Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson is pumping the brakes on a $6.2 million proposal to redesign and rehabilitate parklands around the city’s municipal pier, citing concerns from citizens who were unfamiliar with the 2-year-old proposal until recently.
Wilson initially sought the funds for the project through the Restore Act in 2017, “to insure resiliency, sustainability and human interaction” of Fairhope’s waterfront. The proposal noted the project would include “new construction, improvements, upgrades and remodeling of the Fairhope Municipal Pier, landing and South Beach Park.”
The city was awarded the grant money in 2018 and in August 2019, the City Council approved the expenditure of around $500,000 for engineering firm Goodwyn Mills Cawood (GMC) to engage the public and design the project. Public comments were solicited for three months between September and January, and in March, GMC unveiled the proposal to the City Council.
Along with minor upgrades to certain aesthetics of the 10-acre park and pier, the plan also called for reducing the slope of the bluff above South Beach, creating a new beach at the base of the pier, relocating parking farther north rather than surrounding the fountain and rose garden, creating parallel parking above the park on Mobile Street, and using the pier as a potential ferry terminal sometime in the future.
Fairhope City Council meetings are often very lightly attended, and although Lagniappe published a report on the proposal in March, public backlash only mounted more recently, as it began to be publicized on social media. Many citizens complained they were not aware of the plan, were not invited to provide input and are opposed to some of its more drastic proposals.
Last week, Howell Raines, the former executive editor of New York Times and a part-time resident of Fairhope, published an opinion in Lagniappe calling the proposal a “Frankenstein of urban planning … borne of political desperation and imaginary problems.”
Wilson countered, writing that the project was conceived and planned with total transparency and the Restore Act grant provides a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to make lasting improvements to the city’s signature public space.
After calls and emails flooded both the mayor’s office and City Council, Wilson told citizens on June 18, “We are going back to the drawing board and urging those who did not take part in the three month engagement process earlier this year to please participate.”
“We can all look at the silver lining in this to use this momentum to come together as a community to develop a plan to improve this iconic park and all its natural beauty so it will be sustainable and rewarding for generations to come,” she wrote in an email to opponents of the plan.
This week, she told Lagniappe she doesn’t intend to scrap the plan altogether, but hopes her administration and proponents will have another opportunity to promote its intended benefits.
“I’m going to look at this as a blessing in disguise,” she said. “Even though it’s negative right now, at least people are more familiar with the project and with the gift of money coming in, we need to get their approval to make it the best it can be. There are elements people are unhappy with. The scope has to be the same — as far as how the money is spent — but we need to redo the citizen engagement and anything can be improved upon.”
Louis Braswell, a Fairhope resident who has lived near the park for 35 years, said only minor improvements need to be made.
“It’s fine to go back to the drawing board, but I hope that is not simply a way of having a little bit of public input so the proponents of the plan can claim it has now been validated,” he said. “I hope instead it will involve looking at alternative plans with a substantially reduced scope … keeping most as it is but making some cosmetic, maintenance, and practical improvements, nothing radical.”
Braswell said he considers himself engaged with the city, but feels he was “not sufficiently” notified of the plan or “consulted in a meaningful way.”
In his op-ed, Raines also mentioned the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation (FSTC), which gifted the parklands to the city in 1931, has also taken an interest in ensuring the terms of the deed are maintained.
The deed requires the city to maintain the property as a public park and preserve the gully’s natural function for stormwater conveyance. Further, “that in case of disapproval of any detail of park management evidenced by a petition filed with the body in control of the parks … the question as framed must be submitted to a vote of the electors and the body in control of the parks shall be guided by the wishes of a majority as expressed by their votes.”
No petition has yet been filed with the city and Wilson said she has not been contacted by a representative of the FSTC. FSTC President Lee Turner did not respond to a request for comment.
“It’s everybody’s park and I hope people will use this opportunity to make something that is very important to us all even better,” Wilson said.
In a group email with fellow opponents Raines forwarded to Lagniappe over the weekend, he mentioned “the park needs a cosmetic facelift, not a redesign,” and improvements could be made to signage, trash receptacles, parking lines and curb markers, broken pavement and the “outdated and rundown bathrooms.”
“Having had my say in Lagniappe I’m hoping to sink back into the obscurity from which this issue aroused me, but I’m happy to share my thoughts with opponents and to write again if necessary,” he said.
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