NEW ORLEANS — If it seems like we’ve been reporting on “new life” at Charity Hospital for 17 years – well, it’s because we have.
But this time, there’s something different about what’s happening inside and outside of Old Charity.
The iconic New Orleans hospital served the community for a century as the City’s safety-net hospital, saving hundreds of thousands of lives and training thousands of doctors and nurses.
But Hurricane Katrina flooded Charity’s basement, shutting down the hospital and trapping roughly 360 patients and 1,200 staff members inside. Weeks later, a team of volunteers, contractors and the military cleaned out the lower floors to get the hospital “medical ready,” but it would never reopen.
“It was capable of being reopened. That’s my bottom line,” Lt. Gen. Russel Honore said in 2009. “What they told me was ‘we got it, but the plan is not to open it.”
Honore said that LSU put the brakes on reopening the hospital, hoping to get FEMA to pay for a complete replacement.
That process would take five years and ultimately net them $475 Million, which went into building the $1.2 Billion University Medical Center. And for 17 years, Old Charity sat empty. But today, there are signs of life.
As part of a $600 million plan, Charity Hospital will become the heart of Tulane’s Downtown Medical School.
Old Charity will become the flagship building for Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, as well as housing for biomedical research labs, Tulane’s Innovation Institute and their School of Professional Advancement.
“We’re bringing it back, respecting its history, but really looking forward to the future of New Orleans,” Tulane President Michael Fitts said.
That plan only takes up 350,000 square-feet – roughly one-third of the building.
The sheer size of Charity Hospital has been a major challenge when it comes to redeveloping the space.
“Developing it is not for the faint of heart,” Fitts said.
Developer Joseph Stebbin and the team at 1532 Tulane Partners are taking on the project. They’ve submitted more than 12,000 sheets of plans for the building outlining their plans for the space and how they’ll preserve the historic details.
Going over those takes time.
“To start things like interior demolition, we’ve got to find out exactly what we can keep,” Stebbins said. “Make sure we keep it and maintain it and ensure it’s returned to exactly the way it should be for this building. It’s a very delicate thing.”
Stebbins says officials are nearly done going over those plans and once they are, work can begin.
“Is the project moving forward? 110-percent yes,” Stebbins said. “Do I have an exact timeline? No, but we hope to be underway by the beginning of the year.”
The good news is that no matter what challenges Old Charity throws their way, the building’s massive size gives them flexibility to adjust their plans as needed.
Right now, those plans include 300 apartments, 90,000 square-feet of retail and an underground parking garage.
There’s already buy-in from other developers as well. Several vacant buildings in the area have been purchased by developers citing Charity Hospital and the promise of New Orleans Bio-Medical District as a major draw.
It’s a sign that Tulane’s investment is already sending ripples though the community.
“If you’re a developer of small size, you can develop something, but you can’t create a neighborhood,” President Fitts said. “We can do that. When we say we’re going to develop Charity, we’re going to develop the old Tulane University Medical Center, we’re building an apartment building, we’re going to put police stations and so on. Other people say ‘oh, I want to be a part of this. That’s critical. It really is. And you can see it happening now.”
Right now, Tulane hopes to move into the building in 2025 – 20 years after it closed.