Children’s Hospital faces two key hearings before city officials this week as it prepares to tear down a cluster of dilapidated structures at the edge of the former site of the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital in anticipation of building a new parking garage and clinic space there, and shared more details about the development plans with neighbors on Tuesday night.
The plan for Children’s Hospital’s expansion has two primary goals, hospital CEO Mary Perrin and board member Dr. Stephen Hales explained to an audience of about 30 neighbors and staff members on Tuesday. The first goal is to reorganize the existing facility to better accommodate their patients and medical staff, they said, and the second is to preserve as many of the nearly 80-year-old buildings on the campus as possible.
“By bringing the preservation community in early, working through this and getting their ideas and input, we were able to be for what I think is the first time in this city where an adaptive reuse project of this size basically has sign-off from key preservation leadership,” Hales said. “We want Children’s Hospital to be able to do what it needs to do, but also to bring the campus back to life in a beautiful way.”
While simply re-using the old NOAH buildings as hospital and clinic space once again might seem the obvious answer, it comes with a significant obstacle, Perrin said: modern standards for medical facilities. For example, the corridors in medical buildings are expected to be eight feet wide. Of the former NOAH buildings, only the central line of the main NOAH building has room to be retrofitted with such wide hallways, and that would both force the adjacent rooms to shrink as well as require them all to be lined up in a row, Perrin explained.
Instead, Children’s Hospital intends to use the majority of those old buildings for non-medical purposes, such as hospital administration and residential facilities for parents, Perrin said. The hospital will then build new, state-of-the-art medical space at the back corner of the NOAH site, connected to the main campus over Henry Clay Avenue.
Children’s Hospital also has an urgent need for more parking closer to its main clinics and hospital. Currently, many of its surface parking spaces are along the Mississippi River behind the NOAH campus. The clinic entrances, however, are closer to the corner of Tchoupitoulas and Henry Clay, so many patients choose to park in the neighborhood for a closer walk.
To get those cars out of the neighborhood, Children’s Hospital plans to build a 800-space parking garage on the NOAH site across from the clinics, with a walkway over Henry Clay Avenue. It will mostly be screened from Tchoupitoulas by two historic residential buildings that will be preserved, as well as by as much of the tree canopy as possible.
In order to create the space on the NOAH site for the new garage and clinic, Children’s Hospital needs to tear down six residential buildings and the separating wall along the Henry Clay side. Preservationists have acceded to the demolitions as part of a compromise to preserve the site’s other nine buildings, and the city’s demolition panel gave tentative approval to the plan in early May.
Officials expect the $250 million project to take between four and five years to complete — 18 months for architecture and site planning, and three years for actual construction. If possible, the parking garage might be prioritized in that process, Perrin said.
“Parking is such an issue for us and the neighborhood, I believe we would fast track it,” Perrin said, while cautioning that it was too early in the planning process to know that for certain.
Before any of that can begin, however, the hospital needs to secure approval from city officials at two upcoming meetings. On Thursday, the City Council will consider final approval to the demolition of the six buildings, and a week later (June 11), the Historic District Landmarks Commission will decide on the level of protection it will require of the site and remaining buildings.
Nearby residents at the meeting had a number of questions for the hospital leadership, many focused less on the demolitions or design of the new buildings and more on the impact of the hospital’s expansion. Officials stressed that the new construction is not intended to add more patients, but instead to better serve those already coming — offering more room for parents to be with their children during care, and consolidating satellite functions into new buildings.
“Nobody wants to take patients outside in a wheelchair for an MRI in the back of a semi,” Perrin said.
Several residents urged Children’s Hospital to begin a traffic study of the area immediately, saying that an increase in outpatient activity will bring even more cars through the neighborhood. Residents, however, countered that a better understanding of traffic flow now could help guide the placement of the new buildings.
Perrin promised that a study is forthcoming, but said it would be premature to conduct it before the plans are complete. If the plans are approved by the city in the coming week, however, the traffic study could be done as quickly as this summer, she said.
“The traffic study that we’re talking about asks all the questions you’re asking,” Hales said. “If there’s any relief here, we all want to have that.”
During construction, residents asked if the heavy trucks could use alternate routes to reach the site, such as through the port along the river, rather than through residential streets. Perrin said she would discuss that possibility with the Port Authority.
Residents also asked why Children’s Hospital is presenting only a single development plan, instead of multiple options for neighbors to evaluate and negotiate. Officials replied that the plans had already been through numerous iterations, and that the current master plan best meets the two goals of improving patient care and preserving the old campus.
“We’ve shown you the best solution we can come up with,” Hales said. “A lot of them are in the wastebasket because they won’t service the needs of the hospital, and they tear down more buildings.”