By Katherine Hart, Mid-City Messenger
The area around Norman Francis Parkway and Bienville Street, surrounding the hulking former Lindy Boggs Medical Center, has been booming over the past decade or so.
At the Lafitte Greenway, there’s a bright art-filled plaza in front of the old brake-tag station, which has been turned into a pavilion. There are rows of high-end apartment buildings behind the blighted former hospital. Across from it, the beer garden, wine garden and a collection of restaurants are lively at night.
But the former 187-bed acute care hospital at 301 N. Norman Francis Parkway, once the neighborhood anchor, remains a graffiti-covered, trash-strewn eyesore.
The former physicians’ offices on the lakeside of the complex have been transformed into the St. Margaret’s at Mercy nursing home, but the hospital has been vacant since the 2005 levee failures.
It was actually a few sweltering, chaotic, tragic days after the floodwaters came in — inundating the generators and cutting off the power to the hospital — that patients and staff were rescued from the building. Others were taken out in body bags.
In the 15 years since, development plans have come and gone. Heather McGowan, vice president of development for St. Margaret’s Foundation, provided an update on the latest plans during the March general meeting of the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization.
She said the nonprofit nursing home operator and the property’s co-owner, the Jaeger Foundation, are still working to rehab the entire complex into a continuous care retirement community.
“The plan remains for senior living,” she said. That plan calls for an aging-in-place complex with independent living condos for younger and healthier retirees, an assisted-living component, skilled nursing care and a memory care facility.
“It is a significant project financially,” McGowan said. “There is a good bit of complexity even in a non-pandemic era. We can’t walk into the bank and line up the millions of dollars we need to get the shovels in the ground immediately, and COVID didn’t help.
“There are perceptions about senior-living care because of COVID,” she added. “Investors are nervous about lending in this industry.”
The owners group is also pursuing U.S. Housing and Urban Development financing specifically for senior-living communities, she said. And they are counting on rehabilitation tax credits through the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office, which would require restoring the 1953 Mercy Hospital building.
The developers are optimistic that the market is softening and they can move forward, McGowan said. “The outlook is positive,” she said, “especially with the rollout of the vaccine.”
MCNO members have been hearing for years that the rehabilitation of the massive building is just around the corner. Most members attending the online meeting seemed more concerned about what the owners are doing now to clean and secure the building.
“Residents are obviously frustrated,” MCNO President Chris Blum told McGowan. “There’s the continued illegal access to the property, the visual lack of maintenance. Just securing the property is frustrating. And its continued state of disrepair. We’re kind of at our wits’ end.”
McGowan said the owners are also frustrated. Just days after it’s cleared and cleaned, the area fills up with trash, she said. They fix the fence, and vandals cut holes in it again. They board up the windows, and intruders tear the boards down. They take off the graffiti, and more appears.
“We are trying,” McGowan said, “We are trying to keep it clean, I promise.” She said the group is increasing the frequency of trash pickup.
“On the graffiti side, there’s no good answer there,” she said. “We spend thousands covering graffiti. The last time we did it, it came back almost tenfold. It is almost as if we are daring the vandals to come in and make it worse.”
MCNO board member Mary Mysing-Gubala suggested hiring a security company to try to halt the cycle of vandalism. McGowan said they have looked into it but “regular ongoing security is just cost prohibitive.”
That section of Mid-City is known to flood, and Blum noted the basement continues to fill and becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
The basement gets emptied regularly, McGowan said, adding: “It’s not as simple as it sounds because, as I understand it, the power at the immediate proximity isn’t working, so we have to call in a contractor. But we do pump that rather frequently.”
On Tuesday (March 9), the day after the MCNO meeting, assorted bits of trash clung to the chain link fence surrounding Lindy Boggs. A random garbage can, without any city contractor insignia, was toppled on the Norman Francis Parkway side.
On the Bienville side, some used-up spray-paint cans, empty Barq’s bottles and Coke cans, food wrappers and Styrofoam containers were strewn about, like the remnants of a taggers’ dinner break. Nearby, there was a gap where a gate had been chained shut.
City records indicate an inspector visited the property on Feb. 15, following up on a complaint of “trash at this abandoned building.” Inspector Keith Shelling found no violation.
A long road
Tenet Healthcare Corp., the hospital’s for-profit owner since 1994, pulled out of the New Orleans market after Katrina. It sold its Mid-City property in 2007 to Victory Real Estate Investments, a Georgia firm that wanted to develop a retail corridor along Bienville Street.
Those plans never materialized, and the developers sold the Lindy Boggs complex to two nonprofits, the St. Margaret’s Foundation and the Jaeger Foundation, for $4.2 million in 2010.
The New Orleans based St. Margaret’s announced plans for a nursing home. It also began working with the MCC Group toward the construction of a hospital at the Lindy Boggs site. Preservationists had proposed the site at then-Jefferson Davis Parkway between Bienville and Conti streets for the new University Medical Center, ultimately built in Lower Mid-City.
A city inspector in 2011, a year after the sale, found open doors and windows, fire hazards, and signs of vagrants and criminal activity at the site, city records show.
In 2013, St. Margaret’s Daughters opened the St. Margaret’s at Mercy nursing home to the rear of the hospital on Bienville Street. The owners were again cited that year for violations of the city nuisance ordinance at the old Mercy Hospital.
Officials presented a slew of expensive repair plans to the MCNO in 2014, citing environmental concerns that needed to be addressed on the building’s interior before any renovation could begin. A permit to remove two 10 gallon underground diesel fuel storage was issued that year.
Then, in 2015, an everlasting lawsuit stalled redevelopment of the building even further. The suit stemmed from a dropped proposal between St. Margaret’s and LSU to convert the building into a cardiovascular hospital.
Crews began clearing out years of trash, decay and construction debris in August 2017. To beat the deadline on a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, the crews worked around the clock, going floor by floor to remove asbestos.
With the help of a state grant, the underground storage tanks were finally removed. Putrid water was pumped from the basement, and the backup generators that failed after Katrina were hauled away.
At that point, developers didn’t have a clear picture of what the dilapidated hospital would become, though the general idea centered on a senior living facility.
In June 2019, Peter Aamodt with MCC Real Estate was optimistic when speaking to MCNO about plans to turn the blighted building into senior living. MCC Real Estate provides development services for the Jaeger Foundation.
The decision on an operator for the senior-living facility was pending, he said. He predicted the renovation would start in 2020 and wrap up in 2021.
Of course no one in 2019 could foresee the coronavirus. McGowan said Monday that plans were in high gear until the pandemic hit, and she was optimistic they would get back in gear.
But the MCNO members appeared skeptical. Blum closed the discussion with this question: “Is there a timeframe where St. Margaret’s would choose to walk away? Would there be a possible decision at some point in time to demolish, raze or sell if this can’t move forward?”
McGowan said she is not aware of any such discussions among the owners and would be shocked if it happened.
“St. Margaret’s wants to see this done,” she said. “It is our backyard. And we will try like heck. We will keep trying.”
Katherine Hart is the managing editor of NOLA Messenger. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.