Don't go off the grid with second hospital

By Maggie Tishman and Jack Davis, guest opinion writers |

For centuries, New Orleans’s largely intact street grid has fostered transportation efficiency, connectivity and the success of our compact and walkable neighborhoods.

However, the grid is threatened by the $2.5-billion hospital complexes planned for Mid-City. The first of the two, the Veterans Affairs Hospital, has already closed Tonti and Miro streets between Canal Street and Tulane Avenue, and Cleveland and Palmyra streets from Galvez to Rocheblave streets, collapsing what were 12 city blocks into a single, suburban-style superblock.

LSU’s University Medical Center now proposes to create a 10-block superblock adjacent to the VA Hospital, from Canal to Tulane and Galvez to South Roman, with the possibility of expanding an additional six blocks further, to Claiborne Avenue, in the future.

These street closures would impede the flow of traffic around the hospitals, forcing traffic onto the remaining roads and forcing drivers to take circuitous routes. The added pressure on Tulane Avenue, for instance, might jeopardize the Regional Planning Commission’s work toward calming that street from an incongruously wide highway to a civilized boulevard.

In addition, the city’s open street grid makes it possible to consider turning the elevated I-10 expressway over Claiborne Avenue into a surface-level boulevard. The plan depends on the grid to give drivers options to avoid congestion, with better mobility on surface streets than they have now. Closing these streets will increase the difficulty of making the surface-level boulevard work. This in turn will undercut the city’s current $2 million federally funded study of Claiborne Corridor improvements. What’s more, the street closures will be irreversible; once closed, they cannot be reopened without demolishing at least part of the university hospital.

From the beginning, critics have lambasted the university hospital design as too sprawling and suburban. Last year, Mayor Mitch Landrieu wisely pulled back from the Ray Nagin administration’s proposal to give LSU and the state the street closings without exacting any urban-design concessions.  Then the administration successfully leveraged the request to induce the state to decrease the amount of surface parking and to agree to an access easement that will allow the public to continue using the streets between Roman and Claiborne (if only temporarily).

However, the state and LSU – even as it becomes increasingly apparent that they can’t pay for the superhospital on the superblock – refuse to consider a more realistic new design that would incorporate the existing street grid or any of the existing structures, and they refuse to consider shrinking the hospital’s footprint.

The state is in the process of buying or seizing all the parcels of land within its proposed footprint, and despite a remaining gap of at least $400 million in financing, demolitions have begun. The public rights of way within the site are the last piece of leverage the city has to demand that the state redesign to address the urban landscape and to incorporate some of the existing structures (including McDonogh No. 11, whose proposed demolition has riled the City Council and prompted the Orleans Parish School Board to sue the State for adequate compensation).

The matter of the university hospital street closures comes before the City Planning Commission Tuesday, at which time the commission will recommend to City Council whether the council should revoke or retain the public rights of way. We hope the commission will choose the latter.

If the city must revoke the streets from Galvez to Claiborne, it should at least preserve the public rights of way between Roman and Claiborne. Not to do so would be, quite simply, a travesty. The street grid is a hugely valuable asset that ought to be protected as much as possible. Removing sections of it would undermine the efficiency of the entire grid, obstruct the city’s study of the Claiborne Corridor, and forfeit the last piece of leverage the city retains with the state and LSU.

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