Hospitals, campuses and urban form

NYTimes.com yesterday ran a story about cities and health-care facilities: Plan for New Orleans Hospitals Draws Outcry.

We’ve had our share of battles with our local hospital. But all the politics aside, one word keeps jumping out at me when I hear talk of hospitals expanding:

NEW ORLEANS — Local and federal officials on Tuesday announced plans for a 70-acre medical campus in the heart of New Orleans 

No. Why? Stop right there. 

The word is campus. Why does a hospital need a “campus,” let alone one 70 acres in size?

Campuses are not just collections of buildings on a contiguous piece of property; they’re de facto municipalities. In the case of universities which regularly house students long-term, campuses are what I call “starter cities,” often having their own municipal functions like police, fire, even utilities.

Organizations build campuses so they can exert more control over what happens therein. As a result, campuses tend to be dysfunctional starter cities, built by politburo like the Soviets used to build cities. Single-use zoning, brutalist architecture and suburban setbacks are rampant on U.S. campuses to this day. Such creatures of artifice have no business in actual cities.

Let’s continue:

to replace two hospitals damaged during Hurricane Katrina, a $2 billion investment that supporters say will create thousands of jobs and begin to rebuild the city’s shattered health care system.

Always in the name of “jobs” and “health care” do hospitals get away with building “campuses.” I’d like to see exactly why they had to spend so much on new buildings when they could have repaired existing ones.

But the plan, brewing for months, has drawn strong criticism from preservationists and neighborhood activists because it will lead to the destruction of dozens of old houses and buildings in the Mid-City National Register Historic District. They had urged the Veterans Affairs Department and the state to consider alternative locations.

They’re not just abandoning the hospital buildings, they’re taking perfectly good lived-in houses with them. This is “slum clearance” all over again.

One of the hospitals, to be built by Louisiana State University, would replace the city’s landmark Charity Hospital, a lifeline for generations of the city’s poor, which has been vacant since the storm damaged its lower floors. The other would replace the vacant Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, also severely damaged by the flooding. The old hospitals and adjacent buildings will be abandoned under the plan, which officials here described as the foundation for a new economy for New Orleans, and the largest investment in the area since Katrina.

What, they couldn’t build in place? They couldn’t use the original buildings? This stinks worse than the old buildings must have après le deluge. Editor B, a friend of mine and one of the most eloquent bloggers out there, has been writing about this from Mid-City, the neighborhood that would not die despite many suspect parties’ best efforts to kill it. You should read his several entries on the Lindy Boggs Medical Center to get an on-the-ground perspective as to why this article has me so exercised.

The bottom line: you’re as likely to find a campus that is in competition with its host town as you are to find one that coexists harmoniously with the town. Hospitals and colleges (note that in the story above, one is building the other) are notoriously bad neighbors when it comes to planning and zoning.

Here, our once-local hospital has seized control of its destiny from the non-profit board that oversaw it for a century, is trying to sell itself to a hospital chain (co-founded, ironically, by our state university), and in anticipation has purchased 85 acres outside of town, where they plan to build…you guessed it, a new “campus.”

This is the price of unchecked corporatism. I just hope that “Bloomington Hospital” has the decency to leave the good name of our city, which bore it and went to the mat for it, off their new facility as their moving trucks leave the city limits.

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