VA portion, so timing is critical.
Monday, June 28, 2010 - 05:01 PM
Steve... Great post. I hope your's, Ann Daigle's, Michael's, Gate's, and everyones' efforts to battle this issue are successful. How does the individual not involved in this effort chip in? Is there a particular agency, or business to contact to lodge conplaints... or another action/outlet more beneficial?
Monday, June 28, 2010 - 06:10 PM
I'm with Chad -- anything I can do from New England? To whom do we send a howler? I didn't have any idea this was happening. So frustrating -- do we really need to keep making the same mistakes?
Monday, June 28, 2010 - 06:33 PM
There are two important things to do, IMO, to get this on the national agenda immediately:
1. Tell what's happening to everyone in your network, with your take on it, so that it comes across with passion and authenticity. You're likely only one or two degrees of separation (whether you realize it or not) from someone who has the means to elevate the story to the national level.
2. Take the story to influential media people you follow regularly, but who don't know you. Your batting average is likely lower with those that don't know you, but since 100% of these people have the means to go national (as opposed to a smaller percentage of those who do know you) then it's equalized a bit.
Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - 07:00 PM
Save for the heroics of technology in saving lives, there's a good case to be made here for the traveling doctor again. The problem is, we've designed our entire "sickness care system" around 5% of our actual needs: emergency/acute medicine. It's a design problem that starts with a word far more relevant than sustainability: responsibility.