Judges from Civil District Court believe Mayor Mitch Landrieu is playing hardball to force their move, along with City Hall, into the abandoned Charity Hospital building.

Instead, the judges want to build a new courthouse on state land off Duncan Plaza.

Landrieu may have a trump card in a 2010 law that says the judges need the Jindal administration’s approval to transfer the proposed courthouse site to them, and they have to begin construction by next Aug. 15. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration has yet to offer that approval, and the judges believe Landrieu is working to make sure it won’t.

To be sure, Jindal and Landrieu are not natural allies. But both would reap credit for reopening the shuttered landmark. But no one can say yet how that would happen without Civil District Court agreeing to be City Hall’s co-tenant. Few dispute that both the current City Hall and the Civil District Court building are outmoded.

Time appears to be running out for the judges.

[module align=”left” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]“The state has an obligation to put it back into commerce. One way or another, this has to happen.” — state Rep. Walter Leger[/module]They have set an informal deadline of Oct. 31 for approval of the land transfer, so as to have enough time to nail down the financing and begin construction by the August deadline, Judge Kern Reese told The Lens.

The mayor’s gambit won’t move the judges, Reese said.

“Duncan Plaza is the best and most ideal site for us,” Reese said. “Charity doesn’t work for us,” he said. “That has been ruled out by us. Two nationally known institutions have reviewed the building. Charity was built as a hospital. We need a 21st century courthouse.”

Nonetheless, hanging tough against Landrieu’s plan, Reese said, means the judges would be left with two unappealing options:

1)    Get the Jindal administration’s approval at a later date and then rush to meet the Aug. 15 deadline. “That’s never a good option,” Reese said. “Things fall between the cracks.”

2)    Lobby the state Legislature to modify the 2010 bill that set the Aug. 15 deadline. “We are not of a mind to do that,” Reese said. “It can get amended, and all kinds of things can happen out of our control.”

The mayor’s plan to move City Hall and the Civil District Court to the vacant Charity building surfaced in July. Since then, the judges and Landrieu have been engaged in a tug of war.

Reese said one example of the Landrieu administration’s hardball tactics came at an Aug. 22 meeting he attended with Paul Rainwater, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s chief of staff; Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris; state Sen. Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans; Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson; and Jim McNamara, president and chief executive officer of the BioDistrict New Orleans, a state entity with a mission to foster a biomedical industry in conjunction with the city’s emerging post-Katrina hospital complex.

Reese said he and others in the meeting were surprised to learn from Rainwater that Landrieu administration officials were saying the judges wanted to go to Charity. They told Rainwater otherwise and thought they had won his agreement to have the Jindal administration transfer the Duncan Plaza land to Civil District Court, Reese said.

The judges sent the Jindal administration a proposed cooperative-endeavor agreement for the land transfer a month ago but have yet to get a response, Reese said.

“We’re continuing to work with area officials and stakeholders on the best plan for those properties,” Rainwater said in an email.

Reese cited another example of Landrieu’s opposition.

He said the judges sought out McNamara to see if the BioDistrict might use its authority to sell bonds as a way to help finance the courthouse. But Landrieu’s top aide, Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin, rallied the BioDistrict’s board members to oppose the financing plan, saying that paying for a courthouse was outside the agency’s scope.

“It’s been a pattern of behavior by the mayor’s office,” Reese said of the alleged obstructions.

He added that the judges can still finance the courthouse without the BioDistrict – something the Landrieu administration doubts. But nothing can happen without the Jindal administration authorizing the land transfer.

Queried by The Lens, The Landrieu administration did not address the judges’ concerns about the mayor’s tactics.

Landrieu wants Civil District Court in a building shared with City Hall at least in part because the 2010 state law created a way for the judges to raise money to pay for a new structure. That money could be used to help with Charity’s renovation costs.

The mayor has yet to identify publicly how he would pay for what he would call the Civic Center. A City Hall estimate in June put the price tag at $300 million.

Tyler Gamble, the mayor’s press secretary, ducked a questioned by The Lens as to how the Landrieu administration proposes to finance the renovation. His email response offered only generalizations: “Mayor Landrieu is committed to the adaptive reuse of Charity Hospital as a civic complex that fully utilizes the space available, and the City continues to work with the state and other partners to further develop this plan.”

In a June analysis, City Hall officials said they would pay for the Civic Center with $100 million from the state’s capital outlay fund, $11 million from FEMA, $33 million generated by state and federal historic tax credits, $18 million from so-called new-market tax credits, $30 million from state abatement funds and $78 million from city-issued revenue bonds.

The reliability of those numbers is up in the air. Where the Jindal administration would get $100 million is unclear.

Emailed queries to FEMA went unanswered.

The State Historic Preservation Office has yet to determine whether Charity would be eligible for historic tax credits, much less what they’d be worth, said Jacques Berry, a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who oversees the office.

The city has set aside $20.3 million for Charity’s renovation.

The state Division of Administration controls the iconic Charity building, Douglas Baker, the agency’s communications director, said in an email. The hospital – where generations of low-income New Orleanians came for treatment —  shut down after Hurricane Katrina. Rather than reopen the building, Louisiana State University, which ran Charity as a teaching hospital, and the administration of then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco decided to build a new hospital, now under construction several blocks away.

Baker said state and city officials are trying to reach an agreement under which the city would take title to Charity, generally regarded as an Art Deco architectural masterpiece.

“Currently, there is no state use for the building, which is in need of substantial renovation and environmental remediation prior to occupancy,” Baker wrote.  “Both the State and the City would further benefit from increased economic development of the area around the building which would be unlikely to occur should the building continue to remain idle and unused,” he added.

Baker said any deal to transfer ownership of the building would require the state Legislature’s approval.

State Rep. Walter Leger, D-New Orleans, said he has been involved in discussions with Landrieu administration officials about redeveloping Charity but said the conversations have focused on how to pay for the renovation, not on how to win the Legislature’s approval for transfer of ownership.

“The state has an obligation to put it back into commerce,” Leger said. “One way or another, this has to happen.”

Monty Sullivan, the chancellor of Delgado Community College, said in an interview that Kopplin asked him about the possibility of Delgado expanding its nursing school by occupying part of Charity. Sullivan said he’s intrigued with the idea because the new LSU and Veterans Administration hospitals are scheduled to open in two and three years, respectively, and will need 1,000 new nurses.

A key attraction for the Landrieu administration: Delgado has up to $38 million in funds for a new facility thanks to a measure recently enacted by the state Legislature that provides $250 million for technical and community colleges statewide.

Sullivan said Delgado would need an interim facility “somewhere downtown” because a Charity overhaul probably wouldn’t be finished before 2018.

Developer Pres Kabacoff has also suggested that a wing of Charity be used to create a neuroscience facility.

“There’s a lot of interest,” said state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, whose district includes Charity. “It’s just a question of trying to figure out what can be done.”

Tyler Bridges

Tyler Bridges covers Louisiana politics and public policy for The Lens. He returned to New Orleans in 2012 after spending the previous year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, where he studied digital journalism....