- Associated Press - Saturday, January 2, 2016

METAIRIE, La. (AP) - Until last spring, Jefferson Parish had rather conventional plans for Bayou Metairie Park. Nothing ambitious, just a standard landscaping and beautification project with maybe a path and a park bench or two.

But because of a chance meeting between District 5 Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng and architect David Waggonner, the humble stretch of grass and trees just south of Metairie and Labarre roads will become home to a more ambitious undertaking.

Bayou Metairie Park will serve as a demonstration project on how to use plants, landscaping and building materials to retain rainwater to help combat persistent flooding.

While the park will still feature some of the same elements as other passive pocket parks around the parish, the plants will be especially selected to hold water, and the paths that would typically be paved will be made of a permeable material that absorbs water.

The goal will be to show property owners, developers and government officials how smarter design and carefully chosen materials can be used to help keep water out of streets, yards and homes.

Lee-Sheng said she got the idea for the demonstration project at a planning conference about Metairie Road last spring hosted by the Regional Planning Commission. She happened to be sitting next to Waggonner, of Waggonner & Ball Architects, the firm that helped create the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, and the two began discussing bioswales, “water-loving” plants and other ways to better deal with rainwater.

A bioswale is a drainage ditch with gently sloped sides landscaped with vegetation that can remove silt and other materials from surface runoff.

After that meeting, Lee-Sheng decided that Bayou Metairie Park could be more than just an average pocket park. During the next 18 months, the park’s features will be designed by Waggonner & Ball and the consulting firm Arcadis and constructed on the site.

Lee-Sheng said the idea is to try to move away, as much as possible, from the “pave, pipe and pump” method of dealing with water. While pumps will always play a key role in getting water from where it is to where people want it to be, “we can certainly take in more water (where it falls) than we are now,” she said.

“I don’t know if people know just how much of our public resources go toward keeping us dry.”

Lee-Sheng said it is not yet known whether Bayou Metairie Park alone will have a measurable effect on the amount of water on Metairie Road during heavy rains, but the idea is to introduce people to a new way of using space beyond simply a choice between pavement and grass.

“That’s what we’re hoping for here, that once we can do a demonstration project, people can see it, and it becomes, ‘Yeah, that’s a smart way of doing things,’?” she said.

Lee-Sheng said that when she met recently with a developer seeking permits for an apartment renovation, she brought up some of the ideas that could be put to use in the property’s parking lot.

She said the parking lot at Parkway Bakery and Tavern uses permeable materials to better handle rainwater, for example.

Lee-Sheng said the Metairie park is one of the last projects she will do as the council representative for District 5, but the problem it tries to tackle will continue to be a focus when she takes over one of the council’s two at-large seats next month.

Change is not going to happen overnight, she said. But then again, it doesn’t have to.

“This is for my grandchildren’s generation,” she said. “It’s something we need to start changing our mindset about now for future generations.”

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