The delicate and sometimes controversial balance between green space and recreational areas at Audubon Park should remain as it is, the board that oversees the park decided this week.
Capping a six-month process that included thousands of suggestions from community members and hours of public discussion, the long-term future of the park became a bit more concrete with the approval of a new Audubon Park Master Plan.
The bottom line is this: No big changes are in store.
During a meeting Wednesday at the Audubon Tea Room, the Audubon Commission unanimously voted to approve the new plan, created by the park's management in collaboration with the local architecture and planning firm Eskew + Dumez + Ripple.
The Audubon Commission, a city agency, acts as landlord for the park and other facilities operated by the Audubon Nature Institute, such as the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and Woldenberg Riverfront Park.
At present, 42 percent of Audubon Park is allotted to “open” space, which includes green space and lagoons, while 48 percent is designated for “programmed activities,” which include the zoo, golf course, stables, pool, tennis courts and baseball fields.
Eight percent of the park is allotted to parking and 2 percent to “programmed open space,” which includes soccer areas and playgrounds, according to a copy of the master plan.
The commission voted to keep the current balance as it is and said there should be no expansion of programmed space at the park without additional public input.
The commission suggested that funding should be prioritized to maintain and improve what's already there, including fencing and lighting. Other key areas of focus should include protecting and preserving the landscape.
Revered by joggers for its 1.8-mile running path and by nature lovers for its oak-lined lagoons, the park is a favorite of Uptown residents searching for a slice of green. The 350-acre park, named for naturalist and artist John James Audubon, occupies roughly the same footprint as when the land was first acquired and designated for public use in the 1870s.
Although the commission was in the process of developing a master plan before Hurricane Katrina, that effort was upended by the storm and the park has remained without one ever since.
This sparked controversy among some park advocates and Uptown residents, who chided the commission for dragging its feet. Debra Howell, a park activist and chief historian for the group Save Audubon Park, has also questioned the commission's assessment of what constitutes open space in the park.
The debate over proper land use in the park garnered significant media attention in 2016 following a proposal to allow the building of a soccer complex in the riverside area of the park known as The Fly. That proposal eventually fell through, but opponents denounced the project as part of a growing trend of developers encroaching on the city’s precious green space.
During the course of creating the master plan, organizers gathered responses from residents though online surveys and at four public forums, where community members voiced questions and concerns on issues such as drainage, lighting, parking and traffic, security and tree management.
Maintaining and adding outdoor lighting in the park was noted as a primary concern. The park is theoretically open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., and it was suggested that upgrading lighting on the jogging route by adding low-level path lights and indirect landscape lighting would benefit patrons who use the park in the evening hours.
The commission also proposed to repair lighting fixtures at the Riverview boardwalk and to consider extending the lighting of trees along St. Charles Avenue to Walnut Street and Exposition Boulevard.
The park has a security program that includes 24-hour patrols and strategically placed call boxes. To enhance security, the commission proposed adding additional call boxes and a monitored camera system, reassessing current staffing levels and increasing landscape maintenance and hedge repair in some areas to ensure better visibility.
Drainage and traffic concerns along Magazine Street were also high on the list of areas said to need attention, along with parking concerns and the safety of pedestrians and cyclists seeking to cross Magazine Street and at the Riverview entrance.
The plan recommends improving drainage in some areas using green infrastructure and by making improvements to the lagoons, dredging and removing silt and algae, and installing sub-surface piping to redirect floodwater during storms, among other things.
As for protecting the park's oaks, the commission suggested increasing barrier plants around the trees as well as installing wooden bollards that would prevent drivers from damaging the roots when parking.
The final version of the plan can be found at audubonparkmasterplan.org.