Who’s Afraid of Save Audubon Park?
June 12, 2002
Supporters of a resolution to allow the City Planning Commission to review plans for changes to Audubon Park suffered a severe blow last Thursday as Councilmember Jay Batt withdrew the resolution that would have enabled it.
Citing an apparent duplication of interdepartmental efforts as well as the City Planning Commission’s reluctance to review the controversial and politically charged plans, Batt made the decision to withdraw the resolution. While the issues he noted are certainly worth consideration, his comments about the saveaudubonpark.org web site were a curious statement on public input. Councilmember Batt criticized the anonymous nature of the web site and its parody of Audubon Nature Institute executives, especially Ron Forman. As we understand it, the authors of the website did indeed identify themselves in writing and at any rate information on domain name registrations is publicly available. The question that comes to mind is: why are city councilmembers and the Audubon Institute so troubled by criticism anyway?
The Audubon Institute has a record of attempting to intimidate members of the group in the past. In November of last year, Save Audubon Park received a letter from Henry W. Kinney on behalf of ANI threatening legal action if the group did not stop using “Audubon Park” in its name. The group identified the letter as an attempt at intimidation and without legal merit. Parody is an exercise of protected free speech. We maintain that the key issues in the controversy are related to a lack of meaningful public input and accountability in the Audubon Institute’s operations, regardless of which side you are on.
We are also tracking what appears to be an increasing tendency of the ANI to focus resources on fee-for-use revenue-generating projects *(note: page on ANI website has been taken down)* (exemplified by the upgraded golf course and club house facility) at the expense of amenities enjoyed by the broader community. While it is true that additional revenue streams potentially could be used to upgrade the public spaces, this is not a guaranteed outcome. Well-maintained public spaces are both a symbol of and a catalyst for community development. The extent to which public spaces are converted to private reserves and the majority of citizens are excluded from enjoying them by prohibitively high access fees is the extent to which we undermine our own community.
If the City Planning Commission truly does not want to review ANI’s (land use) plans, curious as that decision may be, then it is critical that the Audubon Institute enact hearing policies that facilitate transparency, meaningful discussion and public accountability, removing personality driven politics as much as possible from the process, on both sides. We understand that there are no easy answers about the use, alteration or management of the park, but the goal should be to make the park serve as diverse a community as possible. Audubon Park still belongs to all the citizens of New Orleans and it is the responsibility of the Audubon Nature Institute to ensure timely and meaningful public input on all decisions related to the disposition of this public resource.
Letter to Save Audubon Park Supporters
June 10, 2002
We appreciate all the emails of support, and certainly wish Councilman Batt had an email address to which they could be forwarded. Always believing the message to be more important than the messenger, it never occurred to us to ask supporters to call in support of Save Audubon Park, rather than in support of the crucial issues!
While Mr. Batt’s request last week for “the name(s) of the person or people responsible for the editing, oversight, and upkeep of your website” took us by surprise, the implication that our names and identities were somehow secret seemed absurd. Not only are the names of both web domain registrants and officers of non-profit entities public record, my name and the names of other Save Audubon Park officers and advocates have been printed numerous times in various publications since this dispute began almost a year ago. In addition, a contact email address has always been shown on the site, which many, many people have had no difficulty in using.
Regardless of what has transpired this past week, when the smoke from these various smokescreens clears, we will be left with the same facts. Ten years ago, the Audubon 2000 master plan proposed considerable increases in revenue to be generated from food concessions and gift shops. Constrained by zoning regulations, all such activities, the Audubon Tea Room and Audubon Marketplace among them, have had to be squeezed within the zoo boundaries. While the rediscovery of their long-neglected golf course was never part of Audubon 2000, if there had been any doubt that the cornerstone of the redevelopment was the construction of a new 8000 sf restaurant/clubhouse in the park itself, the complete shelving of the project for a year because they lacked the money for this new building made that perfectly clear. The ANI has also been strongly, and successfully, advocating changing the zoning for parks to allow for any commercial developments they may choose to adopt in the future– and more there will be!
Unfortunately, any hopes of changing the composition of the Audubon Commission to make it more accountable to the public rather than the ANI have probably been dashed by Ron Forman’s recent selection by Mayor Nagin to be chairman of a five-member panel recruiting new faces to our public boards and commissions. Despite the fact that the Audubon Commission submitted its Zoo 2000 Master Plan to the City Planning Commission ten years ago for review and approval, our new City Council now claims that’s a bad idea. Worse, Mr Batt’s decision last week, and his admission that our weak City Planning Commission doesn’t want to get involved in this particular land use dispute, confirms our worst fears that the new City Master Plan and the new Land Use Plan are utterly hollow instruments, and the countless citizen hours and thousands of taxpayer dollars that went into their development were a total waste of time and money.
Any concessions made by the AC/ANI in this dispute have been miniscule and grudging. Despite Mr. Batt’s comments to the contrary, even the ANI has conceded that more public input might have been warranted. Now, with our city government unwilling to impose any controls on them whatsoever, concerned citizens are left in the same disenfranchised position that led to this dispute, and the creation of our opposition website, in the first place. Thus unfettered, the AC/ANI will undoubtedly continue its expansion of revenue-generating facilities into the remaining open spaces of the park, setting the stage for more such loud public outcries in the future. Concerned citizens should not have to start websites in order to be heard (and ignored, at least in this case) by our elected officials and public commissions.
This organization began in August 2001 as a website designed simply to publicize the details of the ANI’s golf course plans– which had been deliberately hidden from the general public– and to act as a forum for those disenfranchised to express their views and opinions. We knew very little about Ron Forman or the ANI up to this point; having never before been engaged in either dispute or discourse with them, we were naive, and assumed that when they recognized the sheer volume of opposition to their plans, they would relent and make significant modifications to mollify the public. We were wrong, of course, hence the evolution of Save Audubon Park into a non-profit organization, whose primary goals remain to make the AC/ANI more accountable, and to mitigate their damage to Audubon Park. These same goals will also form the foundation of the broader watchdog approach of the upcoming AudubonWatch.org.
