The centerpiece of the planning effort is the million-sq.-ft. former Charity Hospital, which has been shuttered since Hurricane Katrina. Credit: Jed Horne

News that LSU has begun seeking developers and investors for adaptive reuse of the Charity Hospital building comes as a shock, given that LSU officials, the governor and the Division of Administration have so far failed to engage residents of New Orleans in open discussions.

Their maneuver — under the rubric “Spirit of Charity” — defies rhetoric by Jay Dardenne, Commissioner of Administration, that the process would be transparent, collaborative and inclusive.

LSU, which controls the hospital building, also pledged to bathe its processes in sunshine after Governor John Bel Edwards charged the LSU Foundation with bringing Charity Hospital back into commerce and revitalizing the area. It seems now that the public will not be engaged in determining the best strategy for the building’s adaptive reuse.

Clearly what’s needed is appointment of an independent third party or citizen council to initiate community discussion about what should happen with “Big Charity,” the million-square-foot art deco masterpiece that, until Katrina, had provided medical services to needy New Orleanians since 1939.

Government officials and developers should know by now that public input is the crucial first step in a legitimately “transparent” development of public spaces or buildings, not the last. One would hope that this idea would not be lost on Latoya Cantrell, incoming Mayor of New Orleans. It remains to be seen if Cantrell will demand a truly transparent and inclusive process.

Operating in partnership with the Urban Land Institute, LSU’s timeline is aggressive and reeks of conflicts of interest.

As reported by the Advocate, two members of a panel on Charity’s future, led by Texas real estate developer John Walsh, want fellow panelist Jimmy Maurin, chairman of the LSU Real Estate & Facilities Foundation and co-founder of Stirling Properties, to “quarterback” the effort. Bear in mind that Stirling Properties co-founder Roger Ogden is a “Diamond Sponsor” of the Urban Land Institute, according to the ULI website.  And Ogden represents Maurin and the LSU Foundation at the Greater New Orleans Foundation’s “Spirit of Charity” stakeholder work group on the district’s future hosted by the Greater New Orleans Foundation (GNOF).

If the powers that be forge ahead and hand citizens yet another “done deal,” the process will be a betrayal of the “Spirit of Charity” that it pretends to honor.

In keeping with the spirit of a “fully transparent” process, I attended the Dec. 20 stakeholder workgroup meeting hosted by GNOF President and CEO Andy Kopplin, formerly chief administrative officer under outgoing Mayor Mitch Landrieu. During the meeting, participants learned from a presentation by Kurt Weigle, president of the Downtown Development District, that any adaptive reuse of the area should fit with redevelopment of Duncan Plaza, the small park in front of City Hall that the Downtown Development District controls.

Weigle said ULI favors repurposing Charity Hospital as educational workforce housing, research-and-development space or as a new home for City Hall and the Civil District Court. The idea of turning Charity into a new civic center is not new. It was floated by Landrieu and fell apart when Civil Court refused to play along.

It seems odd that such institutional uses would be proposed. Neither government offices nor research facilities would bring much needed life back to the area, given that both ideas would leave that part of the Central Business District largely vacant after 5 p.m. and on weekends.

On another track, the ULI/LSU partners envision the building as an anchor for development of an “innovation TIF District” bounded by Claiborne Avenue, Iberville Street, Loyola Avenue, and Poydras Street. (TIF stands for tax increment financing, a legal device that allows the city to capture anticipated tax revenues and plow the money into infrastructure that supports a proposed development.)

Modeled on a Pittsburgh prototype, the “Innovation District” idea is touted as a way to generate good-paying middle-class jobs, thereby reducing economic inequity. Whether or not Pittsburgh’s innovation district has met those goals was a question Kopplin couldn’t answer.

It was also pointed out that such a district would require legislative approval. Conveniently, there is a bill up for a House vote today in Baton Rouge. The legislation, by state Sen. Eric Lafleur, a Ville Platte Democrat, would enable parishes and municipalities to create and generate targeted revenues for “special service districts.” Though not necessarily bad legislation, it would appear to permit LSU to move forward without additional public input.

It’s all so very cozy and well-timed.

Given the nature of these relationships, in particular that of Stirling Properties and LSU, I don’t see how the plan to bring Charity Hospital back into commerce can be considered fully inclusive, transparent or accountable. Review by an independent third party would make it more likely that a plan for adaptive reuse of the hospital district reflects the needs of New Orleanians.

It’s no secret that my grassroots organization — Healing Minds NOLA — would like to see the area developed as a mental healthcare and research center of excellence, anchored by Charity Hospital. But whatever the outcome, it’s imperative that the ideas of all New Orleanians are respected.

Redevelopment of the area should not be driven by the whims of real estate moguls and politicians. If the powers that be forge ahead and hand citizens yet another “done deal,” the process will be a betrayal of the “Spirit of Charity” that it pretends to honor.

Janet Hays, a New Orleans resident, is founder of Healing Minds NOLA, which advocates on behalf of people with serious mental illnesses.

Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.