At the start of their new terms, Fairhope’s top two elected officials agree that former Mayor Karin Wilson’s plan to bulldoze the historic park at the Municipal Pier is dead.
In separate conversations, Mayor Sherry Sullivan and City Council President Jack Burrell both told me that they are “on the same page” about rejecting key features of the radical redesign proposed by the Birmingham-based engineering firm Goodwyn-Mills-Cawood and local landscape architect Christian Preuss.
My takeaway from those conversations was that City Hall may be entering a new era of mayor-council cooperation after four years of warfare between the former mayor and the council that, by law, holds decision-making power on all issues. Moreover, both officials struck me as determined to reel in the two department heads—Operations Director Richard Johnson and Community Development Director Jessica Walker—who served as public cheerleaders for Wilson’s unpopular plan to re-landscape the South Beach Park and dump fill dirt in front of the 32-foot bluffs that are a Fairhope landmark.
Residents of the neighborhoods east of South Mobile Street and North Bayview Street have been on pins and needles about the renewed public-comment period ending Nov. 30, fearing it might be used as a front for reviving the plan to eliminate parking in the roundabout at the pier and move the rose garden and fountain now in the middle of the five acre park.
Sullivan and Burrell said they have not had time for a detailed discussion on the matter, but they agree that, to use Sullivan’s words, “we’re moving in a new direction.” This means that the viewscapes, facilities and layout of the park will remain essentially unchanged as they proceed with a $6.2 million federal grant. By contract, GMC is to get $992,532 for its services, including the rejected design, which sparked a firestorm of public outrage when it was unveiled at a poorly attended council meeting held in April at the beginning of the pandemic.
Local political analysts saw Sullivan’s landslide victory as resulting from public outrage over the Wilson/GMC proposal and Operations Director Johnson’s puzzling decision, shortly before the Nov. 3 election, to replace the native oak trees on Fairhope Avenue with scrawny saplings of an imported species, the Chinese pistache.
Mayor Sullivan avoided direct criticism of former Mayor Wilson, even when discussing one of the Wilson team’s most unpopular ideas—moving and re-designing the fountain at the foot of the pier. “I have tasked our staff to see that it has to remain where it is,” she said. “We’ll go back with the same design and not make it smaller. It will still be the first thing you see when you come down the hill.” The fountain will have to have a new pump, she said.
Sullivan also said she is opposed to the plan by GMC engineer Scott Hutchinson to install a new sand beach north of the pier and to put fill dirt in front of the bluffs to create pedestrian ramps. “These are the items that people feel passionately about,” she said. Her vision is to “refresh and repair the park and reopen it with pretty much what is there.”
For his part, Burrell described himself as “adamantly” opposed to the new beach and also insistent that parking around the fountain will remain. He said he could envision “tweaking” the current layout to add more spaces. Under the GMC proposal, visitors would have to walk the length of two football fields to reach the pier from a new parking lot carved out of the North Beach picnic area. Burrell said he favored expenditures to improve the heavily used North Beach and the existing Magnolia Beach, a crescent of sand between the state boat ramp and the American Legion Hall on Scenic 98.
Both officials are wrestling with a surprise problem introduced in July when Richard Johnson and Scott Douglass, a consulting engineer for the city, petitioned the Corps of Engineers, without permission from the city council, for a permit to build three new stone jetties immediately south of the pier. The jetties are intended to protect the proposed new beach. Douglass, a waterfront specialist, wants the jetties, “but he’s not in the driver’s seat,” Burrell said. “If I don’t support a beach, why would I need a jetty to protect it?”
Mayor Sullivan said she was aware of the Douglass-designed jetty system at the Grand Hotel, which are regarded as effective but unsightly. “That is what he’s proposing,” she said. “That is not what I contemplate. You can’t have anything that’s ugly in the bay. We’re moving in a new direction.”
The mayor revealed that the Corps of Engineers speedily approved the jetty system, which has yet to be discussed in public or approved by the council. Sullivan said she had been assured that the permit was valid for means of stabilizing the shoreline even if the Johnson-Douglass plan was junked.
There is general agreement, however, that the seawall in that area has to be repaired or replaced. Both officials specified that they will have to dig into that problem, and that seems to be the only design element that could be significantly changed. I am writing this article to allay concern among longtime residents who led the vigorous protests against the Wilson/GMC initiative, including Ken Niemeyer and Evelyn and Robert Young. Another critic of the proposal, longtime bluff resident Louis Braswell, stated neighbors’ widely shared attitude last week in his submission to the public comment period for what is officially known as the Working Waterfront Plan.
His spirited statement said: “DO NOT MAKE ANY RADICAL CHANGES. Do not change the south bluff or any other bluff or high ground. Do not alter or reduce any park areas. Do not change the location and layout of the parking areas. Do not make any significant changes to the locations of roadways. Do not change the general configuration and layout of the overall waterfront area…DO NOT MAKE ANY RADICAL CHANGES JUST BECAUSE MONEY MAY BE AVAILABLE FOR DOING SO…DO NOT MAKE ANY RADICAL CHANGES BECAUSE THE PRIOR MAYOR AND OTHER PERSONS HAVE ADVOCATED FOR THE CHANGES AND SPENT CONSIDERABLE TIME AND PERHAPS MONEY IN ADVANCING THEM. Let's not let the prior enthusiasm mess up something that's already great.”
My analysis of what the mayor and council president are doing is based on four decades of experience at five daily newspapers reporting on local, state and federal government. Point one is that this article would not be necessary if the Mobile Bay area still had a daily newspaper. Local weeklies and some television stations do a good job, but simply lack the staff for the analytical coverage that allows elected officials to keep their constituents informed. I was impressed by the willingness of Sullivan and Burrell to share their policy views.
I’d also like to add the kind of analysis that I used to write as a local writer in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. Both Sullivan and Burrell seem determined to restore a public-input process that was undermined by Wilson’s granting of excessive authority to City Hall staff and hired consultants. Asked about Johnson, Sullivan said she didn’t not want to accuse him of over-reaching his authority because she didn’t know what instructions Wilson gave him. Asked how she could be sure City Hall staff would now follow her direction, she said simply, “Because I’ve told them.”
Burrell said of Johnson and Walker, “Those two in the past didn’t have good direction. They kind of went out on a limb on their own and did things without regard as to how things are done in our city. Richard came from Daphne and Jessica came from somewhere else. They don’t have their finger on the pulse of the public the way Mayor Sullivan and I do.” He added, “I don’t think that’s going to fly anymore.”
Mayor Sullivan said that public comments now being submitted would be considered as she and the council move forward with plans to renovate, but not re-imagine the park. Speaking on her tenth day in office, she said that she will be meeting soon with officials in charge of the RESTORE grant to discuss next steps. The RESTORE program, which is administered by the U.S. Treasury program, was started to help Gulf Coast communities recover from the 2010 BP oil spill. Fairhope has applied for four grants totaling $20 million.
Howell Raines is a resident of Fairhope. He worked for three Alabama newspapers before joining The New York Times, where he was Editorial Page Editor and Executive Editor.