Green Space Proponents Take Another Swing at Audubon Golf Course

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Photo from the "Make Audubon a Park Again" page on Change.org. (Drew Ward)

NEW ORLEANS – The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has revived a decades-old conversation about who gets to use more than 80 acres of prime Uptown real estate that are currently home to the Golf Club at Audubon Park.

In March, when COVID-19 safety concerns forced the golf course to close, the space inside Audubon Park’s walking/jogging “loop” between St. Charles Avenue and Magazine Street was taken over by walkers, bikers, nappers and people playing games or lounging in hammocks slung between trees.

In June, the golf club officially reopened but the space still appears to serve dual purposes. It’s not uncommon to see a couple out for a late-afternoon stroll on one of the paths while a golfer is teeing up a few yards away.

Now, activists who have criticized the course since it replaced a smaller one in 2002 have been joined by new recruits to put pressure on the Audubon Nature Institute – the nonprofit that operates Audubon along with several other parks and facilities in the city – to make permanent changes. Golf course advocates, meanwhile, are making their own case for the status quo.

A petition to “make Audubon a park again” on Change.org has collected nearly 4,000 signatures from people who want the space to be more accessible to non-golfers.

On Facebook, meanwhile, fans of the course created a group that currently has 769 members called SAVE The Golf Club at Audubon Park. Sentiments shared here can be summed up by this post about non-golfers using the space: “If one of those kids gets hurt it will be the perfect excuse to shut it down again. Beautiful place!!! Hate to see it so poorly managed by Audubon Institute.”

Not to be outdone, the group Make Audubon a Park Again created a page that’s followed by 237 people. A recent visitor posted a picture of an empty golf course with this caption: “While people on the path were avoiding bikes, scooters, moms with baby carriages [and] skaters, this beautiful egret watched over the quiet of the golf course. …”

Crisis Mode

Course critics say it is unpopular, unprofitable and prevents New Orleanians from enjoying taxpayer-funded green space. Golf fans say there’s been a course at Audubon since the turn of the last century and its revenue helps pay for park maintenance. The Audubon Institute, meanwhile, has weighed in by saying that it’s open to considering changes but the current crisis supersedes any serious conversation.

“As we have seen in the last several months, there is increased community interest in more open park space as well as maintaining the golf course,” said a spokesperson. “Because Audubon Park is a community park, the Audubon Commission would hold public engagement sessions and receive feedback from all park users before any change in use was considered. We appreciate all feedback from the community and we will widely announce any planning meetings in the future concerning the golf course.”

Green space proponents say they have asked Audubon to take action and schedule meetings but there has been no response. Audubon’s Executive Vice President of Public Affairs and General Counsel Rebecca Dietz attributes that to the fact that the Institute is in crisis mode.

“While our doors were closed, Audubon’s estimated loss of revenue directly generated by visitors to our facilities was approximately $21M,” she said. That figure, she said, represents roughly 44 percent of the year’s self-generated operating revenue. Due to the precipitous drop in visitors and income, the institute had to reduce its staff by 75 percent, which means laying off more than 500 full-time and part-time employees. Making matters worse, Audubon couldn’t apply for the Paycheck Protection Program because it had more than 500 employees.

“Despite these significant fiscal challenges, Audubon is continuing to care for and feed 15,000 animals and aquatic species, many of whom represent some of the very last species of their kind on Earth,” said Dietz. “Maintaining park space while being able to provide top animal care is our top priority. In order to make any changes to the current use of the golf course, a significant public engagement process would be required to ensure all voices of the community are heard. We will plan a series of community meetings in the future, but we are currently facing a financial crisis with limited staffing and need to focus our efforts on closing the $21M deficit for the year, caring for our animals, and safely welcoming the community to our parks, the Zoo and Aquarium.”

Teed Off

Few golf course opponents have been as steadfast as Debra Howell, an artist and real estate agent who created and maintains the website saveaudubonpark.org. Howell thought the new golf course was an “an insane allocation of space” when it opened in 2002 and her feelings haven’t changed.

“The old golf course, which was lovely, was traditionally used by everybody,” said Howell. “It was very laid back and people routinely in the evenings would walk out on the golf course. Then the Audubon Institute decided to bulldoze the whole thing and create this conventional golf course and then started really keeping everybody off. They totally changed the whole demeanor of the space.”

