To the editor:
After two weeks of conversations with Fairhope officials and citizens, I can report with some confidence that Mayor Karin Wilson’s plan to eliminate parking at the pier will not go forward. However, the 32-foot bluff along South Mobile Street could still be defaced by a system of retaining walls and fill dirt to create “walkability” ramps.
Citizen alarm at the radical “preliminary” conceptual drawing produced by the Birmingham-based engineering firm Goodwyn Mills Cawood (GMC) two weeks ago forced Mayor Wilson to delay the project for a series of open public hearings. Her decision to “go back to the drawing board” preceded a dramatic change in attitude that emerged in interviews with her design team from GMC and her staff.
Richard Johnson, Fairhope’s outspoken director of public works, told me that, in response to the strong public opposition, he would be willing to abandon GMC’s proposal to eliminate three popular features — public parking at the roundabout in front of the pier, the fountain in the center of the roundabout and the English-style rose garden encircling the fountain.
That would leave the approach to the pier as viewed from the end of Fairhope Avenue virtually intact. But Johnson and the GMC design/engineering team told me they would still like to install an elaborate ramp system in front of the steep bluff between the Marietta Johnson statue in the bluff-top park and the waterfront.
All four men said they were willing to back off another controversial feature, the creation of a 60-foot artificial beach south of the pier at the cost of $1 million. Johnson said that as an engineer, he personally would favor repairing the existing seawall. The higher cost, $2.5 million, would still be within the overall construction budget of $4.7 million. The balance of the RESTORE Act grant from the federal funds would be adequate to resurface the existing asphalt parking area with environmentally preferable material and accomplish the cosmetic facelift favored by a preservationist movement. Led by Ken Niemeyer and Bob and Evelyn Young, all well-known members of multi-generation Fairhope families, opponents simply demand that the park be left looking the way it has looked for 50 years.
Johnson said that he favored getting broader citizen input for the project and would be content “if at the end of the day, it ended up just remodeling what’s there.” He said such a remedy would mean “the same fountain,” preserving the existing parking lot and “bulkhead repair” for the “crumbling seawall.” He added, “If that’s what it comes to, I’m OK with that.” Aware that he was breaking ranks, I pressed him as to whether he really meant that. He answered with a firm, “Yeah.”
He said the “only component” he felt strongly about was the existence of kudzu on the face of the bluff because the invasive plant is inconsistent with the city’s famous street gardens. Kudzu also seemed offensive to the GMC team — engineer Scott Hutchinson, landscape architect Christian Prouse and planner Brandon Bias. My main concern going forward is that planners will try to use the bad reputation of kudzu as an excuse to denude and de-forest bluffs that are now well stabilized with honeysuckle, shrubbery, trees, as well as kudzu. All three men said they feared being depicted as villains who wanted to push a bad plan “down peoples’ throats.” They said they regarded themselves as trying to do a public service and resented my earlier criticism of their plan in Lagniappe two weeks ago. I responded that I regarded them as “good people who are agents of a bad idea.”
Keeping the kudzu is a minor matter in comparison with the planners’ surprising willingness to abide by public input rather than follow Mayor Wilson’s revisionist approach. I want to emphasize that the four men were initially aggressive defenders of the GMC plan. They challenged my observation that their low-key planning process looked like a “stealth” operation. They described the bold, impressionist drawing unveiled in a lightly attended City Council session on April 27 as a good faith effort to respond to suggestions from the 570 responses to a questionnaire distributed at a “State of the City” event in February. The concessions outlined above emerged because the four experts provided clear, factual answers to probing questions.
A key disclosure came from Hutchinson. Mayor Wilson said on April 27 that funding depended on two essential factors: “bluff stabilization” and creation of a “working waterfront.” Hutchinson admitted that his team had no scientific evidence about erosion on the bluffs. This points at a question that went unanswered when Jack Burrell, the City Council president, raised it on April 27. Examining the original RESTORE Act grant application signed by the mayor in 2017 shows that she and city planners answered “No” to a question asking if any assured environmental study had been done prior to applying for the grant. They also answered “No” when asked if the project was “designed to protect or restore natural resources.” In short, the whole idea that the bluffs need protection from a pressing erosion project has collapsed.
So, where do matters stand now for those of us who simply want the stable bluffs where Fairhope was founded to be left alone? The major remaining visual threat is the design team’s plan to use “walkability” as the reason to create a series of ramps that would be jammed against the clay bluffs using concrete walls and fill dirt.
Politically, the battle lines emerged more clearly two weeks ago following Mayor Wilson’s belated “we-hear-you” agreement to seek additional citizen input into the alarming “Preliminary Master Plan” for a waterfront makeover. GMC planners said they can’t hold new hearings until the COVID-19 crisis allows for large gatherings. That means, as a practical matter, they cannot unveil the drawings, which they plan to revise in response to criticism of their plan, until after the mayoral election on August 25.
Last week, Fairhope voters were being polled by telephone about Mayor Wilson’s chances against former Mayor Tim Kant and a political newcomer, retired BP executive John Manelos. His announcement statement, stressing his training in “conflict resolution,” signaled that he will target Mayor Wilson’s confrontational style.
City Hall observers describe Kant, creator of Fairhope’s reputation as a city of flowers, as “champing at the bit” to seek another term. My interviews with officials and civic leaders indicate that even if re-elected, Mayor Wilson’s extreme vision for the waterfront will be “dead on arrival” with the councilmen who will make the final decision. If she is replaced, the whole venture is likely to be rethought, perhaps endangering GMC’s generous $780,000 contract.
So far, Fairhope’s bubbling political scene has been largely ignored by Mobile-based media. That is one reason Mayor Wilson, who can’t be blamed for sparse news coverage, was blindsided by public dismay over her aggressive plan to fix a waterfront that is not broken, but simply needs a loving facelift.
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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