New Orleans makeover: economic boost or loss of a historical legacy?

Post-Katrina, New Orleans looks to diversify its economy beyond tourism. But plans for a mammoth biomedical facility mean historic homes will be relocated, or razed.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted December 6, 2010 at 4:40 pm EST

New Orleans — The parade crawling up Tulane Avenue in this city is unusually quiet. No one is dancing to marching bands. No one is cheering for beads to be thrown from atop a float.

That’s because there are no floats. This parade features only modest, one-story homes more than 100 years old, jacked up on steel beams and dragged slowly by pickup trucks to their new location a few miles away. The procession is the result of one of the most controversial urban-planning projects in New Orleans since hurricane Katrina. On one side are those who fear that the city’s historic character is being steamrolled by state and federal lawmakers. On the other side are those who say sacrifices are in order if the city wants to advance an economic comeback.

The controversy involves nearly 265 homes in the Lower Mid-City neighborhood, a 30-acre area recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. It borders downtown and is across from the city’s medical district, decimated by Katrina.

Even before the storm, the federal government was moving forward to build a new veterans hospital to replace the cramped one in the district. When Katrina damaged the hospital, those plans were hastened. In late 2008, the state announced it wanted to move the hospital project to Lower Mid-City and started the process of acquiring homes.

In addition to the $800 million federal complex planned for the site, the state plans to open a 424-bed medical teaching facility to succeed Charity Hospital, a nationally recognized historic landmark that was abandoned after the storm. Also, Louisiana State University is planning a new medical center and teaching hospital across the street from the veterans-hospital site.

These three facilities will be part of what the state is calling BioDistrict New Orleans, a medical and science corridor that one day is expected to span 1,500 acres. The massive endeavor inevitably will require more land acquisition and the demolition of historic buildings – a prospect that enrages community advocates and preservationists but is necessary, other leaders say, if the city wants to attract businesses and become nationally recognized as a home for science and technology.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) told reporters in July that the district “is going to be one of the main engines for our high-wage, high-growth jobs in the Greater New Orleans area,” which could generate hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the state.

Biomedical research and technology will help develop a “very diverse economy” apart from tourism, says Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Tourism revenue, he adds, is not enough if New Orleans wants to remain competitive with cities like Houston and Austin, Texas.

“If we can get from where we are now to that, that will be a big transformational moment,” Mr. Landrieu told the Monitor in July.

But critics say the project is a slap in the face of residents who spent three years after Katrina using federal Road Home funds to fix up their homes. They say they, too, want a medical district, but they point to independent studies that say existing infrastructure, such as Charity, can be reused.

The planned district is described by Sandra Stokes, executive vice chair of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana in Baton Rouge, as “suburban sprawl in the most culturally significant urban environment in the US.”

“You’re not revitalizing your downtown,” she says. “You’re evacuating your downtown and calling it economic development.”

The city’s fragile architectural heritage is also at stake. According to a June report by the New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission, the “historic significance” of Lower Mid-City “lies not in an accumulation of mansions, but in the aggregation of iconic New Orleans building types” such as Creole cottages, shotguns, and camelbacks, most of which were built before 1900.

This is where the parade comes in. In September, Landrieu halted demolition, and more than 80 homes are being rescued thanks to a partnership between the city and Builders of Hope, a nonprofit organization in Raleigh, N.C., that advocates affordable housing.

Builders of Hope is redistributing the homes within a few miles of the neighborhood on lots owned by other nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity. The homes are intended to serve as good, affordable housing for low- or moderate-income residents.

Some $3.2 million allocated by the city pays for the moves, new foundations for the homes, and restoration of them.

Landrieu acknowledged to reporters at the time that “not everybody is going to get everything they want” but said the outreach was an attempt to find “common ground.”

To usher homes down streets laced with electric wires, the roofs – most of them decrepit – are taken off; new green roofs will be added later. Structures with living space extending past 60 feet are shortened to allow them to be hauled.

Casius Pealer, Builders of Hope’s Gulf Coast director, says he knows such alterations may not please preservationists. But they’re necessary, he says, given the realities of uprooting the homes from their foundations and saving them from a landfill.

The organization has saved 59 homes as of Dec. 1 and hopes to rescue another 22 in the early part of December. The 19th move was scheduled for Dec. 7.

“Historic preservation is important to us, but everyone working together on this realizes we’re all under constraints. This is everyone’s Plan B,” he says.

Soon, this area will be flat as a prairie. Everything that once was Lower Mid-City is being dismantled, including the streets, lampposts, curbs, electric lines, and sidewalks. On a day in early November, empty lots tramped by heavy machinery surrounded remaining homes. Although the homes’ roofs were removed and windows and doors dismantled, they had signs of a former life – a lone bottle of dish soap on the kitchen counter, a ruby-colored sofa sitting crookedly against a wall.

While most homeowners accepted state money to start over, Doris Bahr had a different approach to her home – a double shotgun she spent more than $100,000 to renovate twice, once when she bought it in 2002 and then after Katrina. She’s decided to follow the house to its new location and renovate it again. The state agreed to pay her the value of the mortgage.

Ms. Bahr has mixed feelings about what is happening to her neighborhood. In her eight years there, she felt she found a community, and Katrina bonded her neighbors together.

“We are not against a new hospital,” she says. “I love the fact new jobs are coming in – but at what expense?”

Now, she says, “what’s done is done.” She was willing to accept living in her house in another location, because “in the end, I had faith.”

“It’s beyond money. My sweat, my tears, my blood is in that house,” she says. “I just didn’t want to give it away.”

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