Update, Feb. 18, 2016; 3:40 p.m.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees tweeted his support Thursday for the proposed "The Fly" sports complex near Audubon Park.
This is a tremendous project that fills a great need for our children & maintains perfect land use balance 4 the Fly https://t.co/ie0Muph2k7— Drew Brees (@drewbrees) February 17, 2016
Residents hoping to prevent construction of a soccer complex on the riverside section of Audubon Park known as “The Fly” and supporters of the Carrollton Boosters, the club planning to build the complex, squared off Wednesday in front of New Orleans City Council members in a more than three-hour hearing that was mostly a venting of frustrations.
Practically speaking, council members said, there is nothing they can do to stop the planned $4 million Benson and Brees Soccer Complex, which will include an artificial-grass field, bleachers and buildings for restrooms and other uses.
But several members used the opportunity to chastise members of the Audubon Commission for failing to be more proactive in the way they reached out to the public before they approved the project last spring and to urge them to take residents’ concerns into account in the future.
Similar complaints have been lodged against Audubon officials over several previous projects in the park.
“I think the fair thing to do is to take the public comment into account as they move forward,” said Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who called the meeting after residents raised objections to the complex.
It’s not clear that there’s much room for middle ground in the debate.
Opponents, including some Carrollton Boosters members, said the site of the complex is one of the few remaining green spaces in New Orleans that are close to the river and large enough for casual activities. On the other side, leaders of Audubon and the nonprofit sports club said more facilities are needed for youth athletics in the city and no other sites are under consideration for the soccer complex.
“Obviously, the people that came out here today are overwhelmingly in favor of keeping ‘The Fly’ the way it is. I think there should be further discussion, and I’d be very happy to have further discussion with Audubon and Carrollton Boosters,” Councilwoman Susan Guidry said.
Councilman James Gray and Councilwoman Stacy Head, however, argued that more space is needed for organized youth recreation.
Head blasted some speakers for attacks on members of the commission and the booster club, saying that claims of profiteering from the project or elitism in the organization were out of line.
Opponents say they have gathered about 6,000 signatures opposing the project, while proponents have pointed to the roughly 7,000 families involved in various sports through Carrollton Boosters to support their case.
The debate was occasionally punctuated by accusations that Carrollton Boosters is an organization only for the city’s wealthy, a charge its leaders denied by pointing out that it offers to waive fees and provide equipment for those who can’t afford it. But even while arguing in favor of the complex, Gray said the organization needs to do more outreach to let people know those opportunities are available.
The complex is being built with donations from Saints and Pelicans owners Tom and Gayle Benson, Saints quarterback Drew Brees’ family and companies including Tabasco and Iberia Bank.
Of the 40.5 acres that make up ‘The Fly,’ about 12.5 acres are now used for sports facilities, including soccer fields. The complex would take up another 2.5 acres, which Audubon Nature Institute President and CEO Ron Forman said would leave about two-thirds of the area as open space.
The project will require the removal of five live oak trees — one of which officials said is infested with termites — but includes planting of 56 new live oaks and 16 cypress trees.
Those plans are largely in place, and it seems unlikely they will be significantly changed.
The meeting included several heated exchanges.
Drew Ward, an opponent of the project, referred to it as the “appropriation of public park land for private use,” echoing concerns from many that those not involved with Carrollton Boosters would be barred from the area.
Opponents said that even if the Audubon Commission followed the legal requirements for providing public notice about the meeting at which the project was approved, few residents knew about that meeting or the project.
At the same time, supporters of the project — most of them involved with Carrollton Boosters — praised it as a means of providing athletic space for children.
“We’re trying to take a wonderful program that thousands of New Orleans kids have gone through and benefited by and build on it,” David Thompson said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.