City Park has seen a flurry of high-profile additions in the last few years, with the recent opening of the Louisiana Children’s Museum and the expansion of the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden adding more energy, visitors and traffic to the southern end of the park.
But park leaders and designers are taking a different approach to the future of the Wisner Tract, the last major portion of the park still to be redeveloped since Hurricane Katrina.
At just under 100 acres, the property between Interstate 610 and Harrison Avenue along Wisner Boulevard is a former golf course that has been reclaimed by trees and brush. Its lagoon and disconnected pathways have become a haven for locals looking for a quiet, natural setting removed from the crowds attracted to the park’s busier areas.
City Park’s master plan designates the Wisner Tract for “passive recreation,” which rules out sports like baseball and soccer but would allow for running, disc golf and other low-impact activities. Any programming or development is supposed to have minimal impact on the natural habitat, allowing for educational uses and space for yoga or meditation.
Bob Becker, the park’s chief executive officer, said a team led by nationally known consultants at Design Workshop will focus on retaining much of what people already like about the space.
“The vast majority of it, we want to be a contemplative, natural environment,” he said.
If the first of two public-input sessions is any indication, visitors who have come to appreciate the untamed character of the Wisner Tract will make themselves heard throughout the planning process.
Participants Thursday were asked to vote by placing four green stickers on photos of the types of amenities they would favor, such as trails, kayaking, an arboretum, gardens, aviaries and butterfly gardens. Disc golfers, who already play on the tract and would like to see a more dedicated space provided, were well represented in the crowd.
But when the 130 attendees used a keypad to vote on what kinds of features, programs or amenities they’d like to see, “other” and “none of the above” regularly finished at or near the top.
Asked about the biggest challenges facing the Wisner Tract, only 3 percent felt its “limited public use” is a problem. And goals for the project? Integration of diverse habitat types, “other” and maintenance were the top three.
As for what events they wanted, “other” finished first, at 26 percent, followed by stargazing at 21 percent and yoga/meditation at 15 percent. Music, movies, weddings, festivals and reunions all ran well behind at about 5 percent each.
Asked to chose their top 3 activities, the room burst into applause when “none” scored 39 percent, well above the second-place finisher, kayak, canoe and paddle board rentals, at 17 percent. A “small cafe” got 11 percent and a beer garden 9 percent, but a gift shop, tea house and event-space rental got 5 percent or less.
And in a workshop where participants were told to dream as big as they want, “restrooms” dominated the Top 3 desired structures at 40 percent, followed by “other” at 22 percent, and an observation tower at 10 percent. An amphitheater, treehouses and camps finished far down in the single digits.
“I’d like to keep it pretty much how it is,” said Mike Jones, of New Orleans. “Obviously, I’d like some improved facilities, restrooms and stuff like that, but I just need to walk and play out here.”
“We don’t need to make it a destination for people that don’t already know it,” said Joshua Aranguiz.
Johnny Crosby and Jim Uschold, who are members of the New Orleans Disc Golf Club, said players who currently play at the Wisner Tract, often using their own money for the minimal infrastructure required by the sport, are hoping to find a permanent home at the park.
“It’s super popular. There are a lot more people playing than people realize,” Crosby said, noting the club has almost 200 members.
Carla Robertson, who lives Uptown but comes to the Wisner Tract regularly, said she fears that the impulse to design, develop and program will destroy what has drawn people to it for the last 14 years.
“We have a lot of beautiful area (in City Park) that is manicured, but many of the people are here because this is a place that they can go that is wild, that is minimally maintained,” she said. “It’s a place where you can have a quiet walk, by yourself or with your dog, and I think people are craving areas that are not manicured or groomed.”
Robertson said bathrooms, trash cans and a place to get out of the rain are needed, and that for her, a pavilion for educational programs and improvements to the pathways are fine as well. But there are already many other amenities in City Park that draw crowds, she noted.
Becker said that while the Wisner Tract may have a natural feel to it, it isn’t actually pristine, undeveloped land, but an overgrown golf course that needs to have work done. But he said he is confident the designers will come up with a proposal that maintains what people like about it today.
“We think there is a lot of opportunity to modify the space, but keep it natural,” he said. “That’s our goal.”
The designers said they will continue to take input via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and will be back in November to get feedback on some early concepts before any final decisions are made.