By Parker Neill
On a characteristically warm February Sunday in New Orleans, the site of a proposed $4 million stadium backed by Tom Benson, Saints owner and the richest man in Louisiana, seems hardly “underutilized.” Around forty families relax near the center of the park, listening to music and boiling crawfish. A mother sits on a bench, keeping a watchful eye on her four children chasing each other around a playground. She is unaware of the plans approved by Ron Forman and the Audubon Commission to build a 4.7-acre sports complex on this very spot. “Why would they do that here?” she says. “We always come to this park.” Such projects are hardly a recent development for the Fly, which provides access to some of the only publicly available green space along the Mississippi river. Converted from the Audubon Zoo’s landfill in the 1970s, the park has become increasingly privatized over the last twenty years. The plans for the stadium were proposed by John Payne and the Carrolton Boosters, who already dominate nearly thirty precent of the Fly with six soccer fields and five baseball diamonds. Though the Boosters say this proposed “youth sports complex” would be accessible to those who cannot afford it through scholarship, it is unclear how a fenced-off professional stadium with a press box would benefit the families and communities who currently enjoy the area.
Nine-year Carrolton Booster’s parent and landscape architect Keith Scarmuzza shares the concern of many locals over the chosen location for the sports complex. “This space at the Fly is a particular treasure, with a very unique place for recreation and a visual connection to the river. We don’t have anything else quite like it. A soccer stadium or field can go anywhere, and should not take up public open space on the riverfront. In this case, there was no public involvement, and it was clear that the project went under the radar.” The blueprints for the project were drawn up in May 2015, but did not reach public attention until February 2016, just before the project’s scheduled construction. Furthermore, Scarmuzza questions the function of the stadium itself. “As a Booster parent, I know what their sports program is, and I know they have no need for a field like this one. The design of this field is arranged so that the Boosters can rent it out to schools or private sports clubs for competitive games. I have traveled around the Gulf Coast with my kids playing soccer, and we never play on this kind of field anywhere. This is just overkill, or most likely, it’s not for the kids at all.”
While the location and function of the proposed complex may be problematic for some, privatization of public parks is not inherently bad. Scarmuzza says that without the money that comes from private institutions renting the land, neither Audubon nor City Park would have the funds to maintain their facilities. “City Park was a mess before Hurricane Katrina and I remember it as a young man. It was unkempt and in a sad state. They have become masters at producing revenue in the years since, and the park looks better than ever. So this trend is not necessarily a bad thing, especially considering our lack of adequate funding for them.” In 2014, New Orleans only spent 0.95% of its municipal budget on parks, while other cities with similar populations like Raleigh and Tampa spent around 4-5%. In fact, Audubon and City Park (the city’s two largest parks) receive no money at all from the municipal budget, and the money that Audubon does receive from the city (about 10% of Audubon’s $4 million budget) comes from a portion of real estate taxes set up during the construction of the Zoo that will soon expire. Nevertheless, Scarmuzza doubts that a lack of park funding necessitated the approval of this project by the Audubon Commission. “It does not appear that Audubon is hurting for revenue. They just built a new phase of their lazy river and splash park in the Zoo which has been very popular.”
With the lack of public funding for parks in New Orleans, privatization is acceptable as long as those responsible for approving projects aim to also fulfill the needs of the community. Many perceive the lack of a formal planning process or any attempt at public involvement in the development of the Fly as an example of institutional apathy for community concerns. In less than a month after the plans for the sports complex were revealed to the public, the Facebook group Save the Fly NOLA gathered nearly 10,000 signatures in opposition to the project. Ultimately, their outrage stems from what they view as the Audubon Commission’s lack of “transparency and public involvement in decision-making.” Scarmuzza voices their concern. “The Audubon Commission is well-known for operating in secrecy and not making decisions public, and that is what this public outcry is about. If there was a public process about looking for the best way to develop a big new soccer field in the park, perhaps a better solution could have been discussed.” The Audubon Commission is set up for the very purpose of ensuring spaces like the Fly work for the community, but many doubt the extent to which the commission reflects public interest.
Keith Hardie, lawyer, community activist, and writer for The Lens, has been fighting against privatization since the 2002 expansion of the Audubon golf course. He explains that under the current zoning laws, facilities like this sports complex fall under “permitted use”, denying the City Council the power to veto. The Council could amend this easily by changing such projects to “conditional uses”, thus giving democratically elected and accountable members a voice in the development of public land. As it stands, Hardie says that the representation the public receives from the Audubon Commission, who are appointed by the Mayor, is seriously lacking. “We need to make sure that the boards of these parks actually have the representation of people who are concerned about the commercialization of parks, who are concerned about the loss of passive green space. By the way they are voting, it certainly seems that the Audubon Commission does not have any members that really demonstrate concern for those issues as one of their primary goals.”
Just days after Hardie made this statement, an article on Nola.com revealed that two members of the Audubon Commission would directly profit from the construction of the sports complex. In a contract drawn up for the proposal, Jeffrey Goldring and Paul Fine, who manage and own Sazerac Company and Crescent Crown Distribution, would have exclusive rights to the alcoholic beverages sold at concession stands. Sazerac is a $1 billion company and the country’s largest distiller. Due to questions raised about a conflict of interest, both Goldring and Fine have resigned as board members of the Audubon Commission.
In the wake of the controversy surrounding the project he proposed, John Payne withdrew his support in a statement on Monday, leaving Ron Forman and the Audubon Commission scratching their heads in disbelief. “Unfortunately, this 100% privately funded, charitable project has become a hugely divisive issue for our community… it is now apparent that there is no design that can create common ground with so many competing interests. Therefore, I have informed Audubon and Carrollton Boosters that it is time to stop the development of the Sports Complex.” While John Payne responded to the public’s concerns, the Audubon Commission had no part in the project’s cancellation and appeared ready to go through with the plans until his announcement.
Many opponents of the project wish a better compromise had been made besides the project’s outright cancellation. They suggested moving the sports complex to places that desperately need investment, like Central City, Hollygrove, or the 9th Ward; or designing the complex without fences so that could be available to the community it was supposedly intended to serve. However, the skepticism felt by the community of New Orleans at the construction of a $4 million project to be built on public land reflects a greater concern for trends in the city’s development.
An article by The Lens reflects on Jane Jacobs, journalist, activist, and writer of “Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Her theories of urban development essentially predicted the conflict between communities and institutions in New Orleans fifty years later. “She warned about the disruptive nature of ‘cataclysmic money’ and observed the healthier momentum of ‘organic change.’ She observed the inherent strength of ‘local wisdom’ emerging from the bottom up and foresaw the long-term damage inflicted by out-of-scale, out-of-context projects. She described the fundamental strength of small, local businesses, as opposed to the strangling effect of a single dominant industry or the prevalence of national chains.” In 2001, plans to build a Walmart Supercenter were approved despite almost unanimous public disapproval. Many were worried that the large national chain would force out local businesses, which it regrettably did. Yet public activism gained momentum in the years after Katrina as the community of New Orleans fought to preserve a culture that was nearly destroyed. Many view the cancelation of this project at the Fly as a victory for the community and proof of the power of activism, a reminder that even within and amongst powerful institutions, human voices ultimately hold the agency to affect change.
Parker Neill is a New Orleans local and Senior at Tulane pursuing a degree in English.