In a city that is arguably more preservation-minded than almost any other in the country, the fact that one of its largest and most architecturally striking buildings stands empty and neglected is almost shocking. But that is the state of the old Charity Hospital, a 1 million-square-foot, art deco structure whose 20 stories sprawl along Tulane Avenue at the edge of downtown New Orleans.
For decades the complex was a hub of activity as it served as a primary source of health care for the city’s poor and an important training ground for thousands of medical professionals. But since 2005, when the city was inundated by the massive flood that followed Hurricane Katrina, “Big Charity” has sat silent and deteriorating.
Though a number of proposals to reopen or redevelop the site surfaced over the years, none progressed to the point of demonstrating the potential financial feasibility or commercial viability that would be necessary to move a project ahead.
Recently, though, a respected group of urban planners weighed in with suggestions that perhaps will lead to a rescue of the 1939 structure from its status as an eyesore.
In February, a panel of experts convened by the national Urban Land Institute released details of a study of Charity Hospital that they undertook late last year. Headed by John Walsh, who is founder and president of real estate development firm TIG in Dallas, the 10-member panel included highly regarded financial and academic advisers and leading real estate professionals from around the country.
While some of New Orleans’ foremost real estate professionals are members of the ULI, the panel members who agreed to study Big Charity all came from other cities, in part to ensure that the panel could operate independently.
The panel members, who spent a full week in New Orleans studying Big Charity, did, however, interview dozens of local people about how the structure should return to use.
The panel’s report suggests a handful of possibilities, including redevelopment for education or work force development; public agency and institutional uses; partial use as a museum; retail in conjunction with neighborhood service amenities; technology development and research; and partial use for work force housing.
“It was abundantly clear that now is the time to act,” Walsh said in releasing the report. “It was equally clear that the thoughtful reuse of Charity Hospital could symbolize as well as catalyze healing and moving forward.”
Walsh emphasized that any redevelopment of the huge building will succeed only if the efforts encompass the area surrounding the building. “The one is inextricably tied to the other,” he said.
Well-known local commercial real estate professional Jimmy Maurin believes the panel’s report holds promise for the future of Charity. “ULI took a fresh, independent look at the building, and they have great credibility,” he said.
The ULI panel recommended the formation of a Charity District Coordinating Committee to develop a strategic plan that would include, with legislative help, tax incentives that would help draw developers.
Maurin believes this approach soon will lead to a request for proposals that can help fill a gap between downtown New Orleans and the area above Claiborne Avenue, where growth is being driven by the new University Medical Center and Veterans Administration Hospital. “Development kind of jumped over Claiborne Avenue leaving the area on the other side of Claiborne quiet,” he said.
Whatever comes to pass at the Big Charity site, its redevelopment will involve a long-term lease with the state of Louisiana, which owns the building. And Maurin says one certainty is that the site will not return exclusively to medical use.
After the federal government invested huge sums, post-Katrina, into development of the new University Medical Center, he says, a deed restriction was placed on Big Charity stipulating that the site will not reopen as a hospital.