The planners responsible for a $6.2 million redesign of the Fairhope pier and surrounding parklands said last week all options are still on the table and ongoing public participation is encouraged, although they believe a number of misconceptions are circulating about the project and it is difficult to hold large meetings about the project while the COVID-19 pandemic is surging.
A primary misconception about the project, according to planner Brandon Bias, landscape architect Christian Preus and engineer Scott Douglas, is a rumor the bluff along South Mobile Street will be “eliminated” and the green space overlooking the pier will be significantly downsized. Instead, a detailed topographic map indicates the park’s overall footprint and usable space will actually grow.
The bluff will remain a dramatic feature, but the top will be slightly graded — to a 5 degree slope — while its base will be buffered to allow a meandering, ADA-compliant ramp and terraces along its length. Invasive kudzu will be removed along with select willow oaks and four pine trees in the project area, but they will be replaced.
Meanwhile, the realignment of traffic and relocation of parking will remain free and is designed to make the park more pedestrian friendly, while the landmark fountain will be moved slightly south to align with the axis created by Fairhope Avenue and the pier. The rose garden will remain, but will also be realigned and updated.
The number of handicapped parking spaces will be increased and remain the closest to the pier, while general parking will be shifted to an underutilized portion of the beach area between the toll booth and pavilion about 40 yards north of the existing parking circle.
Stack Gulley, North Beach Park, North Bluff Park, Henry George Park and Knoll Park will remain untouched by the plan, although additional grant money may be sought in the future to make resiliency improvements elsewhere, Mayor Karin Wilson has said.
Last week, Bias emphasized the plan was conceived in cooperation with a steering committee and is the result of a design charrette in which 164 participants provided input, 570 responses to a survey. It also passed reviews by the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, U.S. Department of the Treasury and Fairhope City Council. The project was proposed by Mayor Karin Wilson and is funded by Restore Act grant money available as the result of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
It is considered eligible for the grant as an “infrastructure project benefiting the economy or ecological resources, including port infrastructure” and was approved with the intent it would “ensure resiliency, sustainability and human interaction of the city of Fairhope’s most precious resource: its waterfront,” according to the grant application. $4.7 million was allocated for construction, while the rest is earmarked for engineering, architecture, inspection fees, legal expenses and administration.
The design was unveiled in March but citizen pushback began only recently after it was promoted on social media. Public attendance at meetings before and afterward has been scant, but planners, the mayor’s office and the City Council have reported being inundated with messages or calls.
Wilson has since announced she will delay the project to gather additional input, but warned it must include the bluff stabilization element to remain eligible for funding under the Restore Act grant.
Still, at a presentation last week, Hutchinson admitted there is only anecdotal evidence of erosion along the bluff, as its general condition remains hidden by a thick layer of kudzu. The invasive vine typically “hides erosion, but does not prevent erosion,” he said, but he also acknowledged no scientific soil studies have been conducted at the site to determine the breadth of the threat.
With ongoing public participation, planners hope to “refine the concept to more clearly illustrate the vision,” but Wilson fears it has also become a political issue as municipal elections near in August. She and other elected officials were absent at the meeting last week.
“We’re on a listening campaign and we’ll adjust the project as needed,” Hutchinson said.
Public Works Director Richard Johnson said the project became his first priority when he was hired in 2017 and he is “absolutely an advocate.”
“To have an opportunity to address that shoreline for resiliency and our citizens don’t have to bear that cost, that’s a great thing,” he said. “To upgrade the park from infrastructure to restrooms, landscapes, hardscapes, fit and finishes, the pier, railings, lightings, all the opportunities here … it dismays me that somebody is mad at me for being an advocate for those purposes because that’s what I thought my job was as public works director.”
Still, Johnson also conceded the final plan may be altered after further public participation.
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