By Howell Raines
It’s not too late to save Fairhope’s signature park on the bluff along South Mobile Street from planning being supervised by Mayor Karin Wilson and Council President Jack Burrell, but there’s no time to waste.
Wilson and Burrell usually disagree on Fairhope’s future, but both gave an informal “nod” to the Goodwyn Mills Cawood (GMC) engineering firm to continue toward developing their misbegotten plan to regrade the 30-foot-high bluff that separates the park from the waterfront. At the April 27 meeting, Burrell did have the good sense to question the conceptual drawing showing an unneeded 60-to-70-foot man-made beach to replace the bulkheads on the south side of the existing pier.
Only Councilman Robert Brown seemed to understand the truly disruptive nature of the GMC plan as illustrated in a schematic drawing of the environmentally delicate site. “Basically to me, what we’re doing is we’re removing the park at the top of the bluff and putting a new park at the bottom of the bluff,” he said in the lightly attended meeting. On June 10, he emailed me a message that pinpointed the key fault of the mayor’s plan to regrade the park as a remedy to an imaginary erosion problem on our stable, well-forested bluff area that is the envy of other Gulf Coast cities.
“My point was/is, the parks located on the waterfront are not broken. They don’t need to totally redesign the parks,” he wrote. Brown indicated he would welcome more citizen opposition to the mayor’s largely unpublicized operation to correct a nonexistent problem.
And a citizen uprising is urgently needed. Word-of-mouth alarm about the extreme look of the GMC proposal has been spreading slowly. In a planning process without major community input to date, there seem to be only a couple of breaking points around which citizens could rally to preserve the 1,500-foot greensward that is the crown jewel of Fairhope’s signature waterfront park system in front of the statue of Marietta Johnson, founder of the Organic School. As THE mayor and the council acknowledged on April 27, the Fairhope Single Tax Colony (FSTC) must at some point be consulted. I hope the FTSC, having given the lofty bluff overlook to the citizens of Fairhope to enjoy in perpetuity, will oppose any plan to bring bulldozers and backhoes to put landfill in front of the 30-foot bluff to reduce it to a 20 percent grade.
One bright spot for Fairhope traditionalists is that Ken Niemeyer, a lawyer and active environmentalist, has stepped forward as a vocal opponent of the project. His home overlooks the park, and Niemeyer has also brought to light the below-the-radar PR activity in which a few citizens have been given by-invitation-only briefings by GMC consultants. At least three such meetings have been held to date in an apparent effort to create opinion-maker support for the project before the public becomes fully aware of it.
On March 11, Niemeyer warned the board of the Fairhope Single Tax Colony that the Wilson administration was abandoning Fairhope’s tradition of “natural” parks in favor of a “Disneyland” approach. The minutes of the organization recorded Niemeyer’s invoking the colony’s historic role as guardian of the city’s green space by “reminding the FSTC Council and members present that the city of Fairhope must adhere to the parklands deed with FSTC and the Council must be vigilant in keeping watch that nothing is done at the area in question that would go against the deed.”
Evelyn Young is spearheading a lively community protest. She and her husband Bob, third- and fourth-generation Fairhopers respectively, are circulating “STOP THE PLAN!” leaflets against a project he calls “a grandiose disaster.”
So far, news coverage has been scanty. I was six weeks late in reading the only major article I’ve seen so far, which appeared in Lagniappe on Tuesday, March 28. The article reported that in the preceding week, “The Fairhope City Council got its first peek at a conceptual plan to redesign the space surrounding its landmark pier and parks around its public beaches on Monday.” The article was accompanied by an impressionistic GMC illustration that has added to confusion about the scale of the $6.2 million project and the massive landfill that will apparently be needed in front of the bluff. The best source for the project is the videotape on YouTube at this link: youtube.com/watch?v=d7eX1PIXgL8.
What I saw and heard there caused me to email Mayor Wilson and all council members on Tuesday, June 10 notifying them that I planned to offer an op-ed article for local publication opposing the project as a desecration of Fairhope’s nationally renowned parks. That led to a telephone conversation with Mayor Wilson, who had several aides listen in by speakerphone.
She disputed my impression that the planning process had been a stealth operation. She explained that she has been pushing for over three years for waterfront redevelopment, and she expressed concern that a whistle-blowing article like this one would cause a public backlash against a project that has not been finalized. She said that she and her family had made great sacrifices for the community, and that I must have a “political” motive for wanting to overturn years of hard EFFORT by her staff and the design and engineering work by GMC consultants and engineers.
I take the mayor at her word that she has been open about her wishes for an overall $18 million facelift for the waterfront, and I admit that citizens like me, and some of the local news media, may have been asleep at the wheel while the project inched forward under bureaucratic supervision. She said the GMC proposal that I found alarming was conceptual and provisional and could be subject to alteration.
That said, there is now an urgency to the project. The council was told, “We are under the gun deadline-wise” to get the Corps of Engineers’ permits needed to begin construction. In that meeting, even the mayor seemed taken aback by the jarring look of the proposed overhaul. She said other bluff areas, such as the overlook park on North Bayview Street “wouldn’t be graded this way.” She added, as she gazed at a large projection of the conceptual drawing, “Well, I didn’t really know it would look like this. But I didn’t know what it was going to look like. I mean, I had a picture, but it’s not really like that.”
Council President Burrell raised the key issue of how many trees would have to be sacrificed since the mayor said “bluff stabilization” was a key requirement for getting the $6.2 million.
