Seattle isn't alone in controversy over a biotech district

New Orleans has a deeply problematic project to develop 1,500 acres as a biotech district. The problems faced there repeat mistakes made in many cities over the years.

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Architects' rendering of the Louisiana Cancer Research Center, now under construction as New Orleans recovers.

New Orleans has a deeply problematic project to develop 1,500 acres as a biotech district. The problems faced there repeat mistakes made in many cities over the years.

If you want to understand why New Orleans will remain a troubled city longer than it has to, don't look at the disasters that have befallen it. Look at the big projects it pursues in an erroneous effort to recovery from them.

Since Katrina, an intense controversy has raged around the misguided, excessively large, and overly expensive plan to build two new hospitals on 67 acres instead of retrofitting the hardly-damaged Charity hospital and Veterans Administration hospitals sooner and cheaper.

But out of the spotlight has been an even larger, equally questionable plan in the same Mid-City neighborhood. It's to develop a BioDistrict on 1,500 acres. The two new hospitals are included here, along with a very densely populated, economically and socially integrated community, reborn nicely after the storms. Several hundred restored, occupied homes are threatened. The homes on this footprint are the same quintessential New Orleanian predominantly shotgun cottages, many two family, that are being lost from the footprint of the hospitals. Mid-City is the largest National Historic District in the city.

The BioDistrict is meant to attract bio science-related businesses from around the country — the same ones almost every city competes for — and to build new dense housing similar to some already built five-story brick apartment houses nearby sitting atop parking garages, a style so antithetical to New Orleans it stuns the eye.

Until recently, the public, especially Mid-City residents, have been oblivious. Concern is increasing. This is understandable.

In 2005, shortly before Katrina, the district was quietly established by the state legislature, given powers that override the city and enable it to tax, to plan, to landbank, and, in partnership with other state agencies like Louisiana State University, to expropriate private property. It even gives it the power to annex areas outside of the 1,500-acre footprint, such as yet rebuilt public housing projects. Accountability is elusive, to say the least. With a $2 million grant from the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the BioDistrict is charged with coming up with a master plan for the the district.

“We already went through the extensive citywide master plan process,” one frustrated resident noted, too nervous to give her name. “This area is already in the master plan passed by the city planning commission and city council. Why are they doing this again?” The BioDistrict went before neither the city planning commission nor the city council.

BioDistrict head James McNamara doesn’t actually answer this question, other than to say “we have to plan what we want to become. The community isn’t used to doing this.” But, in fact, it did do it. It is as if the citywide master plan never happened.

McNamara, whose business and political connections are extensive, claims that “it has been an open process, very transparent.” Residents assert just the opposite and note that “he has said different things at different times and when we asked him if he would support shrinking the footprint to save our neighborhoods, he said 'no.' "

This post-legislation “public process” is unlike any legitimate process run by an elected government body and comes well after the legislation was passed and the boundaries and powers are law.

“This is not a new idea,” McNamara protests. “The BioDistrict was started in the 1990s.” So, one may ask, if it doesn’t work the first time, enlarge it?

Exactly, observes one astute New Orleanian. “This city is always 20 years behind the time,” she says. “Maybe it made sense back then before all these research companies were just developing but now they’re successfully located in a few major cities.”

One can’t fault anyone in New Orleans for thinking out of the box to diversify a city economy too dependent on tourism, oil and shipping. But one medical leader suggested that the way to do that is to first attract the talent, the companies, the research grants and then build around that.

The BioDistrict is real estate masquerading as economic development. Real estate follows economic development; it does not create it. Economic activity must come first. In fact, New Orleans’ existing medical district is filled with vacant and underused buildings that could be retrofitted for new medical-related uses if the demand were really there.

At one point, East Baltimore had been sited as a model for New Orleans. No more. The long-planned projected $1.8 billion effort to transform 88 acres in East Baltimore, into a world-class biotech park and new urban community complete with new amenities is, a decade later, stalled for years to come.

Interestingly, East Baltimore stands in total contrast to New Orleans’ handling of both the medical district and bio district. With enormous support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the impacted East Baltimore community was involved every step of the way. Extraordinarily progressive relocation policies were followed. Displaced residents are living in better neighborhoods and their children are going to better schools.

Unexpected problems attracting biotech firms are reportedly among its difficulties. And that was only 88 acres.

One has to also ask why the goal of new dense, multi-story housing in part replacing already dense, compact single, two- and three-family housing. New residential apartments are already proliferating in New Orleans’ downtown adjacent to the existing medical district without a negative impact on existing neighborhoods. Warehouse conversions, renovations, and new construction are happening all over the city. In fact, the central business district is the fastest growing residential district in the city withtout a state agency driving the trend.

Excessive-scaled, enormously expensive clearance-based projects never work. They are planned during a time and economy that never exists when implementation time arrives.

Empty sites exist in many cities today where planned mega-projects never materialized.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see a fate here that resembles the many urban renewal schemes of the 1960s and 70s where acres and acres of empty land in many cities still wait for promised pipe dreams to materialized.

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