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Massive City Park Golf Course Best Use of Space?
David Muth

Below are comments Faubourg St. John Neighborhood Association member David Muth sent to his neighborhood organization regarding the golf course in City Park prior to a public meeting held March 10, 2009. A decision could be made as early as March 24, when the City Park Board of Commissioners meets at the Pavilion of the Two Sisters. If approved, construction on Phase 1 of the project could begin this year.

March 10, 2009
Thanks for the heads up about the new City Park golf proposal. I went online to read it, and compare it to the 2005 Master Plan it will supersede.

One of the joys of City Park post-Katrina has been that the vast 400+ acre golf complex between I-610 and Robert E. Lee has been available as a public greenspace. For the first time since the former swamp was drained and cleared, people have been out walking, jogging, bike-riding, flying kites, birding, and picnicking as well as fishing in the formerly inaccessible lagoons. Public land used for a public purpose, instead of for the exclusive use of the tiny minority who play golf. Last year City Park re-opened the north course, closing everything between Filmore and Robert E. Lee once again to public use. But the golf area between 1-610 and Filmore has remained open. If you haven’t been out there, give it a visit. The paved golf cart trails are perfect for strolling or bike riding. Wildlife, especially birds, are everywhere.

The issue to be addressed at the public meeting Tuesday night is whether or not the City Park Improvement Association (CPIA), the largely self-perpetuating board that controls the park, should amend the pre-Katrina publicly-vetted March 2005 City Park Master Plan to allow a bigger and much more expensive golf complex to be constructed. Changes from the City Park Master Plan proposed by this new Golf Master Plan include getting rid of the baseball complex on Diagonal Drive; building a new road into the park from the end of Mirabeau at Wisner; moving and building a new Club House and new driving range on that road; shaving off Couturie Forest east of the shell road (that now services the model airplane field); and converting the island next to the police stables, designated a natural area in the 2005 plan, into golf fairway.

In essence, the new plan would make everything north of I-610 and Harrison east of Diagonal into golf courses, except what is left of Couturie, Pan Am Stadium, and the equestrian enclave on Filmore. (Though the new plan doesn’t say so, City Park staff tell me there is no plan to re-open the obliterated baseball field anywhere else. The former driving range area is left blank—it is unclear what would go there.) There would be a lot of re-arranging of the existing lagoon system, and a lot of new lagoons and ponds excavated to get the fill for the new courses. It does not appear from the plan that any attempt will be made to hydrologically link these new lagoons and ponds either to each other or to the existing system, except that some would be linked by underground culverts. Indeed, the existing ring lagoon system will be cut up and made discontinuous. Ironic, ain’t it, that while we struggle to restore the hydrology of Bayou St. John, City Park proposes to dig new stagnant water holes.

The cost of this plan is projected to be about 46 million dollars. City Park has about $6 million coming from FEMA in repair money. The state has authorized (but had not yet appropriated last time I checked) about $10 million. That leaves $30 million. This will supposedly be a public/private partnership, and a group called the Bayou District Foundation (who are redeveloping the St. Bernard Housing Project) has been intimately involved in the development of this golfing master plan. It would be illegal to pre-select the private partner in this venture, so the plan is careful to say that the Bayou District Foundation will not necessarily be the private partner. Right.

The potential sources of the missing $30 million dollars are not addressed in the plan. Surprise.
City Park depends on golf for cash flow. Because CP is the bastard child of an unhappy marriage between the city and the state (New Orleanians bought the land, but the state took away control a century ago in order to placate reformers who felt that it was too important to be left in the hands of politicians beholden to the rabble), it is claimed and supported by neither.

The CPIA, beholden to no one, is the foster parent. It gets little taxpayer support as a result. The golf fees have been important, since the park gets so little tax revenue. The re-opened north course may eventually give them some much needed cash flow. But one of the great lies you’ll hear bandied about is that golf in City Park pays for itself. That is nonsense: the taxpayers pay for millions in capital outlays to build the golf courses, and rest assured golf fees are never collected to pay this back. We pay to finance those bonds with our tax dollars. When everything is going swimmingly, golf fees offset the daily operational costs of the courses, and there is a profit that goes back into daily City Park operations. But, of course, no money is used for real upkeep—just let golf facilities decay, and eventually the taxpayers step in with a new capital outlay.

Whether or not City Park should embark on a $46 million golf dream is one question (remember Hemeter and the single Monte Carlo style casino that was going to rake in tax dollars?), but don’t let anyone tell you that it will make a profit. Our fair state is studded with bankrupt and shut-down golf courses. If golf was profitable then membership in Country Clubs and homes in golf subdivisions would be cheap. But in fact, golf is the loss leader for these institutions. It appeals to a certain affluent (or wants to be affluent) demographic.

Making golf accessible for those of us who aren’t affluent is a good thing, and City Park did that, and is doing that with the north course.

Unfortunately, though, it got addicted to the cash, and turned nearly half the park into a low rent country club. (And much of the rest of the park is accessible only by paying a fee.) You might notice that most great city parks have no golf (Central Park in New York City), or very little (Golden Gate in San Francisco). New Orleans is unique in that its four large parks—City, Audubon, Pontchartrain, and Brechtel, all have significant acreages devoted to golf.

The problem, of course, is that golf requires a lot of space (about 200 acres per 18 hole course), and that acreage can’t be used for anything else. (Notice that our suburban neighbors don’t subsidize golf—why should they? We do it for them.) These new courses will require higher fees, meaning that the only justification for using public space for a golf course, to make it accessible to the less affluent, will be diminished. I can look at birds while you jog. You can fly a kite while I fish. But golfers need acres of expensively and unnaturally maintained lawns, and they fire lethal projectiles around their lawns. The public is unwelcome on that “public” land.

Despite the excitement generated by Tiger Woods, golf is a diminishing American pastime. On the other hand, forms of recreation like jogging, biking, fishing, birding, and photographing nature, continue to grow.
I personally think there is room in City Park for an inexpensive and accessible golf course. Perhaps even two, if our city’s recovery continues. But that is no excuse for closing off the park to the public. The new paved paths along Robert E. Lee and the bayou are good and long overdue, but, let’s face it, they are just landscaped sidewalks. They don’t provide access to the heart of the park, away from traffic and noise. A smaller golf footprint could give us that which we now enjoy on the ruin of the pre-Katrina courses.

If you think that devoting more of the north-of-I-610 park to golf, in a post-Katrina shrunken city, during the worst recession in 80 years is a good idea, then you need do nothing, because I suspect the fix, as they say, is already in. But if you doubt the wisdom of this course of action, you might want to go on record Tuesday night, on the off chance somebody is listening. I asked if there was an open public comment period, and was advised that no dates had been set, so it might be good idea to get written comments in by Tuesday night. Apparently the CPIA is voting on the Golf Master Plan later in the month.

David Muth
Orchid Street

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