Newell: Old Charity now a vision for New Orleans' future

New use for old building will fill in huge hole in downtown NOLA

Newell Normand
November 05, 2019 - 5:23 pm

An iconic building that lives inside the memories of hundreds of thousands of people. A building of mass proportion. A building located in a part of town that begs for love. A building that for the City of New Orleans is so much more than mortar, bricks, steel…and haunting memories of a storm long gone. A building that represents opportunity, revitalization, economic growth, innovation and most importantly progress. Slow in realization, however, great things…life changing things…history in the making things…are worth waiting for. 

The announcement by the LSU Board of Supervisors this past week outlining the approval to redevelop “old Charity,” is thrilling…really. It’s a one million square foot building that’s been sitting vacant since 2005. It represents one of the most challenging and exciting revitalization projects in the Crescent City for a long time. This project could serve as the impetus for future development, which would connect pockets of success in adjacent areas. It’s visionary. No doubt the city...its citizens…and true lovers of New Orleans need this to happen. The momentum has started and let’s hope the successes continue to build upon themselves so that hundreds of thousands more are touched by what many will undoubtedly envision (no matter its form and function) as the “new Charity.”

Newell invited GNO Inc President and CEO Michael Hecht onto the program Tuesday morning to discuss.

"Did I overstate any of that?" Newell asked.

"No!" Hecht exclaimed. "It is the single biggest historic rehabilitation project available in the country today, in terms of it's size. If you look at it geographically, where it sits in the heart of New Orleans, you start to realize that it's actually been a bit of an urban blind spot for many years, certainly since Katrina, but it many ways it was underdeveloped even before that. If we're able to fill that in with a building that is catalytic in and of itself being close to Tulane, to housing, to businesses.. you're going to fill in that hole in downtown and it's going to connect the sports and entertainment district, Canal St, across to what's happening the CBD, the medical district... it's incredibly significant, and that's no overstatement."

"Tell us a little bit about what's projected to go into the structure, and about the partnerships."

"You've got local partners here who are part of the group, but the external partner is a group from Israel called El Ad, and they're known for doing catalytic projects around the world where they go in big capital and have a long term vision. By reputation, they're the perfect partner to go in here. Now that you have Tulane committing to put 400,000 square feet into the building that will be housing, classroom space, offices, labs, that's the part that gets me incredibly excited, because once Tulane makes that commitment, you'll see others coming around to be a part of what Tulane is doing. In a larger way, it means Tulane is recognizing that it's future lies in investing in downtown New Orleans. Look at what Arizona State University has done by investing in downtown Phoenix - it's totally revitalized that city."

"When we talk about medical tourism - is that going to play a role in all of this as well?" Newell asked.

"It absolutely does," Hecht confirmed. "If you want a gold standard of that, look at Houston, where MD Anderson Medical Center is now a global hub, particularly for cancer care and the impact of that is that one quarter of all of the hotel stays in Houston is medical destination tourism. What we need to do here, using our extraordinary medical facilities, is determine why people are going to travel to our market from around the region, the country, the world? One idea I've always liked is neuro-degenerative diseases like Alzheimers. With the population over 65 doubling by 2050, diseases like this are going to be growth diseases. There's already a lot of work being done at places like Tulane, LSU, Ocshner, and even in venues like the NFL where they're dealing with head trauma, the VA is dealing with traumatic brain injury. We could potentially be a leader in finding a cure for diseases like dementia and Alzheimers. And that will lead to destination tourism and create thousands of jobs and a lot of spend in the region and state."

"I understand there's also going to be other additional housing units in the facility, including the possibility some short term rentals, which seems to be an appropriate place for that. But also adjacent buildings sitting vacant will be redeveloped as well?"

"That's right, you're going to see a mix of housing. But I think what's so important that we do here, and I give a lot of credit to the effort being led by Andy Kopplin over at the GNO Foundation, now that the building is being redeveloped and Tulane is committing to go into it, that area is going to develop really quickly. We have to plan for success. Know that people are going to want to be there, so if the vision is having mixed housing, affordable housing, and allow people working in these districts to live there, we have to start planning for that now and using mechanisms like land banks to ensure there's going to be affordable housing there, and that there's going to be transportation into the district for people who aren't living there but want to work there. Having this 'plan for success' mentality is a way of making sure that we don't look back in five years and say it developed but hasn't  achieved our full reason for providing access for everyone who wants to live and work there."

"Well, congratulations on this, and on the airport too," Newell said. "It's a big day for New Orleans today!"

Hear the full interview in the audio player below.


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