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Audubon Commission approves $7.1 million Nature Center contract

The Audubon Commission has approved a $7.1 million contract to rebuild an updated version of its Louisiana Nature Center, a highly touted project that many hope will help revive the neighborhoods around its 86-acre site in Joe W. Brown Park.

BelouMagner Construction of Metairie is scheduled to begin work on the project this summer, with the center opening in the fall of 2016, about a year later than announced when officials broke ground in 2014. It has been closed to the public since the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina destroyed it and much of eastern New Orleans in 2005.

"It's been a long time getting through the design and regulatory hurdles we had to get through," said Patrick Kraft, the architect in charge of the project. "I think we are going to build it better than it was before."

The total cost of the project's first phase, including interpretive exhibits, is pegged at $8.4 million, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency covering about two-thirds of that.

Work on the project to date has been limited largely to the demolition of the old buildings and restoration of the native the cypress swamps and forestland that surround the 2.7-acre site of the center itself.

The approval of the contract clears the way for construction to begin in earnest.

"All of us at Audubon Nature Institute are excited to be part of the many wonderful things happening in New Orleans East," Audubon President and Chief Executive Ron Forman said in a statement. "And we look forward to working side by side with the community to make this facility a must-see destination for locals and visitors alike.''

Plans include many of the features found in the original 1980 facility — a planetarium, an exhibit pavilion, a botany center and classrooms available for rent — but the revamped center will offer some additional amenities and an indoor-outdoor architectural style meant to capitalize on the natural scenery.

The design is meant to maximize flexibility. Exhibits will be movable so the space can be rented out for community events and private engagements, providing some income to help offset the cost of operating the facility.

Also due for an update is the center's entrance. Though it was once accessible from Lake Forrest Boulevard, the center had closed that entrance, forcing visitors to enter through Joe Brown Park. That diminished the center's visibility and accessibility from the main street, Kraft said. The main access point for the new building will once again be on Lake Forrest, though pedestrians will be able to access walking trails from Joe Brown Park, he said.

There will also be a new, dedicated parking lot. The previous lot was shared with the park, which turned it into a track during post-Katrina renovations.

The scope of a planned second phase will be determined after meetings with the community and city officials, an Audubon spokesman said.

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