The board that oversees Baton Rouge's park system has resurrected a proposal to move the Baton Rouge Zoo to the Airline Highway Park near the Ascension Parish border, despite flooding in August 2016 that saw high water marks in the vicinity reach 19 feet.
The site was publicly ruled out immediately after the floods, but Baton Rouge Zoo Director Phil Frost and several members of BREC's board have confirmed that the park is currently the site of BREC's strongest pursuit.
BREC leaders have said little publicly over the past six months about their search for land that's expansive, inexpensive, accessible and high and dry on which to build a $110 million new zoo.
The 133-acre Airline Highway Park, which is the state fairgrounds location, fits some, but not all, of the criteria.
Both Bayou Manchac and Wards Creek flow near the park, and Manchac was the water source when multiple neighborhoods flooded during 2016. Consultants recommended in 2016 that BREC consider the Airline Highway Park for the zoo, before the floods prompted BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight to withdraw it from consideration.
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Hydrologist Bob Jacobsen, who has extensively studied the 2016 flood, said a large portion of the land at the Airline site appears to be below FEMA's base flood elevation for a 100-year-flood. Base flood elevation is FEMA's projection of how high water would rise in a flood that has a 1 percent chance of occurring each year.
That means a signifcant amount of the Airline Highway site could flood during a weather event that exceeds FEMA's estimates for a 100-year flood, he said. And high-water marks from the 2016 floods near the site exceeded 19 feet, which was 2 feet higher than even FEMA's estimates.
Mapping from City Hall's Geographic Information Systems and Advocate aerial photos from the floods also show much of the park being underwater. The GIS flood depth modeling shows the parts of the park closest to the road remained dry, but water rose 1 foot in some places and more than 10 feet in others closer to the creek and bayou.
Frost said, though, that engineers have assured BREC and zoo leaders that building a zoo at the site is "very feasible." He said engineers are drawing up plans for on-site water retention, and that BREC could take the acreage that had the heaviest 2016 flooding, manipulate the soils, and use those patches to hold more water in the future.
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"It's concerning that people would think BREC would even begin to think about building somewhere where our investment would get flooded out — it's ludicrous to think that," Frost said. "The last thing in the world we would do is build something that would cause problems for someone across Wards Creek."
Over the past few weeks, McKnight met with commissions in pairs as she told them about the potential for the fairgrounds.
However, the proposal apparently hasn't been shared with people living near the site who could be affected. Homeowners' associations near the site and the Metro Councilman who represents the area say they never heard from BREC.
And the lack of any public announcement about the reconsideration of the Airline Highway Park site fueled criticism from those who oppose moving the zoo from North Baton Rouge near the Baker border, which did not flood in 2016.
McKnight has repeatedly pledged to be transparent about the zoo move, insisting last summer, “I’m not sure how much more transparent you can be."
Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks, a staunch opponent of moving the zoo, sent a mass email this week reminding BREC commissioners, council members and others that McKnight said at a meeting last August that the Airline park was "not an option."
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And architect Coleman Brown, another critic of moving the zoo, said the lack of public information about the plans for Airline Highway Park is emblematic of BREC's attitude toward anyone who disagrees with them.
BREC has proposed expanding Greenwood Park in place of the zoo in north Baton Rouge, but Brown and his allies have latched onto an idea from LSU graduate students that would expand the zoo and the park in its current location.
"It's time to develop the good land that doesn't flood as much," Brown said.
Frost did not confirm how many more sites are still in the running to be the zoo's next home, though he said the process has involved looking at 15 sites. The Airline site, though, is the only site in which BREC owns the land, he said. Frost and McKnight have repeatedly said they did not want to buy land for the zoo, and that they would look for a land donation, if necessary.
BREC Commissioner and Downtown Development District Executive Director Davis Rhorer said McKnight put the most emphasis during their recent meeting on the Airline location. And Commissioner Rossie Washington said BREC staffers walked him through data that countered the previous belief that the Airline site was too much of a flood risk.
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"I'm a little disappointed that BREC has not bothered to reach out and talk to me about the plans," said Baton Rouge Metro Councilman Dwight Hudson, who represents the district that includes the park.
"The last time I talked to them, that site was totally out of the running...I'm not sure what their plans would include, but any loss in floodplain storage would definitely be a big concern for me."
The Airline Highway Park also abuts the Santa Maria Golf Course and neighborhood.
Chris Trahan, who lives in Santa Maria and sits on the board of the homeowner's association, said drainage is a major concern for the neighborhood. He also said traffic during some summers will back up to Interstate-10 as people try to visit the Blue Bayou water park, which is about a mile away from Santa Maria.
Representatives from the Highlands at Santa Maria and Azalea Lakes neighborhoods — also near the Airline site — said they had not heard any news about the zoo possibly moving there.
Frost said he and McKnight plan to talk to homeowners' associations and others once BREC has done more research. He said they wanted to have answers to any questions that might arise before going public with the plan, but that process was interrupted when the news leaked.
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"It would be irresponsible to bring it back to them without answers to the questions they would have," Frost said.
Frost also reiterated that no decision has been made yet. He and McKnight are expected to brief the board on their progress in March. Funding for the plan also has not been outlined yet.