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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 Staff writer / December 6, 2010

A New Orleans house – moved intact to save it from the wrecking ball – was placed on a lot next to another Mid-City home Nov. 3 to make room for a new hospital. More than 250 homes sit in a 30-acre area affected by planned new growth.

Melanie Stetson-Freeman/Staff

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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.

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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."

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