Take a hike: Nature park proposed for downtown Baton Rouge

    Residents and visitors to downtown could soon be able to hike, bike and bird watch in the shadow of the State Capitol if plans for a 20-acre nature park move forward.

    The park, called the DeSoto Park Nature Trails, would front the Mississippi River west of the Pentagon Barracks, Downtown Development District Executive Director Davis Rhorer said today at the Press Club of Baton Rouge.

    If the park comes to fruition, it will be the latest in a broader effort to “green downtown,” as Rhorer puts it. Around 11 acres of green space, along with several parks and the downtown greenway, have sprung up in recent years.  

    The 20-acre plot of land is state-owned and the nature trails would be a partnership with the state Office of Culture Recreation and Tourism, and possibly BREC, said Rhorer, who is a BREC commissioner. The land is currently vacant.

    “It’s been sitting there for awhile,” he said. “If, in downtown, you’ve got this 20-acre nature reserve, you could just wow people.”

    A DDD report on the park says the woody batture areas and borrow pits at the site serve as a landing spot for birds along the Mississippi Flyway, making it a viable bird-watching spot. A quarter of the park is composed of two large borrow pits—areas where fill has been dug out and used for construction—which now serve essentially as ponds. The report floated possible fishing and non-motorized boating uses in the ponds, along with a one-mile hiking loop, benches and signage.

    “The park will provide visitors with an opportunity to experience the river’s edge in its natural state,” reads the DDD report.

    The proposal is not the first for the site, Rhorer noted. In 1990, the area’s master plan called for a series of boardwalks at the location. In 1999, the Capitol Park master plan included an 11-acre park. Plans for the area were also proposed in 2003 and 2008, including the Audubon Institute’s ambitious $300 million Audubon Alive! riverfront attraction. All of those fell through, mostly because of a lack of funding, Rhorer said, as costs were ballparked in the tens of millions of dollars.

    This time, however, the nature trail would be relatively inexpensive—likely a few thousand dollars at most, part of which could be funded through a grant from the Office of Culture Recreation and Tourism. Rhorer called the costs “minimal,” and added he is waiting on a response from the state and does not yet have a timeline. If the city-parish or state later wanted to move forward with a larger project at the site, it would still be possible even with the nature trails, he said.

    Pedestrians would be able to access the park through the existing city-parish right of way over the railroad at North Street, and public parking would be available at the nearby welcome center.

    The trail system would need to be built to withstand seasonal flooding from the Mississippi River, the DDD report notes, and parts of the trails would be inaccessible at times.

    —Sam Karlin

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