By Bruce Eggler, The Times-Picayune
January 20, 2010
A raucous public meeting Wednesday night on Children's Hospital's expansion plans drew more than 100 Uptown residents, many of whom spent much of the session jeering hospital and Audubon Commission officials.
One resident seemed to speak for many in the audience when he said, "Other than anger, I don't have a lot to contribute."
Children's Hospital officials would like to lease a 5.5-acre site behind the hospital for a multiple-phase expansion of the 55-year-old, 175-bed hospital.
The site, which now houses Audubon's tennis courts and Avenger Field, a former New Orleans Recreation Department playground, was not part of the original Audubon Park but was bought by a support group, the Audubon Natatorium, from a railroad in 1949. The same group sold land for the hospital to a group of doctors in 1950.
Although it has been used by the park for decades, the proposed expansion site is zoned MS, or medical services, rather than P, or park, officials said.
The hospital wants initially to build two two- or three-story buildings and to create a 160-space parking lot on the site. Eventually, officials said, they envision a six-story building at the rear of the site, closest to the river, and a three- or four-story building closest to Tchoupitoulas Street, with a five-level garage between them. The complex would be connected to the current hospital by two pedestrian bridges across Calhoun Street.
Audubon would build new tennis courts on the park's Riverview section next to the Mississippi River. That area already is home to many baseball and other athletic fields.
Many residents said the hospital expansion would be a visual blight and would worsen traffic, parking and flooding problems in the neighborhood.
They said Audubon should refuse to lease land for what some called "an industrial complex" and "a concrete jungle."
John Hopper, a neighbor who is chief development officer for City Park, told Audubon CEO Ron Forman and other officials, "Park land is precious. Once you give it up, you're never going to get it back." Audubon has a total of 400 acres, including its zoo and golf course.
Although several speakers said they recognize the important work Children's Hospital does, they said it has not always been a good neighbor and should not be allowed to expand in a way that would harm their quality of life.
Although hospital employees are forbidden to park in the neighborhood, speakers said hundreds of volunteers and family members of patients park in front of their homes every day. One said the expansion could bring another 1,000 cars a day onto narrow and already crowded streets.
Forman said Audubon has not decided whether to go ahead with the proposed lease, but he said, "We support Children's Hospital" and "are trying to respond to a request from a good neighbor."
The Audubon Commission will meet Jan. 27, but it is uncertain whether the issue will be presented at that time. Only one or two commission members attended Wednesday night's meeting.
Audubon officials said they do not know how much money they might get from the hospital. If they decide to lease the land, they said, they will have the site appraised and decide on compensation based on its market value.
Hospital officials also said they do not know how many beds or employees they might add if they go ahead with the expansion. That statement, like several others, drew catcalls from many in the audience.
Forman said Audubon has notified several immediate neighbors and the leaders of five adjoining neighborhood organizations of the Children's Hospital request, but most audience members said they had received no official notification.
Children's Hospital spokesman Brian Landry said the hospital would like to start construction of the expansion by the end of the year. Because the site has a 60-foot height limit, the hospital would have to get a height waiver for the six-story building, which would rise to 84.5 feet.
Bruce Eggler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3320.