Howell said that, during the pandemic, people have essentially rediscovered a secret garden.

“We saw an opportunity when we saw how many people were using the golf course as a park to try to get going on this again because why not shut down a money-losing facility anyway,” she said. “It’s never going to be profitable. They’ve had 18 years to make it profitable and they haven’t managed it yet so the writing is on the wall.”

For years, Howell has posted Audubon Institute’s public financial statements online – and, by her reckoning, the numbers show the golf course has operated mostly in the red since its controversial 2002 re-launch.

“If Audubon is not losing the money that these financial statements and operating statements indicate,” she said, “then the onus is on them to explain to us why these operating statements are not painting the full picture.”

Under-Used?

Lawyer and activist Keith Hardie was involved in the campaign to oppose the golf course expansion in 2002. Since then, he said, he’s been studying national trends that show a decline in the number of people playing golf. The reasons are all over the map. Some say global warming makes it less comfortable to play. Other studies show young people losing interest in the sport. As such, Hardie believes it’s high time to consider opening up the space for other uses.

“Over the last few months the use of the park has really exploded,” he said. “The area is becoming denser in population and the greater the population you have, the more you need parks. I would hope we could get more or less un-programmed space. Not ballfields, not a golf course, not commercial activities, no admission fees. Right now the demand is way too high for the limited space that’s comprised of the walking path and the areas between it, Magazine, Exposition, Walnut and St. Charles. It’s basically just a ring around a very large golf course.”

Hardie said he hopes the Audubon Commission – the board that oversees the work of the Institute – will move ahead with plans for public hearings about the fate of the course without waiting for the citywide “Parks Master Plan” that is required by law after a new millage benefiting Audubon and three other recipients was approved in 2019.

“I think it would only require a study and a couple of meetings at the most and then the commission could vote on it,” he said. “Obviously the people who use it for golf are not going to like it but we do have five other municipal golf courses in town and, again, it’s a very under-utilized asset in a time when we have huge demand for green space and so I just think it’s time for them to move forward and acknowledge that.”

Citywide Issue

Lake Douglas, a professor of landscape architecture and associate dean of research and development at the LSU College of Art & Design, said the problem is bigger than the Audubon golf course.

“The larger issue is open space accessibility in the community at large,” he said. “And that means we need to be looking all over the city to see what we have and what’s accessible and what neighborhoods are not accessible to open space and think about it as a whole piece of cloth. The city should be ensuring that everybody has access within a 10-minute walk of where they live to a park or open space.”

Douglas said that one cause of the problems is that New Orleans is poor compared to big cities that have well-funded and managed citywide park systems. That lack of funding leads park administrators to seek revenue-generating projects.

“Historically, parks and open spaces in New Orleans have been underfunded,” he said. “Therefore the administrators like Ron Forman [the president and CEO of Audubon Institute] are looking for ways to monetize the green space to pay for the upkeep. The problem is that if they monetize everything, then they put a fence around it and charge for it, and then accessibility is gone. In order to take advantage of open space, you’ve got to pay for it. We think that’s wrong.”

A scuttled plan to build a new Carrollton Boosters soccer complex on the riverside portion of Audubon Park in 2016 illustrated the tension between advocates for accessible green space and, in that case, proponents of more facilities for youth athletics.

“That would be green space that was fenced off and inaccessible except for those who could afford to be part of the private club that leased it and maintained it,” said Douglas. “It’s a private club in a public place. If you look at all the things that have been done by City Park and Audubon Park over the last 20 years that are supposed to be revenue generators and look at the open space that’s lost because of that you see a whittling away, inch by inch by inch, of publicly accessible open space. And what is the benefit of that? Does it benefit everybody or just a few?”

Douglas points to the $47.5 million Louisiana Children’s Museum facility in City Park, which opened in 2019 and closed temporarily during the pandemic, as another example of a development of space that was once accessible to all.

“As a community we need to realize that open space has a price tag attached to it,” he said. “We’ve got to be willing to step up to the plate and fund parks and agencies that maintain things to the point where we can have these spaces open and available to everybody – and that suggests some sort of millage or property tax that everybody pays so everybody can benefit.”

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