Lakes project, here we go

Lakes project, here we go


By Mukul Verma
An island is being born.

Made by man and nature, the atoll in University Lake is doing double duty. It’s an experiment to determine the best method for dredging a lakes system in decline. And it’s a prelude to the construction of a boardwalk, designed to allow walkers and cyclists to safely bypass a dangerous pinch-point too close to traffic on Stanford Avenue.

The island also signals that implementation of a master plan to preserve and beautify the University/City Park lakes has begun.

Thanks Our donors underwrote the master plan. They are Albermarle Foundation, Raising Cane’s and Todd Graves, John G. Turner and Jerry G. Fischer, the late Suzanne “Sue” W. Turner, Suzanne L. Turner, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Turner, the Josef Sternberg Memorial Fund and Mr. and Mrs. Milford Wampold III.

The project was initially conceived and led by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. With partners, the Foundation’s civic projects staff raised $50 million for implementation.

When completed, residents will use this green space in ways they never imagined. People who live in the region and visitors alike will see a new beauty in Baton Rouge, and new outlooks will emerge about our parish as a place to live.

How we got here

A bit more than a decade ago, the Foundation convened a meeting. Worried about the deterioration of the University/City Park lakes, we asked local leaders if they wanted to partner with us to save the lakes. They passed.

The lakes grew worse. Pollution washed into the six bodies of water. Plants grew within them, died, decayed and silted over the bottom each year. As the lakes became more and more shallow, algae bloomed and depleted the oxygen, sometimes suffocating fish in large numbers.

The University/City Park lakes were becoming a dead zone in the middle of our city.

The Foundation decided to act. Our staff started a master plan to save the lakes and preserve them for the future. The plan was announced publicly in 2014 at our 50th anniversary celebration.

In the first phase, a new bridge will connect University and City Park lakes. A park at Dalrymple and May Street will be built with dredged materials. Paths will improve pedestrian safety. | Rendering by Sasaki Associates

Civic projects that change public spaces succeed when residents and organizations are included from the beginning. So we created an advisory committee that included LSU, BREC, homeowners and civic leaders, as well as Foundation board members.

The Center for Planning Excellence was hired for wider public engagement and to help the panel select a master planning firm. After soliciting proposals from interested designers, the advisory committee narrowed the list, with the finalists presenting their ideas at an open meeting at the Manship Theatre. The panel convened right after this and selected SWA Group, which was led by Kinder Baumgardner, an LSU graduate with an international reputation in land planning.

SWA used open meetings to get ideas for the blueprint from the public and to educate people about threats to the lakes. By then, the lakes were, on average, about 3 feet deep.

In its blueprint, SWA outlined several goals. The two most important were, first, dredging the lakes to keep them deep and healthy for decades and, second, using the scooped materials to create amenities that were designed to suit the ways the lakes were being used for recreation, now and in the years to come.

The project didn’t start right away. That’s because it took several years to line up funding. With new leadership in place and big help from Gov. John Bel Edwards, BREC, LSU, and state and local government agreed to fund the first phase of $50 million.

A new panel was established to build the planned improvements. LSU Real Estate and Facilities Foundation is in the lead, with BREC, city-parish government, LSU, and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation as partners.

The project

Partners in the lakes project hired Sasaki Associates to refine the master plan and turn it into construction drawings. LSU REFF, the development arm of the LSU Foundation, contracted with Sevenson Environmental for dredging. The project is underway.

The lakes will be deepened to an average depth of 8 feet. Sevenson crews will yank thousands of cypress stumps that were left behind when the lakes were formed from swamps in the 1920s and 1930s. Some of the stumps will be left behind for wildlife habitats.

Excavators will scoop materials to the shoreline, where designers envision wetlands to naturally clean polluted matter that flows in from the roads. Geotextile tubes will be installed and packed with dredged materials, then backfilled to create living shorelines. In an area where water enters the lake system, crews will build a forebay to capture silt for easy, periodic removal.

“We’re looking at wetland gardens adjacent to roads. We’re trying to create all these different systems to capture water, clean it, let it settle out of it before it’s entering into the lake systems,” says Anna Cawrse, lead designer for the project with Sasaki.

Bottoms up

University Lake has been partially dredged before. Back in the 1970s, around Stanford Avenue, dredges dug up stumps and carved out a deeper lake bottom. But the work bogged down; there were so many stumps that the parish abandoned the project.

This time, dredging is being done with considerable care, abiding to blueprints that are written by landscape architects and environmental engineers. Deepening will improve water quality. Amenities will be created to match how the outdoor space is used for recreation and creative loafing.

Sevenson is testing the best method to dredge the lakes. Excavator crews have cut up the lake bottom, mixed a polymer into the material to remove water and packed the consolidated soil into geotextile tubes to form an island. Crews are learning how to best yank stumps and dig channels to move around the shallow lakes.

Milford Wampold Memorial Park

When University Lake is dredged next year, a lot of the dirt will be moved to form a larger Milford Wampold Memorial Park on Stanford. That park will be larger than originally planned.

From Wampold Park, you’ll be able to launch and row a canoe or kayak in a much deeper lake system all the way to the foot of City Park. That’s because a signature bridge will connect University and City Park lakes for the first time on May Street. A small boat launch is expected near LSU’s recreation center, too.

The beach at Wampold Park is now a bit of forgotten sand. It’ll become a real beach. “There’s great precedence across the country to have really beautiful beaches contained within a space,” says Cawrse.

In Sasaki’s design are spots where you can eat a meal or drink a beverage, perhaps at a food truck or a café.

Children will play on a unique playground. “We are looking at really cool custom playgrounds,” Cawrse adds. “Right now in the design, we have a giant pelican that could be part of a larger natural play system.”

And the bathrooms will be nicer.

Down on the boardwalk

Crews will start building a boardwalk to connect East Lakeshore and South Lakeshore drives later this year. They have begun to build an island as a landing spot for the boardwalk. Geotextile tubes packed with dewatered material from the lake bottom will frame the island. It’ll be made from dredged material and stumps.

Says Cawrse, the designer: “Besides just getting bikers and walkers and runners off Stanford, the boardwalk is also going to give an opportunity for them to step down and get closer to the water for an ecological and immersive experience.”

At May Street and Dalyrmple Drive

In the original plan, there’s a big park at the corner of Dalrymple Drive and May Street. That park will be smaller than intended, “a bit quieter,” says Cawrse.

You’ll see big changes as well at May and Dalrymple. A bridge will connect the two lakes, allowing for boating between them. Design of the bridge is underway. Construction will be coordinated with dredging over the next 18 months or so.

Roads will be realigned for safer passage. Plus, May Street and the bridge will have separated paths for cyclists and pedestrians.

Off-road bike and walking paths
Safer Off-road paths will separate cyclists from pedestrians.

An important feature are paths on the lakes, both for walkers and cyclists. Cawrse said they will be separated from each other and the road. Paths will let people get near the water in some places.

“Where we can, we try and separate biking from walking,” said Cawrse. “What that allows us to do is use a lot of existing land for paved bike paths and then create much more kinds of flexible systems for running and walking that kind of swoop out and go along the lake edges.”

This story first appeared in the print version of Currents, the Foundation’s quarterly magazine. Currents is mailed to donors and members. Become a member at

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