Husband and wife Justin and Christy Pitard, who opened Avery's Po-Boy's on Tulane Ave. near downtown New Orleans in March, are waiting for the University Medical Center and the adjacent Veterans Administration hospital to rise. This summer, the Pitards have listened to piles being driven on the 70-acre Tulane-Gravier site that was vacated of homes and businesses. They anticipate a brisk sandwich business in the fall as thousands of construction workers arrive.
"We're expecting around 1,000 workers on the UMC site in September," said Paul Miles, research analyst with the Louisiana Division of Administration, last week. Preparation work on the 424-bed UMC, the successor to Charity Hospital, began six months ago. The center's ambulatory-care building, inpatient towers and diagnostic-and-treatment center should be ready by late 2014.
The UMC is affiliated with Louisiana State University, and the UMC Management Corp. Board will operate it near a 200-bed hospital being built by the U.S. Veterans Health Administration. Certain clinical, diagnostic and treatment functions will be shared. Laundries will be separate but can be shared if needed. Parking will be separate.
At combined cost to build of more than $2 billion, the two hospitals will be an economic shot in the arm. Planners view the facilities as a way to expand post-Katrina care and enhance the city as hub for medical education and research. The hospitals will be "academic anchors" for programs at Louisiana State University, Tulane, Dillard, Xavier, Southern University of New Orleans and Delgado Community College, according to LSU.
Critics of the UMC, however, wanted the 2,700-bed Charity Hospital on Tulane Ave. revived instead. Preservationists said the 1930s-era complex could be salvaged but LSU said it was too heavily damaged in Katrina.
The UMC is bounded east and west by Canal St. and Tulane Ave. and north and south by South Galvez St. and Claiborne Ave. The VA site is bordered east and west by Canal and Tulane and north and south by South Rocheblave and South Galvez.
Last week, Sister Vera Butler at the Rebuild Center at St. Joseph's Church on Tulane Ave., said "we're seeing scattered construction -- with cranes, trucks, other equipment and lots of dust -- and we hear noise all around us. But because of construction fences, you can't really tell what's going on."
To make way for the UMC alone, 49 residential and 28 commercial buildings were demolished, eight historic houses were relocated and 127 lots were cleared, Miles with the DOA said. About seventy families displaced by the UMC were relocated.
Meanwhile, "one historic school building, McDonogh No. 11, is currently staged on site for relocation," he said. The state is working with the city to find a permanent site for the school.
On the entire medical campus, "City funding paid for about eighty homes to be moved from the UMC and VA sites," said Ryan Berni, spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu. "The state moved some buildings under a separate State Historic Preservation Office program."
In addition to the eight houses relocated from the UMC site, 76 houses were moved from the VA hospital area, the DOA said.
Sister Vera said the old neighborhood suddenly vanished. "You had people living here whose grandparents had grown up here," she said. "But they've now gone to Gentilly, Jefferson Parish and out of state. It's a scattered, broken community now."
Artist Michelle Levine, owner of Mondo Murals & Design and a former Tulane-Gravier resident, was forced out and now lives in Jefferson Parish. She said plans to build the UMC predated Katrina. "Before the storm, developers were buying up old houses in the area and leaving them vacant," she said. "After the storm, some Tulane-Gravier home owners used their federal Road Home and other recovery money to rebuild. Some of them were elderly."
Levine continued, saying "there were a few community meetings about the new hospital but all along the plan was to tear down the neighborhood."
Before Katrina, consultants for LSU studied the idea of replacing Charity Hospital, the university's teaching facility, with a new complex. In early 2007, a business plan to that effect was presented to the Louisiana Legislature's joint budget committee.
Sister Vera said, "a few neighborhood meetings were held in 2008 and 2009, and conversations were going on but it was difficult to get any concrete information. There was never a point person you could go to. You couldn't find out who to ask, who to call."
The area's historic houses and affordable rents are gone. "The shotguns in Tulane-Gravier were as nice as anything in the Marigny or Bywater," Levine said. Shotguns are narrow houses, with a line of rooms stretching from front to back. "And rents were reasonable," she said. "In addition to seniors, a lot of service workers -- with jobs in hotels and restaurants in the Quarter and downtown -- lived there and biked to work."
Levine said she was surprised to see billboards showing smiling, young people sitting by a pool when she was getting ready to move. "I wondered if those people would be the next residents," she said. The ads promoted new apartments for medical students.
Several years ago, when it appeared that Tulane-Graver housing would be torn down, residents were scared but some wanted the money. "My neighbor, who owned what was basically a shack next door, was very excited about the idea of a buyout," Levine said.
But in the end, "the payouts for homes weren't enough so that people could buy a comparable house elsewhere," Sister Vera said. And Tulane-Gravier had some of the city's lowest rents at a time when rentals were escalating after Katrina, she noted.
On July 22, the 62-year-old Pallas Hotel was imploded to make way for the campus. Commenting on that event, Jim MacQueen, director of PNOLA Build, a lower Mid-City nonprofit, said, "I watched it and thought it was well handled. The demolition team did a good job." The implosion was postponed several times so that asbestos and other hazardous materials could be removed.
Levine said "the Pallas Hotel had bad juju way before the implosion," meaning the place had a bad aura. The neighborhood struggled with drug dealers and prostitution, and blight grew after Katrina -- making crime worse.
At the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, President Matthew Morgan said, after a board meeting last Tuesday, "we're concerned about the expropriation and loss of housing in Tulane-Gravier and about some derelict properties that remain around the medical campus site. We're also concerned about the loss of through streets in the area. In particular, people want Bank St. back." Bank St. runs through Mid-City and into Tulane-Gravier.
As for further demolitions, Miles said three old structures on the UMC site that are being used during construction will be torn down eventually."The buildings are scheduled for demolition towards the end of the construction phase," he said.
Skanska USA, based in New York City, is managing the UMC's build. To watch construction on a live web cam, check out http://www.earthcam.com/client/skanskamapp/umc
Justin Pitard at Avery's Po-Boys said construction on the medical campus got off to a slow start this year. "We were a little worried after we opened our restaurant in March," he said. "But we now have repeat customers from the workers who have been here. In the August heat, they're not ordering whole poboys with fries on the side like they did in the spring, but we're optimistic about this fall." Other small businesses in the vicinity will also benefit from the hospitals, he said.
As for the former Dixie brewery, which closed after Katrina and is in the VA hospital footprint, Pitard has seen workers on the roof of that Tulane Ave. building. He's heard that the exterior of the brewery will likely remain, following the results of a recent, structural-integrity study.
This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly," in the Aug. 6, 2012 edition.