We discovered that Ron Forman has come to represent, not only everything that is right with the AC/ANI, but everything that is wrong with it as well. We are certainly not the first group of people to call Ron Forman to task for his actions, we are merely the latest, and possibly the most public. And no matter how often and how loudly Mr Forman and Mr Batt complain about the “reprehensible” tone of saveaudubonpark.org, we have never compared their intelligence unfavorably to that of an orangutan, as Mr Forman did at the January 16, 2002 Audubon Commission meeting in reference to those who dared to oppose him. Somehow, the infamous “pig cartoon” just does not seem like that “reprehensible” or outrageous a retort to his general contempt for the opposition and his insulting words that day.
Call us “reprehensible” for pointing this out, but Mr Forman also stated, at the April 24th Audubon Commission meeting, that he would not oppose R-02-192 and imposition of Planning Commission oversight of ANI projects. However, the events of the past week have shown these to have been very hollow words indeed.
President, Save Audubon Park
To learn more about Save Audubon Park, visit http://www.saveaudubonpark.org
No Public Review of Design
May 14, 2002
The Audubon Nature Institute is now soliciting bids for the construction of its massive new golf clubhouse in Audubon Park. Despite the fact that this new building is to be built with public funds (state bonds), its design has never been reviewed by either the City Planning Commission or the public.
We believe there are serious concerns with the proposed building, especially with regard to its size compared to its purported use. We also believe for a body such as the Audubon Institute to be able to construct such a large building in the middle of a public park without any city or public oversight flies in the face of appropriate public processes.
We believe that it would be entirely appropriate for the City Planning Commission to review the design details of this building right now, and we are supporting Resolution 02-192 by which the City Council would direct them to do so. Please support us in ensuring that Resolution 02-192 is heard, and approved.
Before 5:00 p.m Wednesday May 15th, please phone, fax or email your district councilperson and the two at-large councilmen, and ask them to please author and/or support Resolution 02-192, by which the City Council directs the City Planning Commission to review all future plans and projects in our public parks.
The City Planning Commission has shown that it WILL NOT act unless directed to do so by our elected officials. Repeated citizen requests for reviews have fallen on deaf ears at the CPC for the past six months. Save Audubon Park has received NO response from the CPC to our written request for the dates and findings of the supposed CPC reviews of the new golf course project that, during the City Council meeting on March 21, Ron Forman repeatedly claimed had taken place.
All calls and requests must be received before 5:00 p.m. Wednesday May 15th so the Council secretaries can record the calls before the City Council Meeting this Thursday, May 16th, 2002.
We also urge you to attend the council meeting itself! Parking is available at the New Orleans Center for $1 for 3 hours. Council meetings are at City Hall and start at 9:30. We are unsure at the moment exactly when Resolution 02-192 will be heard, but we will be able to forecast an approximate time soon.
Sample letter below:
I urge you to co-author and/or support Resolution 02-192 at the City Council Meeting on May 16th, 2002, by which the City Council directs the City Planning Commission to review all future construction and renovation plans and projects in our public parks.
Public spaces belong to all members of the community and must serve all members of the community. Projects that transform public spaces into arenas of private profit threaten to erode the sense of community essential to a healthy community. Arrangements that appear to place well-connected businessmen beyond the reach of the agencies and the rules governing the actions of the majority of citizens poison the civic life of the community.
If Mayor Nagin is correct and we are entering a new era of transparency in local government, let it begin today.
It is important for the City Council to ensure that developments in this city are subject to meaningful public input, to review by the Planning Commission for conformity with the City’s current Master Plan, and ultimately to City Council oversight, especially when those developments impact valuable urban green spaces such as Audubon Park and City Park.
To learn more about Save Audubon Park, visit http://www.saveaudubonpark.org
Inadequate Funding or Inappropriate Use of Funds?
May 7, 2002
Dispatch From Save Audubon Park
In the coming months, the fee-for-use argument for generating revenues for our public parks will be a recurring issue. This may in fact be appropriate in some cases, but such a trend must be very carefully and publicly monitored. While there will always be tension between revenue-generation and the need to retain open free park space, we cannot forget that the free access to unstructured green space was found to be of “significant public concern” during the development of the new City Master Plan, and remains of timeless, priceless value to the large portion of our city’s population that simply cannot afford fee-paying recreational facilities.
In the current controversy, it has been apparent that the advocates of unfettered revenue-generation–such as the Audubon Commission and Audubon Institute–hold all the cards. It is only through insistance on compliance with the city’s Master Plan and its strong emphasis on continuous public input, that the advocates of free public access to open green space can at least stand a chance to be heard.
Unfortunately, one can’t help but become cynical about the “needing revenue” excuse for projects like the new golf course anyway, because the endless revenue-generation goals of the ANI rarely seem to result in any better service or maintenance for the park! And even in cases when the public has put up their money by approving targeted bond issues, we are forced to sit back and watch that money be squandered, not on the repairs and maintenance to the park that we voted for, but on a short-length, low-par golf course that by golfing standards will be silly and over-priced. In an era when decent 18-hole golf courses start at 7000 yards and up, they are creating a tiny 4000 yard course. This wouldn’t be so bad for a “short course”, if you were also only expected to pay the usual “short course” green fees of around $15, instead of the expected fees of almost twice that amount. Will the delectable food at the Audubon Tea Room II Clubhouse Cafe be adequate compensation? We think not.
To learn more about Save Audubon Park, visit http://www.saveaudubonpark.org.