The more things change in the city of New Orleans, it seems, the more residents want Audubon Park to stay the same, based on comments Tuesday evening at the first public meeting about the park’s future.
Two years ago, amid controversy over plans to build a soccer stadium on the Riverview park known as The Fly, The Audubon Commission faced bitter complaints and at times withering criticism about transparency in its decision making about the use of green space at the park. The stadium plans were ultimately abandoned, and in the months that followed, those who opposed it told park leaders that a top priority must be a new master plan for the park that would define exactly how to protect its green spaces.
Last month, park leaders announced that they were set to begin that master plan process this spring through a series of three public meetings and the launch of a new website designed to receive feedback, AudubonParkMasterPlan.org. Signs will tell park-goers about the website and the process, and next month, the park will begin sending workers into the field to solicit in-person opinions from people who might not have visited the website or attended a meeting yet.
At the first of those meetings, held Tuesday night at the Audubon Tea Room, CEO Ron Forman insisted that park leaders were doing all they could to ensure the master plan had the maximum amount of public input — even at several points asking for feedback on the format of the meetings and the website.
“We really want to get this right,” Forman said. “Can the process be improved?”
Upwards of 50 people attended the meeting — fewer than some of the more contentious meetings following the stadium controversy — and the tenor was calm throughout the evening. The prevailing sentiment by far, however, was that the master plan should protect the park, preventing development rather than guiding it.
“I enjoy the park just the way it is, and I don’t want to see it changed,” said nearby resident Jay Seastrunk, who runs on the track regularly. “I view it as a canvas for people to bring their own activity to.”
The master plan will not apply to either the zoo or the golf course, only the areas around the golf course, in front of the zoo along Magazine Street and along the riverfront. Some residents criticized the notion that the golf course should be considered “open” to the public, considering that signs are posted along its paths warning pedestrians to walk at the risk of being hit by golf balls.
“A lot of us feel strongly that we don’t want to see further development, and restrictions to certain kinds of organized sports in that green space,” said Judith Thigpen.
Park leaders have talked about the need for balance between open green space and places for athletic activity, but the residents pushed back on the notion that more sports facilities are needed. Some asked why the park should shoulder the responsibility of public recreation at all, instead of dedicated city facilities.
“I think there’s already a balance on the Fly of formal and informal recreation,” said Carrollton resident Bill Ives.
Bob Thomas, a Loyola professor, said he brings students to the Fly every year to observe the way the Mississippi River shapes the land, and asked Audubon leaders to continue working to ensure natural biodiversity within the park as well. Michael Nice, an architect involved in the design of the sculpture on the Fly, asked the park to do more to protect the roots of the trees from vehicles parking during major events.
“We’re in a park, and we have all these trees to protect,” Nice said.
Keith Hardie, an advocate for open space in New Orleans, complained about the practice of allowing homes abutting the park to retain encroachments onto park land for a fee, many of which date back decades and only comprise a few hundred square feet. The park has been gradually reducing the number of those encroachments over the years, but last month voted to renew four and approve two new ones.
Jack Davis asked the commission to reinvigorate a notion of expanding The Fly along the river by purchasing more land adjacent to it, and said that nonprofits such as the Trust for Public Land and the city as a whole would help with the fundraising for that. Forman said the owners of the land next to the Fly have not thus far been interested in selling their property, but that pursuit of the opportunity is something that could be added to the master plan.
“I think all of New Orleans could excited about the last chance to expand Audubon Park waterfront,” Davis said.
Davis also asked about the status of the upcoming reconstruction of Magazine Street through the park. Forman replied that the project is under the city’s control, not the park’s, but the park is trying to offer as much input as possible. Park leaders do not want the road widened, but they do want to upgrade its presentation to be more befitting of a park, with better drainage and safer crossings, Forman said.
Many residents were concerned that input would be gathered, but then a plan would be drafted and passed without opportunity for the public to participate in its revisions. Forman replied that the drafting of it will actually be an ongoing process in public — the input from the February meeting will be compiled and presented back in March, with opportunities to comment on specific aspects.
That input will be collected again prior to the April meeting, where more aspects of the master plan will take shape and be presented. And if more meetings are still needed, Forman said, they will be scheduled as well, so he urged residents not only to come back in March and April but to take the online surveys and bring their neighbors as well.
“I think each session we’re going to comment more,” Forman said. “One thing about Audubon Park, everyone has an opinion about the park.”