“When you say we’re losing bluff,” he said, “what kind of documentation do we have that we’re actually losing? I mean, there’s 50-to-75-year-old pine trees growing out of that bluff.”
My own concern, after learning as much as I could in the past few days, is that as the plan evolves, we’ll be told there is a need to remove an increasing number of the towering long leafs and live oaks that are Fairhope’s visual hallmark. Mayor Wilson said some trees would have to be cut to implement her plan, but she said she did not have an exact count.
My conclusion is the entire project is born of political desperation and imaginary problems. Mayor Wilson needs a signature project on which to run for re-election, and she has in hand a $6.2 million Restore Act grant that comes with inconvenient legal strings attached to it. She said the funds can only be secured on the basis of “bluff stabilization” and creation of a “working waterfront.” In other words, the city and their well-paid engineers have to pretend to fix something that’s working well. When Mr. Burrell made his request for “documentation” the mayor and presenters avoided the subject.
City Council minutes from last August 26 show that GMC is to receive $496,766 for the Phase I study now being unveiled. It is authorized to get $281,920 for Phase II, which will involve the duck pond area north of the pier. All funds will come from the grant under the Restore Act passed by Congress in 2012, and therefore represent a federal aid windfall for local governments damaged by the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
In our conversation Wednesday, I told Mayor Wilson that I fundamentally disagreed that bluff remediation was necessary, and that any change along Mobile Street is an esthetic and environmental mistake. As coastal overlooks go, the bluffs on the Eastern Shore have been remarkably stable since the Spanish and French explorers sailed up the bay before the American Revolution and discovered the beautiful red clays of “Ecor Rouge.” There is some erosion north of Fly Creek, but that is a problem only for houses built too close to the edge of a unique geologic feature — the highest point of coastal shoreline between Maine and Mexico.
She said the drawings presented to the council are not finalized, but it’s hard to see how she could row back from the truly radical nature of the consultants’ overall vision. As I view their sketch, I conclude they are proposing nothing less than sacrificing at least some of the trees along Mobile Avenue and also cutting down the lesser forest that shades the popular quarter-mile walking trail lying just south of the existing fountain and rose garden.
As for the requirement of creating a “working waterfront,” the planners have come up with a roster of needless or imaginary additions. They cling to the illusion that the restaurant on the pier can be turned into a tourist “destination” capable of competing with our many fine restaurants. An even more desperate suggestion is to plop down a “ferry terminal” next to the existing marina based on the engineers’ imagining that a Mobile-Fairhope ferry may come into being as in days of yore. In addition, they propose expanding a marina that is only about half full. The commercial reality is that Fairhope boat owners prefer to dock at Fly Creek and the Grand Hotel.
How did this Frankenstein of urban planning get so much momentum without more public input? Goodwyn Mills Cawood says their recommendations are based on responses to a questionnaire circulated to only 570 PEOPLE between February 6 and March 11 of this year. The questions apparently went to a restricted sampling of citizens of their selection, and 463 completed the entire survey. Another key factor, it seems to me, is that if state and federal budget-makers drop gift money in their laps, the Fairhope City Council and their consultants will find a way to waste it unless they face the citizen revolt that is needed.
The planners also allege too much space is devoted to the convenient parking area in the roundabout at the rose garden and water fountain, but their solution is to create a potential traffic jam on Mobile Avenue by installing parallel parking up there. Can you imagine the pileup of Scenic 98 traffic as visitors back into their spaces? Another deficiency is the proposal to take existing green space north of the roundabout to make up for eliminating parking in the roundabout itself. The net result will be more paving and a gain of only nine parking spaces. Moreover, senior citizens coming to view the sunsets will have a longer walk to reach the pier and benches.
The presentation was 42 minutes of double-talk and unproven assumptions about what Fairhopers allegedly want. Mayor Wilson and GMC kept insisting sunsets are the big draw at the waterfront, while throughout the day, any visitor can see that strollers, runners, dog walkers, fishermen, wind surfers, yoga classes and courting couples account for much of the traffic. Fishermen should be especially alarmed by GMC’s plan for a designated fishing area at the end of the pier. The ability to fish up and down the pier depending on the season and fish migration patterns is a major asset for Fairhope families that cannot afford boats.
Need another reason to defund this defacement of Fairhope’s unique visual appeal? The planners claim once they level out the slope between the top of the bluff and the waterfront, the access will meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But an architect friend who viewed the video presentation assures me sloping walkways and switchbacks in the preliminary sketches won’t pass ADA muster, which may mean more costly earth moving for handrails, ramps and turnarounds will be needed.
The planners jokingly refused Mr. Burrell’s invitation to say they could bring in the big project without cost overruns. They also admitted, under questioning from Councilman Kevin Boone, that their current estimates do not include shoring up of the bulkheads at the start of the pier. Burrell’s suggestion to “put rip-rap in front of it” was apparently offered in jest.
But this assault on Fairhope’s viewscape and public spaces is no laughing matter. Visiting artists and travel writers agree our waterfront parks are the jewels in Fairhope’s crown. They need to be saved from our elected officials before citizens are reduced to petitioning the Fairhope Single Tax Colony and the Corps to stop an idea whose time should never come. Now is the time for all who love our sylvan setting to demand the mayor and City Council observe an environmental version of the Hippocratic Oath. When you are custodian of an irreplaceable natural wonder, first do no harm!
Howell Raines, a former executive editor of The New York Times, is an MSNBC commentator and the author of “My Soul Is Rested,” an oral history of the civil rights movement.
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