[StBernard] New St. Bernard hospital site chosen, but complications remain

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Sun Feb 14 10:13:38 EST 2010

Don't ever believe a "donation" from Torres is free.

New St. Bernard hospital site chosen, but complications remain
By Chris Kirkham, The Times-Picayune
February 14, 2010, 5:19AM

With blueprints and environmental assessments now finalized for a new St.
Bernard Parish hospital, board members have chosen a site for the project,
but are are still hashing out details before construction can officially

On Thursday, the parish's hospital board voted to accept the donation of a
vacant tract of land in Chalmette offered up more than a year ago by the
Arlene and Joseph Meraux Charitable Foundation, a parish nonprofit group
whose board includes Sheriff Jack Stephens and prominent lawyer Sidney
Torres III. But the board and the Meraux Foundation are still working out
details on how to eventually get to the hospital from Judge Perez Drive,
because the site is an empty piece of land with no roads or infrastructure.

The decision to move forward with the land paved the way for construction to
begin on most of the project.

"It's a prime site, it's accessible, and I think it's going to be the ideal
location for the hospital," Torres said. "Now we just all have to work
together to finish the job."

Even though the board had not formally signed papers with the Meraux
Foundation until this week, the state has completed a required six-month
environmental assessment on the donated land and architects this month
completed blueprints for the building.

The next step is to mitigate wetlands on the site, which involves payment
into a land bank in exchange for filling in a wetland area for development.
And contractors have to begin shoring up the land and filling it with dirt
to prepare for a foundation. The project is being financed with a mix of
state and federal money, and each step requires intensive review.

"Each of these things have natural built-in delays to them," said Parish
Councilman Wayne Landry, the chairman of the parish's hospital board.
"There's literally boxes of red tape you have to go through to actually use
the (federal) money. It's an enormous amount of work."

Landry said the state Office of Community Development and others have been
working diligently to guide he and other board members through each phase of
the project.

Late last year the hospital board was still considering two sites for the
hospital: the Meraux Foundation land and the site of the former Prince of
Peace Catholic Church in Chalmette. After discussions with the Archdiocese
of New Orleans this month, the church site was taken off the table.

Landry said that until last week he had issues with language in the formal
land donation documents concerning the other types of ancillary services --
doctor's offices, laboratories, imaging centers -- that would be crucial for
the hospital's financial success. He said he was concerned that the original
language could bar certain types of medical facilities from being built.
Landry said he and Torres worked out those issues in a series of e-mail
messages last week and that he is satisfied with the specifics of the land

He stressed that the delay in officially signing the papers with the Meraux
Foundation posed no delays to the overall project, which is still scheduled
for completion at the end of 2011.

"You still can't do anything without the blueprints, and you still can't do
anything on the site if the state doesn't sign off on the blueprints," he
said. "Like any prudent businessman would do, we were searching alternatives
to make sure we got the best possible deal for the people."

But the road issue remains a separate problem. There is concern that the
state Department of Transportation and Development might not allow a traffic
signal at the proposed site for a hospital access road.

Landry said he also has concerns that the Meraux Foundation wants the
hospital access road to be a public road, instead of one that would be owned
exclusively by the hospital. The Meraux Foundation land is also the proposed
site for two mixed-income apartment complexes that parish government and
numerous residents had fought against.

"They're trying to get us to foot the bill for the road for the hospital,"
Landry said. "If they're not sharing any costs with that road, I don't want
the road being used to access the rest of their development."

Torres believes differently.

"It's a public hospital; it needs to be a public roadway," he said.

"Do I see it as stopping or slowing down the project? No, I think it's too
important to proceed with the hospital," Torres said. "I'm confident that we
can work through whatever concerns they have."

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