Planning a New VA Medical Center

Reprinted from PN January 2010

After Hurricane Katrina, the Department of Veterans Affairs will construct a new medical center in New Orleans.

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Hurricane Katrina was the largest natural disaster in the history of the United States. It was the sixth strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. The city of New Orleans endured the most severe loss of life and property damage as a result of this storm. Even today, four years later, residents of New Orleans describe events as pre- or post-Katrina. This is the impact this storm had on the citizens of New Orleans.

Particularly hard hit by the storm was the Department of Veterans Affairs medical center (VAMC) in downtown New Orleans. Severe flooding in the area destroyed the facility’s mechanical systems, which were located in the basement. In order to replace the services of a full-service medical center, VA has decided to abandon the existing facility and construct a new state-of-the-art building on nearby property adjacent to the site for a proposed Louisiana State University hospital.

The medical center has since reopened but only for outpatient services. The current outpatient clinic program includes an SCI/D Outpatient Clinic, which is dedicated to SCI/D patients only. Many people with SCI/D arrive at the clinic via ambulance and on gurneys. As a result, additional space is needed to accommodate increased maneuverability requirements. Individuals with critical conditions requiring urgent medical care are sent to Tulane Hospital. SCI/D patients also go to the SCI/D Center at the Houston VAMC.


The proposed location for the replacement VAMC is a 30-acre site bounded by Canal Street to the northeast, South Galvez Street to the southeast, Tulane Avenue to the southwest, and South Rocheblave Street to the northwest. Walking, or rolling, through this area of New Orleans is similar to going through the ruins of Pompeii, Italy. You can clearly see how a catastrophic natural disaster can alter so many people’s lives and how devastating it must have been for the survivors.

In some areas on this site, the street elevation is four feet below sea level. Existing buildings in this part of New Orleans have their first-floor level approximately three feet above the street elevation. Heavy flooding occurred here upon the compromise of the New Orleans system of levees during Hurricane Katrina. Some residents have returned and rebuilt. Most have not, and many abandoned and boarded-up homes are located throughout the site.

Design Concept

Abandoned homes will be removed to provide access to the SCI/D Outpatient Clinic.

The proposed medical center campus design concept consists of a series of buildings linked by an enclosed connecting spine. Included in the project are facilities for in-patient acute care, diagnostics and treatment, outpatient services, rehabilitation services, and transitional housing. Also included in the project are two parking structures: one for patients and one for staff.

Two historic structures will be converted for hospital use. Portions of the abandoned Dixie Beer brewery building will be used for research. The former Pan American Insurance Building, listed on the Historic Registry, will be renovated for use by hospital administration.

In addition, several historic homes will be relocated on the site. These will provide an in-home environment setting to aid in patient rehabilitation.

To mitigate the effects of possible future flooding, mission-critical functions of the new medical center will be located on or above the second floor. All mechanical equipment will be on the fifth floor.


Making a medical center accessible is a challenge, particularly when most of the facility’s functions are on the second floor or above. In addition, designing accessible entrances to the many buildings that will make up the New Orleans Medical Center will take a lot of creativity.

VA has recognized that its patients require a higher level of accessibility than does the general public and has made great strides toward creating design criteria ensuring all new construction is 100% accessible. This includes the site, entrance to the hospital, internal circulation, and all internal spaces accessed by the public. The VA Barrier Free Design Guide was developed to mandate a higher level of accessibility at VA facilities.

One challenge for the proposed design for the Pan Am building is that its main entrance consists of a series of steps leading up to a promenade. This creates an opportunity to incorporate a ramping design to make that front entrance accessible. In addition to creating that welcome gesture to those who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices, parents with strollers, etc., another accessible entrance should be designed on the side of the building.

SCI/D Outpatient Clinic

Proposed in the design of the new medical center is the SCI/D Outpatient Clinic, which will be located in the Rehabilitation Center. This center will provide services for therapy and prosthetics. In-patient rehabilitation and transitional housing will also be located in this facility. Additional features include a rehabilitation pool and an indoor recreation center with half-court basketball.

Four SCI/D exam rooms will be allocated for the SCI/D Clinic. PVA recommends these rooms comply with the VA Space Planning Criteria and outfitted according to the guide plates provided in the VA SCI/D Center Design Guide. In addition, the patient corridor that provides access to these exam rooms should be eight feet wide to accommodate stretchers.

Parking for the Rehabilitation Center will go beyond minimum accessibility requirements. The first floor of the adjacent parking garage will be allocated entirely for Rehabilitation Center patients, and 100% of these spaces will be accessible. Headroom space in the parking lot will be higher than normal to accommodate raised-top vans.


As an organization, the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) advocates for architects and owners to go beyond minimum accessibility requirements to accommodate people with varying degrees of disability. The VA project team is thinking about accessibility and incorporating it into the design.

At a recent meeting with PVA architects and Bayou PVA Chapter representatives, the VA team asked questions that should always be addressed but are not often thought of. For example, one of the planners asked how much space is needed between the bollards [steel posts] and the cars in a drop-off area. Dewayne Grasty, Bayou Chapter executive director, responded, “Eight feet, because those of us who are dropped off in a van with a side lift need enough space to exit the van.”

This attention to detail and commitment to accessibility will make the new VAMC in New Orleans a model facility—one that addresses the needs of all patients seeking treatment.


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