By Karin Wilson
Mayor, city of Fairhope
Like so many other communities on the coast, the city of Fairhope suffered economic injuries as a result of the 2010 BP oil spill, and the awarding of the Restore Act funding for our Working Waterfront project was contingent on economic development, resiliency and sustainability. This money had a very narrowly defined use, and our project was one that could benefit from and justify that usage.
We were excited to finally receive the grant award and start work on the project in Spring 2019. That process included convening a Selection Committee, the members of which were designated by a Council resolution in September 2018. The extensive, three-month-long selection process ended with a recommendation to the City Council in August 2019 to hire a team helmed by engineering firm Goodwyn Mills Cawood.
Work from September 2019 to January 2020 centered around engaging the public in the process, a task started at the State of the City event the first week of February and followed up the next day by a community survey that was distributed to all residents for nearly six weeks. The results of both of those efforts, combined with the results of a design charrette in late February, are what got us to our conceptual plan that was presented to the City Council during the work session on April 27.
That presentation was to go over a schematic for conceptual ideas based on community input and priorities as related to the Scope of Work for which the grant was awarded.
To speak directly to the Scope of Work: As defined in the approved grant application, that entails all project work related to improvements to the shoreline and bluffs along the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay in Fairhope, Alabama. The main criterion involves “improvements to the bay shore to ensure resiliency, sustainability and human interaction of the city of Fairhope’s most precious resource: it’s waterfront. More specifically, this Scope Of Work concentrates on the First Phase of the overall Working Waterfront and Greenspace Project — Fairhope Municipal Pier and South Beach Park Improvements.
“The general project location can be described as the Fairhope Municipal Pier, the area containing the pier landing at the foot of Fairhope Avenue and the area to the south along the shoreline known as South Beach Park. The pier landing area is approximately four acres of land containing buildings, parking, a large circular drive, walkways, hardscapes and landscapes with a center oval median containing a prominent fountain surrounded by English styled rose gardens. This landing is the access point to the Fairhope Municipal Pier, a 1,500-foot-long precast concrete pier projecting westward into Mobile Bay. This pier houses a marina on the northside, a popular restaurant at the midpoint, bathrooms and other amenities. Fairhope Municipal Pier hosts tourists, visitors, recreational fishermen and citizens and serves as the “Town Square” for all important activities in the life of the city of Fairhope. This landing is protected by a precast seawall along its shoreline radius.
“South Beach Park is roughly described as a five-acre linear park along the shoreline of Mobile Bay immediately south of the Fairhope Municipal Pier landing. Geographical elements of the park include approximately 600 linear feet of shoreline on the westside, terraced green space along the center and a steep eroding bluff along the eastside. There is 32 vertical feet of elevation difference from the east property line to the toe of the bluff. Most of the gradient (fall) is along the face of the bluff. The shoreline is comprised of 450 feet of bulkhead and 150 linear feet of sandy beach at the southern end of the property.”
This opportunity for economic and environmental resiliency related to the shoreline is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Where we are now in the conceptual process is a vision that was created with the input of the community. Everything we are doing has an opportunity for community input. We will never all agree 100 percent on what we want, but if one chooses not to participate, I hope you will support what the community does.
In the vision for this park, an underutilized area of the park was identified that citizens had an opportunity to have input on how to make it more usable, provides Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) access and ensures that the park will be there for generations to come. Most of the concerns have been parking, but none of our concepts reduce parking, rather add at least seven extra spaces including more wheelchair accessible spaces.
There have also been questions about how many trees we may be removing. Until we get an approved plan, there is no way to know that. Does getting us to a more resilient place for the future mean that some trees may have to be removed? Yes.
You can rest assured though that the city of Fairhope will mitigate any tree with our very strict tree ordinance.
Does supporting increased resiliency mean the kudzu may have to go? Yes. But do these changes also mean we can sustain our property for years to come? Absolutely.
What’s most concerning is if we have a catastrophic failure of the existing bulkhead, we will have shoreline erosion at every minor storm event in the bay. The cost of trying to recreate our original shoreline will be prohibitive. Additionally, the bluffs are subject to degradation and erosion if we do nothing. There is evidence on the northside that shows that the bluffs on the southern park side are susceptible to that as well, which is why bluff stabilization was added to the proposal.
Make no mistake: What we are working on is a plan that will protect this valuable public space for the future. Fairhope has always been forward-thinking, and now is not the time to change that.
Operating with the “if it’s not broke don’t fix it” or “we’ve always done things this way” tenets will never get us there.
Communication about the scope of the project started in early 2017 with updates throughout the years through open meetings, newsletters and the 2019 and 2020 State of the City presentations.
We can offer endless opportunities for engagement, but if our citizens choose to not participate, then our efforts are for nothing. It is vital that citizens stay engaged, participate in meetings and surveys and call when they have concerns so we can address them.
Please, I urge you, be a part of our community. Work with our skilled and open staff when you have questions. Soon we will plan a Virtual Town Hall meeting. Be there. Take part. Our future deserves your voice and my door is always open.
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