Condos at Charity Hospital? Maybe.

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — For nine years the soot-covered Charity Hospital — a 1-million-square-foot Art Deco hulk of a building reaching up 20 stories on the edge of the downtown — has stood empty and forlorn since the lights were turned off in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

         State officials now hope real estate developers will bring new life to the old hospital — maybe as high-rise apartments, a hotel or a combination of uses.

         "We are open to any plan," said Mark Moses, the director of the Office of Facility Planning and Control, an agency that handles state-owned real estate. "It's important to put it back into commerce."

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         Doing something with the building is viewed as a priority. In part that's because the cost of keeping Charity in limbo mounts for the state, which owns the building. State figures show that about $2.4 million a year is being spent on insurance, security guards and upkeep. Each month about $75,000 is spent on utilities alone, state figures show.

         The story of Charity since Katrina is the story of the city's struggles to rebuild.

         After Katrina struck in August 2005, state and city officials decided to close the hospital, claiming it was too badly damaged by floodwaters to be reopened.

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         Protesters called closing the hospital a civil rights abuse. They alleged closing Charity was part of a bigger plan to keep poor blacks out of the city. A legal fight ensued. Meanwhile, plans moved forward to build a new hospital complex at a site nearby. It is still under construction and expected to open next year.

         By 2013, Mayor Mitch Landrieu pitched the idea of turning Charity into a new City Hall with room for courts and local agencies. But that idea fizzled and was declared dead earlier this year.

         And so, Charity has continued to remain empty.

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         Windows are broken and boarded up. Venetian blinds in exam rooms and offices hang half open — left just as they were on the last day the hospital operated.

         When it opened its doors in 1939, Charity was one of biggest hospitals ever built. It's over a third the size of the Empire State Building, which comprises about 2.7 million square feet of space.

         Sitting at the heart of this city's downtown medical district, it was a bustling place right up to the moment the last doctors and patients were rescued from Katrina's floodwaters by boats.

         It served many functions. It was a teaching hospital, the primary emergency care unit and as the primary hospital for the city's large poor population. It was the place where generations were born, where the elderly got treatment and where the city's victims of violence were ferried to in ambulances.

         Can it be reborn?

         "Once you strip some of the years of dust off of it, it has a lot of appeal," said Kurt Weigle, the head of the Downtown Development District, a state agency that fosters growth in New Orleans' business district, in which the Charity complex lies. "The obvious use of the building is residential."

         State officials will have a better idea of interest in the building soon.

         By early next year, state officials said developers will be invited to propose ideas on what to do with Charity. After that, a committee will choose what proposal to accept, Moses said. His office would not disclose the details of its proposals and declined to say what developers have expressed an interest in the complex.

         With about 850,000 square feet of useable space, a developer could create hundreds of apartments. In recent years, riding high on reconstruction dollars, downtown New Orleans has seen a wave of investment and new housing for young professionals and urban dwellers.

         On a recent afternoon Christopher LeBlanc frowned as he looked at the empty hulk of Charity.

         "It was a real good hospital," said LeBlanc, who caters banquets and does standup comedy. "We need affordable housing in this city."

         For Alan Goggins, a Tulane University medical student from North Carolina who walks by Charity nearly every day, the idea of living in the oversized Charity isn't appealing. The unrefined skyscraper doesn't appeal to his aesthetics and would feel like "living in a filing cabinet."

         "In reality," he said, "it's kind of an eyesore!"

         – by AP Reporter Cain Burdeau

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