02/09/2012 12:15 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2012

New Orleans City Park Won't Lose Green Space As It Develops

This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the Feb. 5, 2012 edition.

City Park in New Orleans has mostly recovered from Katrina's wrath in 2005, and is building attractions to generate greens fees, entry tickets, concession sales, catering and equipment rentals to cover its operating expenses. Though most people drive to it, the 1,300-acre haven in Mid City won't be overrun by concrete, the park's chief executive says. Eventually, some sections will be more natural and native than they were before the storm.

Bob Becker, City Park's CEO, said "a master plan adopted in 2005 did a good job of preserving natural green space. And we're making green space available to more people by taking some of it out of golf and turning it into landscaping." Couturie Forest in the heart of the park will nearly double in size from 33 acres, and will incorporate nearby Scout Island. The area is being replanted with bird-loving, native tree species.

Thousands of trees--including live oaks, cypress, magnolias and pines--have been planted throughout the park in recent years. And with the world's biggest collection of many-centuries-old oaks, the park is trying to keep cars away from them. Wood bollards or protection were installed to bar vehicles from lawns. Miles of new bicycle paths have been built.

But, said Becker, "85 percent of people who come to the park arrive by car, so it's important that we have parking spaces. We try to make people use them and not park on the grass and tree roots." Since some facilities are used for just part of the month or year, they share parking areas whenever possible.

What new recreational amenities are on tap? A festival ground, under construction now, should be finished in November, Becker said. A 36-hole, miniature golf course, under design for a site in a former, tennis parking lot, should open late this year or in early 2013. In the first quarter of this year, design work may get under way on a splash park that could be ready in spring 2014. And an 18-hole golf course, in the design phase now, should open in late 2013 or early 2014, he said.

In 2010, the 4.6-acre NOLA City Bark park opened its gates to dogs. Fund raising is under way now for a skate park, but there are no immediate plans to build it. Several years ago, the park reserved space on Golf Drive for the Louisiana Children's Museum, which is raising money for a possible move from the Warehouse District.

Park maintenance costs money, especially since Katrina's inundation. The park received Federal Emergency Management agency or FEMA and other funds for storm damage, but has needed to generate its own revenues. Last year's operating budget was $12.5 million, and the park raised 84 percent of that through money it earned, while the rest came mainly from state taxes on slot machines at the Fair Grounds, where horses race in New Orleans.

"Most of what FEMA provided after Katrina has been spent, though we're still hoping for money for a damaged roller coaster," Becker said. City Park is part of the Louisiana Dept. of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, and is operated by the non-profit City Park Improvement Association. The land occupied by the park is owned by the City of New Orleans. Before Katrina, the park received little public operating support, but did get some state assistance after the storm.

Dan Etheridge, associate director at Tulane City Center, said "the park's current plans are for two 18-hole golf courses when complete, versus four 18-hole courses before Katrina, so that's a net increase in space for other uses. The park's adding more attractions but also enlarging its green footprint." With the expansion of Couturie Forest and inclusion of Scout Island there, "forest preserve is larger than before Katrina," he said. He and other City Center staff have assisted the park with projects in the past six years.

Etheridge said "development always raises concerns, but my take is that the park is doing a good job of balancing green space, recreation and healthy living with a financial need to administer programs. The park has explored options requested by the community other than golf--like the dog park, the splash park and the proposed skate park." He has worked on the skate park plan.

"City Park has to provide more parking than public parks like Central Park in New York, which is better serviced by public transit." Etheridge said. "No one likes a big parking lot," he said, but added City Park seems to be sensitive to the need for access while preventing parking eyesores. For instance, "the large, new car park at the site of the old tennis complex near the Great Lawn has some nice, storm-water runoff features, and is planted with Louisiana trees and other vegetation," he said.

Grover Mouton, director of the Tulane Regional Urban Design Center, said new facilities haven't hurt the park. He said "City Park is absolutely huge, with an enormous amount of underutilized space. The post-Katrina developments have been done fairly well, with minimal encroachment on green space, and are in response to the needs of residents." City Park is less structured and more open than Audubon Park in Uptown New Orleans, he noted. "While both are beautiful, Audubon has the feeling of an English estate."

Mouton has worked on several splash parks elsewhere, and said "they're very popular with families with small children. They become a meeting place, and with just a few inches of water are safer than a swimming pool."

He continued, saying "I'm not a big fan of the children's park," referring to Carousel Gardens Amusement Park and Storyland. But, he added " it's hugely popular, and serves a real need for this city." A new fast ride called the Musik Express opened in 2010.

"City Park was developed with a WPA plan, and they've tried to stay within the bounds of it," Mouton said, referring to the national Works Progress Administration program that created public projects from 1935 to 1943. "The art museum has remained in its bounds, and the sculpture garden doesn't impact the park in a negative way." The Botanical Garden has clung to its footprint. The ponds were designed and are maintained with an eye to Lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain, he said.

After the region was battered by Katrina, City Park was one of the first places to look for and find progress, Mouton said. "It's really come back, and in my opinion, the new developments aren't objectionable." end