Neighbors share input on Mirabeau Water Garden with project leaders
Leaders in the Mirabeau Water Garden project gathered community members at the Arthur Ashe Community School on Aug. 5 to update them on progress, hear their concerns, and ask for their input on the second phase of the project.
The garden will be built on 25 acres of land donated to the City of New Orleans by the Congregation of St. Joseph “on the condition that it be used to enhance and protect the neighborhood”, according to the City. This plot of land, bounded by St. Bernard Avenue, Mirabeau Avenue, Owens Street and Cartier Street, is bigger than Jackson Square and the land the Superdome sits on.
The project is funded by a $12.5 million grant from FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s National Disaster Resilience Competition, according to the City of New Orleans.
Charles Allen III, Resilience Outreach Director, says the purpose of the garden is to change how people look at water.
“Look at challenges and problems, how we live within our environment,” Allen said. “Look differently at how we manage water [and] rain water going forward.”
The garden will be built in Gentilly’s Paris Oaks neighborhood. Walterine Griffin, a resident of Paris Oaks, believes this can serve a duel purpose for this community. On top of helping to prevent flooding, it could give the community a sense of identity.
“In my community of Paris Oaks, we didn’t really have anything to rally around,” Griffin said. “There’s no school. We don’t have a church.”
One of the garden’s designers, David Waggonner of Waggonner and Ball Architects, emphasized that it is dangerous to rely on the pumping stations, so people need to rethink how to deal with storm water.
“If we double the capacity of this giant drainage system we have–60,000 cubic feet per second–we’d fix 40% of the problem,” Waggonner said. “We’re not going to pump our way out of this problem.” For comparison, the nearby London Avenue canal pumps can only handle 9,000 cubic feet of water per second.
A large part of Orleans and Jefferson’s drainage issues stem from ignoring the land organizational techniques used by farmers in rural areas. Waggonner believes that their land use tactics would help the current situation.
“When we laid out this land, Orleans and Jefferson Parish, they did not take advantage of some older knowledge that people in the fields had about how far apart to dig ditches,” Waggonner said. “If you look at Jefferson parish, it’s at least twice as far between each ditch, if you look at the canals. We tried to over-engineer our city.”
The design of the garden was inspired by water management projects done in Chattanooga, TN; the Netherlands, Amsterdam; Charleston, South Carolina; and Mexico City, Mexico. Experts from the Netherlands helped the City of New Orleans develop the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan in 2010.
Most of the storm water management component’s design is already done. The aesthetics and other such features are not yet designed, Waggoner and Allen said.
“This is a two-phase project. We don’t know that that is perfectly established, but there will be a first phase: constructing the water machine,” Waggonner said. “Then there will be the construction of this phase, of the rest. When one finishes, the other starts.”
“90 percent of the hazard mitigation component is completed–the [first] part of the work that deals with reduction of flooding,” Allen said. “The HUD part, those amenities, that conversation is beginning with you all.”
Larry Barabino Jr., resident of Gentilly, wanted to see the area around the garden respected, namely keeping Owens Street clean. He was also excited about the garden because of the neighborhood’s current lack of greenery.
“This neighborhood has a lack of green space for our school-aged kids to recreate,” Barabino said. “That’s something that I’d hope we would really consider. Not just those school-aged kids, folks like myself who like to take a walk in the afternoon, etc. So hopefully you all are considering having some green space for family activities.”
Barabino also touched on a reoccurring subject: cleanliness. When the garden is finished, more people may be coming into the neighborhood, and that seemed problematic to some because the Owens Street area is dirty, neighbors agreed.
“Who is responsible for maintaining the outer areas of the property today?” Barabino asked.
“Today, it is a combination of code enforcement and a couple of other city agencies–cleaning, grass cutting, and so forth,” Allen said. “It is also built into the contract with the City, that the City is responsible for maintaining the park for three years.”
There was also concern because there will not be a fence around the park. Some attendees worried that it could end up like Hunter’s Field in the Treme area, a place that was supposed to be for the kids to play football but is now inundated with trash.
“We do not intend to have a fence,” Waggonner said. “This is an open park. This is meant to be accessible. A fence actually creates some danger. If you’re from New Orleans, you know the curse of Armstrong Park is that fence around it. We wall it off from the people who would use it.”
Waggonner also said that the area’s cleanliness also partially depends on the community. “Somebody has to maintain it, but we have to respect it.”
Pollution was a concern for people, as the design is constructed to hold standing water. Gwen Mitchell, former Gentilly resident, was unsure about how the polluted water would be filtrated.
“I guess I didn’t understand what the plans were for the runoff water and how you’re planning to handle the pollution aspects of that,” Mitchell said to Waggonner.
“It’s really meant to go into the ground. The saturation of this site, I mean most of the water is going to percolate,” Waggonner said. “It’s going into sand, which is the ideal filtration mechanism.”
After general questions to Waggonner and Allen, attendants split into small groups and spoke with different city planning members for a more intimate discussion about what they want from the garden and their concerns. Residents like Danielle Richardi were worried about monitoring the ground water in the park for pollutants.
“I’m interested in performance. Is there going to be hydrologic monitoring?” Richardi asked Tyler Antrup, senior city planner with the City of New Orleans.
Antrup told Richardi and the others that ground water quality would be monitored.
“In the last year we have installed eight ground water monitors on the site, I think,” Antrup said. “They’ve done core samples in the soil. The construction plans now direct the contractor to preserve the existing groundwater wells. Those will be preserved after the park is under operation.”
“We are looking to infiltrate a ton of water into the subsurface, so our geo-engineers are modeling what that might do, in terms of the soil surrounding the site,” Antrup continued. “We’re going to continue to monitor the ground water as well.”
People wanted the Mirabeau Water Garden to be family-friendly, a place where people would want to come and spend time. They brought up ideas like a small amphitheater and a parking lot big enough to hold a small block party, festival, or farmer’s market.
Alisha Johnson-Perry wanted the garden to be kid-friendly. Antrup and the city already had some ideas.
“Will there be a place for a playground?” Johnson-Perry asked.
There are plans for a designated play area near the corner of Owens and Cartier, one of the most elevated sections of the garden.
The city also has an idea to include the water to entertain children. They planned to have a “water plaza for the kids to interact,” Antrup said.
The project will be finished between May of 2018 and April of 2019. “If the timeline changes,” Allen said, “you will hear from us.”