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Grow Dat staff and supporters imagine a City Park redevelopment of their own

Keegan Benoit, left, shows Wayne Curtis, center, and Alison Green a Grow Dat presentation on the history of the land where City Park is located at Grow Dat Youth Farm on April 23, 2024.
Drew Costley
Keegan Benoit, left, shows Wayne Curtis, center, and Alison Green a Grow Dat presentation on the history of the land where City Park is located at Grow Dat Youth Farm on April 23, 2024.

This story was originally published by Verite News.

Grow Dat Youth Farm staff on Tuesday hosted supporters of its popular youth program at City Park to kick off its own process for imagining how the park can be redeveloped. It was the most recent in a series of responses to a controversial plan in development by City Park leadership that would see a road built through the land that Grow Dat has leased for more than a decade.

More than 70 people gathered at the meeting, which the group called the People’s Planning Forum, and shared ideas for what features and services they want at the park. Suggestions included a shuttle service, more walking paths and footbridges and an edible forest.

“We want to let the community have an opportunity to speak today,” said Julie Gable, co-executive director of Grow Dat. “That’s what you’re here for, to be able to envision what the park will be, so that we can go back and share” feedback with the City Park Conservancy, the nonprofit that manages the park.

City Park representatives did not attend the meeting. But as it was taking place, the conservancy announced that it would extend its public engagement process for the park master redevelopment plan, which currently includes the new road.

Grow Dat held the meeting after months of trying to engage in discussions with City Park about its massive redevelopment plans, which include building the new road, which would run through the center of the park. If approved, the road would likely displace the farm. Staff and supporters of the farm have said they’ve felt excluded from the park’s public engagement process, which has been underway since August. And they’ve said that’s led to the park overlooking how important the farm is to both its youth participants and to improving food access in New Orleans.

The park’s staff and Grow Dat met several times early this month to discuss Grow Dat’s desire to stay in its current location. But nothing has materialized from those conversations yet, according to Callie Rubbins-Breen, Grow Dat’s other co-executive director.

“I wish they were here,” Rubbins-Breen said, referring to City Park Conservancy staff. “I think it would be really interesting to be in the space with them, and then hear their perspectives of how it [went] and what they learned and for them to be present in conversations.”

Grow Dat leadership said Tuesday’s meeting was the first in a series of sessions to invite community members to give feedback on the future of the park. During the event, attendees learned about the history of City Park, Grow Dat’s contributions to New Orleans’ food system and the results of a survey the conservancy conducted about the future of the park.

“I was thinking they could have a cultural center,” Shekeita Strong, a crew member at Grow Dat, said, pointing to the south side of the park. It would help welcome people to the park and improve accessibility by helping people navigate to different parts of it.

Another youth participant, Jonathan Vazquez, said more footbridges connecting the park to the Wooded Island – a small piece of land surrounded by bayou – could increase use of that space, an idea already included in the park’s master plan. Attendees floated a broad array of other ideas, including planting an edible forest in the Wooded Island, building a skate park and creating a shuttle service to help visitors get around the park.

“It’s…so nice to be in community, sharing ideas about the future of our park, on our site,” Rubbins-Breen said to the crowd moments before the meeting ended. Rubbins-Breen told Verite News that Grow Dat will take the feedback it gathered at the forum and offer it to City Park for consideration as part of its public engagement process and potentially post it on their website.

Grow Dat staff also said the farm is planning to hold another open forum on the future of City Park on May 10, but the location of the meeting hasn’t been determined.

A postponement and an extension

Grow Dat invited officials from the City Park Conservancy to come to Tuesday’s event, but no one from the park attended. The City Park Improvement Association, the governing body of the park, has its board meeting that started an hour prior to Grow Dat’s meeting, which could be why they didn’t have anyone at the community forum.

Shortly after the board meeting, the conservancy sent out a press release announcing that it will extend its public engagement process and is postponing its next public meeting, which was originally scheduled for May 20. The statement said park officials want to conduct more public outreach and integrate the feedback they gather into its planning process before moving forward.

“While we have made great strides in the current planning process and talked to so many individuals and stakeholders, we are continuing to listen to public feedback and further deepening our outreach to the community at large. This extension will help us do that,” City Park Conservancy President and CEO Cara Lambright was quoted as saying in the press release.

Members of Friends of Grow Dat, an organization that formed in March to advocate for the youth program, went to the board meeting where the extension was originally announced, before coming to the Grow Dat’s forum at the farm. They arrived just in time for the open forum to share City Park’s decision with the attendees.

“I just came back from a board meeting of the CPIA,,” said Nikki Thanos, one of the founding members of Friends of Grow Dat. “And one of the things that we learned is that because of the organizing that you all have been doing, especially the voices of the young people in this room, they are changing their process around the master plan.”

The City Park Conservancy press release did not say that the new engagement plan was directly related to public pushback on the plan to build a road through Grow Dat’s site. Park officials did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Upon learning the news, the crowd erupted in hoots and applause. After the forum, Thanos said she’s worried that the postponement of the forums will shorten the amount of time that the conservancy takes to incorporate feedback from community members before finalizing the master plan. That’s because she didn’t receive any assurances from conservancy staff at the CPIA meeting that it is pushing back its December deadline for completing the master plan as part of the extension of the public engagement process.

As of early Wednesday, City Park’s website lists all three remaining meetings they had planned, including one in December where they planned to present the finalized master plan, as postponed.

Despite this announcement, Grow Dat staff and supporters want to stay engaged in dialogue with the conservancy and keep pressure on to strike a compromise that would allow the farm to stay where it is.

“I think that they’re kind of starting to get the message,” Thanos said to the crowd toward the end of the event. “And the way that we’re going to keep up the momentum is to keep coming out to events like this and also to continue to engage in the processes that [the park is] running related to this master plan.”