The final Baton Rouge lakes master plan shown to residents Thursday evening at LSU skews more to a focus on water quality and habitat creation than a previous draft plan.
Out are proposed cafes and in are measures designed to attract more birds, provide better habitat for fish and create filtering wetlands.
The Baton Rouge Area Foundation announced last year it was hiring specialists to come up with a master plan for the future of the six lakes in the Baton Rouge lake system. The health of the lakes has declined over the years due to pollutants and sediment brought in by stormwater runoff — both of which made the lakes shallow in some places.
While the specialists hired by BRAF started off thinking about building places around the lake that could preserve the feeling of south Louisiana, over time, it became clear people were concerned about other things.
“People were really wanting to hear about water quality,” said Kinder Baumgardner, landscape architect and president of SWA Group, which is developing the plan.
As such, the plan still includes building wetlands around the lakes, to be constructed with some of the material that will be dredged. The wetlands will aid in keeping pollutants and sediment out of the lakes.
The design also includes a plan to take the first inch of rainwater runoff that falls and drains into the lake system through a created wetland and then pipe it into Company Canal around the lakes and into Bayou Duplantier. The first flush of rainwater usually carries the highest concentrations of nutrients washed off people’s lawns. By diverting this water into the bayou and wetlands, the plants will help take out nutrients that contribute to poor water quality in the lakes.
Fish and bird habitat improvements will come from providing various depths of water, plant life and even using some of the stumps to be pulled from the bottom of the lakes to give birds and turtles a place to rest, much as they do now in other areas of the lake.
The final plan also includes more emphasis on improving the LSU Bird Sanctuary, which will be paired with a bird viewing area across the lake at LSU.
“It’s those kinds of themes that got more robust,” Baumgardner said of the final plan.
One other item the plan looks at is combining the effort to dampen the sound from the Interstate 10 overpass with designs that could help attract more bats to roost under the highway, something that has become a nightly attraction in Austin, Texas.
“I think they’ve done a very comprehensive vision,” said Rex Cabaniss, 59, who runs and bikes around the lakes. As an architect, he said, he was impressed with the planning and the public input.
Natasha Engle, 38, who lives near the lakes, said as a runner, there are a lot of conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles because many people walk in the middle of the street.
“I think this is going to be the only way to fix it,” she said, referring to the plan. “As a resident, I’ll be behind it 100 percent.”
For Ben and Meg Jones, both 61, their more than 30 years living a block from the lakes means the area has been special to them, and to see more public spaces for people to gather is a plus.
“The community life — that’s what’s exciting to me,” Meg Jones said.
Anita Harper, 75, lives nearby and called the plan a wonderful project for the city if the funding can be found to build it.
“But something needs to be done with these lakes. They can’t be left the way they are,” she said.
While some of the more commercial ideas are no longer in the plan, a small boathouse at the north end of City Park Lake remains.
“If you think about the lakes, there’s nothing for families,” Baumgardner said. “So we’re going to have a little boathouse and piers so you can go out with your family and paddle around.”
The planners also felt that food and beverage should still be included in plans for the BREC Milford Wampold Memorial Park but decided it would be better handled by food trucks. The expansion could include setting up infrastructure so food trucks could easily set up at the park and then BREC could decide if and when that happens, Baumgardner said.
The first part of any plan is going to be dredging the lakes, with the dug-out dirt being used to create wetlands, and dedicated lighted walking, biking and running trails. Currently, pedestrians and vehicles have to share the road on much of the well-used route around the lakes.
What comes next in making the master plan a reality will depend on funding. Not everything in the master plan will be built immediately but will instead evolve over time, Baumgardner said. For example, he would like to see efforts over the next five years to put in place plans to improve water quality, to add more natural attractions around the lakes and to reduce conflicts between pedestrians and cars.
While building everything in the plan could cost between $80 million and $100 million, the lake dredging and trail building will be just a fraction of that to get the ball rolling, he said.
John Spain, executive vice president of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, said $100 million could be spent but that $40 million is still a realistic figure that would get the lakes dredged and healthy while providing some additional amenities.
If funding is approved by the state this fall, there could be several million dollars available to start getting the engineering plans needed for construction. If that happens, then it would take about a year to complete that work. Permits would take another 12 to 18 months if all goes well. Realistically, it’s possible construction — starting with lake dredging — could start in five years, he said.
Baumgardner said experience in other parts of the country tells him that once people see the added benefits of the first phase, more participation and funding comes along for additional work.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.