by Anitra D. Brown
Sitting down recently with The New Orleans Tribune, Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judges Kern Reese and Michael Bagneris say any talk of Orleans Parish City District Court moving to the building that used to be Charity Hospital is just that—talk.
The two say that along with many of their fellow jurists at Civil District Court they are moving forward with their plan to build a new courthouse at Duncan Plaza and hope to work with the state’s Bio District to it done.
As for the Charity proposal, Judge Bagneris says “it just doesn’t make sense,” after summarizing what he and other judges say is a much more reasonable plan to build a new courthouse on the state-owned property at Duncan Plaza where the state Supreme Court and state administrative offices used to be.
“I can support a re-purposing of Charity that is functional and efficient. We are not one of those entities,” Bagneris says.
Meanwhile, the idea of renovating Charity as a courthouse and municipal building has even popped in land developer Pres Kabacoff’s $1 billion “vision” for a overhauled downtown—an enterprise that begins with the very real redevelopment of the Iberville Housing Development and includes other grand designs like retail shopping center spread across both sides of Canal Street, restaurants, and a hotel at the current site of City Hall and Civil District Court. In sketches of Kabacoff’s vision, Duncan Plaza appears as green space—no spot for civil district court there.
And perhaps the truth is that it doesn’t matter where a new civil district court lands as long as it is not built at Duncan Plaza—a public space that some have speculated is being eyed by Tom Benson for a new or additional tailgating facility for his NFL franchise.
A change of mind
With the old World Trade Center off the table as a possible site for the courthouse (the city-owned WTC is on its way to being redeveloped into a new hotel resort, condos and retail space), Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his administration appear dead set on pushing his proposal to put City Hall and Orleans Parish Civil District Court inside the old Charity, which seems particularly odd considering that the mayor had once thrown his support behind the Duncan Plaza plan.
There is state legislation paving the way for building the courthouse at Duncan Plaza. And there is a letter dated November 2010 from Mayor Mitch Landrieu in support of using the state-owned property for the new courthouse. In fact, Mayor Landrieu reportedly was all for moving Civil District Court to Duncan Plaza until his tune changed earlier this summer when he and his staff began pushing the Charity plan for reasons that remain vague.
There is no debate that the current buildings that house civic district court and the courthouse are outdated and costly to maintain. But the answer to just what makes Charity—a building that supposedly wasn’t fit to reopen as a hospital in the wake of Katrina—a fine fit for this new purpose is a bit more ambiguous.
The building has been vacant since the storm. It also offers far more space than either civil court or city hall need combined. To assuage concerns about the sprawling size of the nearly one-million-square foot Charity in comparison to the needs of city hall and civil court, proposals for additional use of the building have been bandied about and have ranged from hotels and apartments, according to one local report, to the more recent idea of including biomedical research facilities—both seemingly unlikely fits to lump in with city business and civil court proceedings.
Meanwhile, Judge Reese say they have a financial plan that ensures the cost of building the new court house at Duncan Plaza is managed mainly by user fees with little burden on the taxpayers.
To be sure, both Bagneris and Reese say they are surprised that City Hall has changed its direction on relocating CDC to Duncan Plaza.
An analysis conducted by the National Center for State Courts recommends Duncan Plaza as the site “hands down” when compared to Charity, Bagneris says, adding that there are also several issues that make Charity unsuitable—from low ceiling heights don’t meet national standards, columns inside Charity that create line-of sight issues, concerns about the co-mingling of judiciary and executive branch and a potentially costly renovation to retrofit charity for use as a city hall and courthouse.
In fact, Kabacoff’s vision for the redevelopment of Charity even attempts to address those line of site issues created by the inside columns by proposing that the court rooms be built as separate buildings that fit into the recesses on the outside of the Charity building’s Gravier Street side.
It’s an idea that the judges say speak to the inherent shortcomings of Charity as a potential home for civil district court.
“If Charity is such a good fit for a courthouse why construct separate buildings on the outside for courtrooms?” Bagneris asks.
“It’s unconscionable that you would even approach doing a $300 million project and not have a feasibility study that demonstrates the potential to redevelop the charity site into a courthouse,” Bagneris says. “You are talking about investing $300 million into a building and you haven’t even done feasibility study.”