Land Use
 

Citizen group derides Audubon Commission’s ‘master plan’ as a sham to avoid public input

Gateway to … golf? The Meditation Walk was  truncated by the golf course and now goes nowhere.

Despite Audubon Commission president J. Kelly Duncan’s protestations in his recent opinion column for The Lens, the commission’s decades-long refusal to develop a master plan is singularly responsible for the widely lamented and ongoing “disappearance” of Audubon Park.

And with a potentially pivotal meeting on the Commission’s new master plan scheduled next week, the public needs to take urgent action.

As early as December 1974, a Times-Picayune editorial decried the disappearance of Audubon Park, and called for a thorough re-envisioning of park usage. “A master plan for the whole park should have been a part of the zoo planning so that redevelopment of all parts of the park could proceed in tandem,” the editorial concluded. “It is late to start now, but it must be done.”

Clamor by citizens and neighborhood groups for a master plan rose again in 1992, when the Commission decided to demolish the Whitney Young Pool. And again in 2001, when commissioners decided to expand the golf course and build a new clubhouse. And again in 2010, when they attempted to transfer to Children’s Hospital park acreage that included Avenger Field and the tennis courts. And again in 2016, when they attempted to build a soccer stadium on the riverfront Fly.

Indeed, what becomes clear in retrospect is that by avoiding completion of any such document, the commission has been systematically undermining the master plan process it once again professes to embrace.

In February, 44 years after that 1974 editorial, at yet another “Master Plan for Audubon Park” meeting (ostensibly held to receive public input), the public was informed that the zoo and golf course would be off-limits to any future planning! Nor would Commissioners permit any discussion of this arbitrary decision, the public was told.

This is not a matter of mere protocol. Had a master plan been in place before 2001, it’s highly unlikely that the public would have supported using $6 million mostly public dollars to build a new golf course and clubhouse — one that has already managed to lose upwards of $3 million since it opened in 2002, $8 million if depreciation and amortization are factored in. (And bear in mind that the golf course that was replaced made a profit.)

With the unacceptable and unjustifiable removal of the zoo and golf course from park planning, the Audubon Commission once again is attempting to evade its stated mission — and responsibility — to plan transparently for the future of our jewel of a park.

When questioned at the February meeting about the authority and reasoning behind exclusion of the golf course from any future land-use planning, Audubon Nature Institute President and CEO Ron Forman came up with a doozy of an answer. He claimed no discussion could be allowed because state monies were used to build the new course and clubhouse in 2001-2002, and the project was required to have a lifespan of 20 years.

Huh? Given that any such requirement would be satisfied by the year 2022, anyway — shouldn’t RIGHT NOW be the time for public discussion of better uses for a money-losing, underutilized golf course that takes up a third of the land allegedly being master-planned?

Shrinking the golf course footprint or eliminating it entirely, thereby re-claiming the area between Hurst Walk and the front lagoon as green space, are just a few of the ideas already percolating in informal public discussion. Public vetting of citizen-driven changes in land use surely deserve four years of review, starting yesterday!

Duncan and writers of the current draft repeatedly cite “balance” as the focal point of the Commission’s long-awaited master plan “for the future of Audubon Park.”

In the recently released first draft of the new plan, they claim that the Audubon Commission “has worked diligently to address the community’s diverse voices and priorities, creating a vibrant public place where users of all ages, abilities and backgrounds can find unique ways to enjoy their Park. Looking to the future, the Audubon Commission remains steadfast in its commitment to maintain the equilibrium between passive and active public green space.”

The draft goes on to show various land-use diagrams and pie charts allegedly proving that programmed, fee-for-use activities take up “only” 49 percent of the park, and, thus, voila! — they have achieved their desired goal of a “balanced park.”

From the point of view of public park advocates and Olmsted park supporters, the Commission’s numbers are not convincing. They’ve only managed to lower programmed and fee-for-use areas in Audubon Park below 50 percent by excluding all the roads, all the parking lots, all the railroad tracks, all the leased soccer fields, all the grass parking lots, all the rental facilities, and all the various open green space areas throughout the park that are regularly closed to public use by weddings and private parties.

The reality is quite different, according to a revised analysis of land use by park advocates. Added together, actively programmed, paved, inaccessible, and fee-for-use areas come to 65 percent of the park; passive green space dwindles to 35 percent, and to get to that number, you still have to include park lagoons as green space.

The jogging path sees way more action than most Audubon offerings.

