With more development of green space in Audubon Park all but ruled out for the next decade, the focus of the new Master Plan will likely be on improving transportation in and around the park, including the possibilities of a new bike and pedestrian path from Magazine Street to the Mississippi River levee and the eventual return of the Zoo Cruise along the river to the Aquarium.
The Audubon Nature Institute convened its third public meeting on Thursday evening to receive comments as it prepares a draft of its new master plan, intended to guide the park’s priorities through 2030. Much of the meeting, however, was dedicated to a presentation on the input gathered at both the first two meetings, through a three-month online survey, and in-person interviews in the park that together represent thousands of comments.
That input has culminated in a series of 12 broad recommendations in three categories of Improvements, Challenges, and Future Goals that will be used to formulate the draft of the master plan, said Mark Ripple, an architect who is consulting on the master-plan process. The recommendations, however, are not decisions, and the park is still accepting comments and suggestions on how to improve each of them.
The first, however, seems designed to appeal to the broadest group of park users. While some people would like to see more built around specific activities (like tennis courts) and others think the park should reduce programmed space (like the golf course), Ripple said the largest group of users seem to appreciate the balance of open space and activities in Audubon as they are.
As such, the existing balance should be maintained, Ripple said.
“We do not advocate for more formal development of the park,” Ripple said. Instead, the current recommendation is to build on what already exists in the park.
Under the improvements category, for example, the consultants are recommending improving lighting and security around the park, particularly around the jogging path. They also recommend improving the existing sports facilities — such as resurfacing the aforementioned tennis courts — without expanding them, and doing more to protect the 3,000 trees in the park, specifically by more formally prohibiting parking on their roots.
The most dramatic changes proposed were likely to be found in the category of recommendations around “Existing Challenges,” specifically those related to transportation and pedestrian access. Between Magazine Street and the riverview, there are numerous points of dangerous congestion that the planners are seeking to untangle.
One major example is the westernmost entrance to the zoo on Magazine, where the park-side bicycle and jogging path intersects a bus stop and the emergency-vehicle access to the park. The planners are seeking to move the bicycle path out of the intersection, placing it next to it instead, and creating a new, raised pedestrian crossing (like a large “speed bump”) that would slow traffic and connect to a new path that would continue into the zoo and riverview area.
In fact, the plan would replicate that idea all over the river side of Magazine, creating a new pedestrian/bicycle loop alongside existing roads next to the narrow entrance to the riverview, up along the levee, and back down through the “Tree of Life” area on the downriver side of the park, connecting back to the easternmost Magazine Street point.
This kind of path would actually reduce the traffic along the riverview, Ripple said, by allowing people who park in the zoo area a reasonable way to get up to The Fly.
“One of the things that exacerbates the problem is so few options to walk,” Ripple said. “We do believe the most positive form of mitigation is providing viable options to access it by foot.”
The architects visited the park during the very congested Easter Egg hunt hosted by Sheriff Marlin Gusman, Ripple said, allowing them to observe a “perfect storm” of traffic created by four simultaneous events at the park, the zoo and the Fly. The upriver entrance to the Fly stood out as particularly poorly designed, he noted.
“It was painful to see the number of young kids moving along the edge of the street and hoping not to get hit by a car,” Ripple said.
Another major possible change would be making the road along the riverview two-way. If traffic could flow in both directions without widening the road, it would actually force drivers to slow down, much like the narrow streets of the French Quarter, Ripple said.
“Two-way is somewhat preferable because it slows traffic,” Ripple said. “It is a traffic calming feature. to an extent.”
Allowing two way traffic would complicate the intersections at Magazine Street, however, so it is possible that those might become one-way, with one leading in and the other leading out, Ripple said. Ultimately, however, the architects are still studying the issue, and Audubon has contracted the Urban Solutions engineering firm to conduct traffic counts that will assist with the analysis.
“These are all relative conditions, where if it’s got three pluses and two minuses, maybe it’s an option,” Ripple said of the various traffic ideas. “There are no easy answers.”
Finally, there is one additional idea that might also help reduce traffic: reactivating the former “Zoo Cruise” ferry that runs from a dock on the Fly down to the Aquarium, giving downtown visitors a way to visit Audubon without having to get in a car. That option would not require any new development, Ripple noted, as it would simply use the dock that remains in existence even though the cruises ended after Hurricane Katrina.
“It’s simply reactivating what was there,” Ripple said.
Another area of improvement has to do with the existing built structures, such as Shelter 13. The surveys so far have shown little agreement on what to do with it, with a few respondents wanting it reopened, a few wanting it removed, but no clear consensus or middle ground, Ripple said. If it is reused, safety issues addressing its close proximity to Magazine Street must be resolved, he said — or it may simply be demolished altogether.
A final major area of short-term improvement is drainage, mostly along the Exposition Boulevard side of the park, Ripple said. Much of that work should include finding new ways of using green infrastructure to direct standing water into the lagoons.
In the third major category, “Looking to the future,” the planners identified three major areas. The first is to develop a more comprehensive water management plan, the second is to improve signage and wayfinding throughout the park to create a more cohesive identity, and the third is future acquisitions, particularly along the levee upriver from the Fly.
“Wouldn’t it be great, in a perfect world, if we were able to expand the park?” Ripple asked.
Public comments after Ripple’s presentation suggested a substantial degree of satisfaction with the recommendations for the plan, though many offered specific suggestions on various points. One woman, for example, offered specific suggestions on ways to decrease erosion along the shore of the lagoon, and the planners asked to meet with her after the meeting.
A few runners asked for more detail on the lighting along the bike path, making it less “scary” to use after dark without disturbing the neighbors by light pollution. The tennis clubs that use the courts at Audubon formed a strong contingent at the meeting, arguing that if the courts are not going to be expanded, then the facilities themselves should at least be improved to “first class.”
Several attendees alluded to an imbalance in the distribution of space between activities that require a fee or membership, like the golf course, the zoo, or the sports fields, compared to that actually open to the public. Ripple said that in response to those concerns, the planners have analyzed the land use in the park to find that 49 percent of the land is used by the pay-per-entry activities, 43 percent is either completely open or mostly open (like the playgrounds), and 8 percent is roads and parking.
Keith Hardie, an open-space advocate, said that the complete exclusion of the golf course area from the master plan represents a flaw in the process. While park CEO Ron Forman said that the golf course was envisioned in the original park plan a century ago and its current form is bound by restrictions on the state money that created it, Hardie said scaling it back should be up for future discussion.
“We weren’t allowed to talk about the possibility of dual use of the golf course,” Hardie said.
Forman promised more detailed information to come on the use of the golf course, and the planners said they will continue accepting public comment through the next month.
While the planning process originally envisioned three public meetings, Ripple said a fourth has now been scheduled for Wednesday, May 16, to continue work on the draft prior to its adoption by the Audubon Commission.