When Walter Unglaub was young, one of his favorite pastimes involved going to “The Fly,” the section of Audubon Park next to the Mississippi River. There, he would scavenge for mice to feed his pet snakes and watch groups like the Allman Brothers Band, whose members used to play there for free.
“It was great,” the 61-year-old lawyer said. “It meant a lot, to have that green space to explore.”
Now, that area of the park looks much different, he said, and a large swath of land where Unglaub used to explore is set to become even more developed.
The Carrollton Boosters, a nonprofit children’s sports group, intends to build a $4 million sports complex there, thanks to an agreement with the Audubon Commission, the public arm of the Audubon Nature Institute, and to donations from Tom and Gayle Benson, Drew Brees’ family and Louisiana-based companies like Tabasco and Iberia Bank.
The proposed development, which has been referred to in city documents as the Benson & Brees Soccer Complex, would accommodate soccer, football, kickball and lacrosse. It would include new restrooms, a concession stand, a new playground and $250,000 in landscaping, according to Audubon officials.
Audubon board and staff members, as well as supporters of the boosters club, have heralded the project as a way to expand sports opportunities for New Orleans children, providing a much-needed field for a growing organization that has served local children for more than 75 years.
Since the proposed development became public, however, it has ignited protests from residents who denounce the project as turning over public land to a private, though nonprofit, organization, and who say too little of the green space by the river will be left for those who just want to meander by the river or picnic on the grass.
Unglaub is among many who have voiced their dissent, lamenting what he called “over-development” and “mass privatization” of the city’s green spaces, Audubon Park included.
He and about 100 others gathered Sunday for a picnic and protest on the site of the proposed complex.
“It’s pretty outrageous,” Unglaub said about the proposal.
Others on hand agreed. While many said they have no problems with Carrollton Boosters as an organization, they questioned the need to build a complex on a piece of open land where the public can get a clear view of the Mississippi River.
Some also lamented the loss of a public statue and shade structure — built about 25 years ago by artists Steve Kline and architect Michael Nius through an Arts Council New Orleans grant — that would be taken down to erect the complex.
“Whether it’s a good group or a bad group doesn’t matter,” computer programmer Chris Webb-Bourne, 55, said about the boosters club, as he talked with other protesters near a “Save The Fly” banner Sunday. “The good cause here would be to leave the land open to the public.”
The area is known as “The Fly” because a building that formerly stood there reminded many observers of a giant insect.
Members of the Audubon Commission and the Audubon Nature Institute board, however, dispute that the sports complex, which would be maintained and built by the booster club, would be an inappropriate use for the land. Instead, they say, the complex would allow for increased athletic outreach to underserved and disabled youths, thereby representing a meaningful use of the space for the community.
Moreover, officials have pointed to a long-standing relationship Audubon has had with the Carrollton Boosters, which has worked for more than 15 years to bring baseball and other sports to the park and has poured between $7 million and $8 million into improvements.
“This sports complex is an exciting addition to what Carrollton Boosters has already completed when they improved the (nearby) baseball area, making it a really great park for kids to play in for years to come,” said John Payne, an Audubon Nature Institute board member who is overseeing the project.
He said the new complex will greatly increase the number of kids who can play organized sports. “With over $20,000 in scholarships awarded last year, we’re pleased that everyone who wants to participate can play with Carrollton Boosters,” he said.
On Sunday, Audubon Nature Institute President and CEO Ron Forman showed up midway through the protesters’ picnic to take questions. He argued that since Carrollton Boosters is a support organization for the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission, there is a public entity behind the project and the land isn’t being shut off for private use. Moreover, he said, while the Carrollton Boosters and the commission would have priority for the field’s use, other groups would have access as well.
“I hear what you’re saying, and nothing you’re saying isn’t something I feel passionate for,” Forman told the protesters, adding that officials plan to keep much of the area as open green space.
As of Sunday night, more than 2,000 people had signed a petition asking that the project be halted.
Although New Orleans City Council members have said they don’t have control over the complex, Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell has invited the Audubon Commission and the Carrollton Boosters to a Community Development Committee meeting at 2 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall. Members of the “Save The Fly” protest group will present the petition, and the public will be allowed to speak about the project.