Audubon Charter offers compromise in dispute over Gentilly Terrace greenspace
By Jesse Baum, Gentilly Messenger
The field beside Audubon Gentilly School, where children play during the day, has become a battleground for Gentilly Terrace homeowners pushing to turn the city-owned plot into a public park and parents who want it as a playground and athletic field for the school.
On Tuesday evening (March 28) at Audubon Gentilly, the city’s Office of Neighborhood Engagement hosted a meeting to discuss the fate of the field beside public charter school that moved into the former Gentilly Terrace Elementary building in 2021.
The foundation Step Up Louisiana attended the meeting in opposition to the park, handing out orange flyers at the school’s entrance stating the park would “increase the property values of nearby homes at the expense of our children’s health and safety.”
The meeting was well attended by community members and parents who filled the school’s cafeteria. Wilneivha Videau from the Office of Neighborhood Engagement opened the meeting and District D Councilman Eugene Green presented opening remarks.
The field is enclosed by a tall chain link fence that connects it to the school and blocks public access.
The entire block was donated to the city in 1914 to be used for both parks and schools, said Parks & Parkways Director Michael Karam In a presentation Tuesday on the history of the plot. From 1914 to the 1970s, Karam told the audience, the field was both a park to the neighborhood and a play area for the school.
At some point, though no one is quite sure when, a fence went up around the field, closing it off so that only the school had access.
In 1952, a court ordered the transfer of school property across New Orleans from the city to the Orleans Parish School Board. This transfer inadvertently excluded the parcel on Painters Street containing what is now Audubon Gentilly.
In late 2018, at the OPSB’s request, the City Planning Commission approved the re-subdivision of the property to create a single lot bounded by Mirabeau, Painters, Carnot and Arts street to be used by Audubon Charter for its new Montessori-based school in Gentilly, city records show.
While a parcel containing the school was officially transferred to the OPSB, the greenspace remains with the city, according to Orleans Parish Assessor’s Office records.
The school has continued to maintain exclusive access to the lot. Only recently did an anonymous citizen reach out to state the school was essentially squatting on public land.
In search of a compromise
A group made up of neighborhood and City Hall representatives, District D Councilman Eugene Green, and Gentilly Audubon and OPSB officials has been working on a solution, now that the school has grown dependent on using the field as a schoolyard.
Park & Parkway’s Karam mentioned several options proposed by the stakeholders: exclusive access by the school during school hours only, a land swap, or public access to the space at all times.
Audubon Gentilly has proposed a compromise, asking the community to consider a proposal where they would lease about one quarter of the plot for the school’s exclusive use, with the rest open to the public as a park.
The Assessor’s Office lists the parcel as 53,550 square feet, slightly smaller than a football field. The compromise would give the school about 13,000 square feet for its eventual 450 students in grades kindergarten through eight.
After the presentation, attendees were able to submit one comment card each. They were read anonymously, with Green answering the questions.
“How will we continue to have school events?” asked one commenter.
“Throughout New Orleans, parks are next to schools,” Green said. “Students will never be kept out of parks.”
Stephen Corbett, the CEO of Audubon School, added that the “assumption is that the school can access the park if they want.” the City Council would make the ultimate decision on the 25% leasing proposal.
Both Corbett and Green underscored that they trust the teachers with the children’s safety, fence or no. With the 25% compromise, a fence would enclose the school’s portion.
“We think 25% is a good compromise,” Corbett said.
One questioner asked if the park land could be sold or developed into housing in the future. Green hedged against a definitive ‘no,’ but said that such a drastic change would likely face tremendous local opposition, involve changing the City Charter, and is tremendously unlikely.
“For those who look upon this as more sinister than it is, it’s a park at the end of the day,” he said. “It was donated to the city for the purposes as a park and a school.”
It is hard to change the land-use purposes of donated land, Green said.
While Audubon Gentilly does have many students from the surrounding neighborhood, even those students cannot currently use the park during non-school hours. In some places, such as New York City, school playgrounds are open to the public during non-school hours.
As attendees filed out of the school, the field looked serene in the balmy evening air but was empty behind the chain link fence.
Reporter Jesse Baum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.