The writers of the draft master plan are also careful to discuss “balance” only in terms of land use, and not people use. The zoo and golf course together take up 44 percent of the land in Audubon Park, but certainly don’t attract 44 percent of the park’s users. At any time of day, but especially at peak use times in the morning and evening, the masses of park users squeezed onto the biking/jogging track that circles the golf course number in the hundreds — while the vast-by-comparison golf course draws a few dozen. “Balance”? Hardly!

When the city began development of a new city-wide master plan in 2000, it included a recommendation to “encourage all major parks, regional and urban, to prepare and maintain master plans, regularly updated and available to the public.”

In January 2002, Forman gave the City Planning Commission a single sheet of paper labeled “Audubon Park Plan.” It showed a map of the 2001 layout of Audubon Park that included the under-construction new golf course and clubhouse and the baseball complex on the Fly that was to be built for the Carrollton Boosters. Neither of those new projects had received any public scrutiny whatsoever before their inclusion.

Forman’s cavalier approach to the planning requirement was his way of giving the brush-off to strong public demand for a binding and publicly deliberated blueprint for the future of Audubon Park. His maneuver provided further evidence that the Audubon Commission had no intention of respecting a publicly-vetted master plan that might limit their future options for development.

The Commission now claims that its latest draft master plan is a continuation of the one begun in 2003, a document that inexplicably has been more than 15 years in the making.

The 2003 master plan was to have been adopted early in 2004, but was never completed — or, in any case, was never made public. Then as now, the Commission was agreeing to develop a master plan only to placate a public incensed over yet another new construction project, the golf course expansion and club house construction.

Audubon’s current master-plan process — or lack of one — has already drawn negative comment from at least one national group that needs to be taken seriously. In a letter dated May 2, the National Association of Olmsted Parks registered “significant concern about the Audubon Park Master Plan,” and warned that parks designed by the Olmsted firm, such as New York’s Central and Prospect parks, the National Mall, and Audubon, are “irreplaceable but not indestructible.”

Forman responded with an invitation to the Olmsted parks association to attend the master plan public meeting on May 16. He claimed that Olmsted’s principles had been “central to any decision made related to public green spaces or vistas within Audubon Park,” and reiterated that the new master plan “calls for preserving the balance between active and passive uses that exists today.”

There it is again: that false claim on “balance.” It remains the biggest problem with the current master plan process, and the biggest concern of the park advocates who for years have condemned the Commission for facilitating the disappearance of Audubon Park.

At this point, it is up to our City Council to insist that the Audubon Commission finally get it right and include all facilities and uses in the planning process.

Successful master plans for other parks must be reviewed. A steering committee representing all stakeholders must be appointed.

A model worth close examination might be the Nashville Parks and Greenways Master Plan, a document that resulted from the collaborative effort of a group that included university professors, business leaders, public health professionals, community activists, preservationists, bike groups, public park groups, and city leadership.

Community outreach and input must be taken seriously. The average income of those interviewed by the current master plan survey was $95,000 and African Americans made up only 16 percent of those interviewed. That’s not even remotely representative of New Orleans.

Operational costs, financial statements and capital-improvement costs must be transparent. The combined Audubon Commission facilities operated at an average loss of $7 million a year for the past 5 years — losses that were mitigated by their receiving $9 million to $11 million a year in property taxes. But those taxes expire in four years, and the new master plan provides no hint how the park plans to make up those deficits.

With park leaders continuing to claim (falsely) that the encroaching entertainment facilities make money, voters are in no mood to continue paying taxes to support them, least of all activities like the golf course that appeal to a narrow segment of park users. The Commission should have learned that lesson in 2014 when voters summarily refused to drop more tax dollars in Forman’s tin cup.

Audubon’s current master-planning process has excluded large parts of the park from public consideration, fails to engage middle- and lower-income New Orleanians in the process, and provides inadequate financial information. It’s not surprising, then, that the Commission has reached its fore-ordained conclusion that everything in the park is both “balanced” and just fine, thank you. New Orleanians know better and have made their views clear through extensive public comment.

In contrast with best practices in other jurisdictions, planning for Audubon Park has always taken place behind closed doors at the  private Audubon Nature Institute, followed by grudging episodes of limited public input too late in the day to be considered central to the planning process.

It’s time for the Audubon Commission to hold itself accountable to the citizens they are supposed to serve, to widen its horizons, to take public discussion and expert advice seriously, and to start planning for the future of Audubon Park in a professional way.

And there’s no time to lose: the Audubon Commission has moved its July meeting forward to June 27 and may try and approve this so-called Master Plan at that meeting despite its lack of substance and over the objections of many of the citizens who attended the Master Plan meetings and contributed their insights, opinions, and complaints.

Debra Howell is a long-time Audubon Park activist and chief historian of the group Save Audubon Park.

Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.

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