Sometimes the National Trust seems too wine-and-cheese for my tastes, but last week, the Trust got down and dirty when it brought a lawsuit against FEMA and the Veterans Administration for their trampling of preservation laws in New Orleans. All I can say is “FINALLY!” It’s about time someone stood up to these federal agencies who seem to think that laws having to do with history are just temporary obstacles to doing whatever they want to do. FEMA in particular has operated on our own Gulf Coast in a way that indicates it thinks that preservation is just a box it needs to check before demolishing buildings. As I’ve mentioned before in “Katrina Recovery, A Second Disaster for Historic Places?” FEMA’s approach, along with state and local governments, has been “demolish now, ask questions later” and has created a whole other layer of devastation in the historic districts on top of what Katrina had done.
You can read about the National Trust’s lawsuit at http://blogs.nationaltrust.org/preservationnation/?p=4235 and if you’re into such things, you can read the actual complaint by clicking here.
Basically the Trust is saying that FEMA and the VA, in deciding to build their new hospital to replace Charity Hospital ignored preservation laws and should not have unilaterally declared that tearing down, oh, hundreds of historic buildings on scores of city blocks had “No Significant Impact” on those historic buildings. What do I always say, Dear Readers? “Demolition = Significant Impact!” Plus, last I checked, there was lots and lots of vacant land already in New Orleans–why the rush to tear down all these buildings that are still standing, many of which have been repaired and re-occupied? I don’t know the particulars of this Mid-Town area, but I do know that FEMA and other federal agencies have run roughshod over preservation law on our Gulf Coast and I suspect they’ve done the same in New Orleans, and I applaud the National Trust for stepping up to the plate on this issue.
I’m interested that nowhere in my research have I found what the role of the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) has been in this case. Typically, the SHPO is the first line of defense against these types of federal actions as it can disagree with the findings of “No Adverse Effect” or “No Significant Impact,” but often the SHPO is under tremendous political pressure not to rock the boat. Or the SHPO wants to object but doesn’t have the wherewithal to wage a battle in court. I’ve been told by people on the federal level that many federal agencies have begun to realize that as long as they go through the process of reviewing their projects for impact on historic resources (called the Section 106 process) they then have the right to go ahead with whatever they wanted to do in the first place. The only means of stopping them is what the National Trust is doing now in New Orleans–sue their pants off. Knowing that most SHPOs don’t have that kind of money or political clout, the federal agencies cynically go through the process, agree that their actions will adversely impact historic properties, then go ahead with their plan anyway.
Another important player that seems to be absent from the reports I’ve read is the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, a federal agency that is supposed to stick up for preservation law on the federal level when the local and state agencies can’t do so. Have they played a role in this saga and if not, why not?
You can find lots of good discussion and the different issues involved at The Foundation for Historical Louisiana and nola.com and exciting accusations and counter-accusations between preservationists and, well, anti-preservationists is probably the nicest term at http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2009/05/preservation_group_sues_to_blo.html. Also, an introduction to the many complexities of this case (yes, isn’t everything more complex in Louisiana?:-), including allegations of fraud by the state in over-estimating the damage to Charity Hospital in order to get more FEMA money (no, that couldn’t happen, could it??) in an article by Bill Barlow.