Op Ed: Bayfront Park plan will deface historic bluff and waterfront

RESTORE grant funds can be used for more urgent projects


Mayor Karin Wilson’s plan to re-landscape Fairhope’s bayfront park is dying politically, but opponents of the radical proposal need to make sure it gets buried.  That’s because the mayor and the city’s highly-paid design team have been trying to save some aspects of their proposal despite the mayor’s promise to send designers “back to the drawing board.”

            Even after news stories announced Mayor Wilson had paused the planning process last month, the three-man design team from the Goodwyn Mills Cawood engineering firm held a City Hall press conference on June 26 to defend the “conceptual” drawing that has sparked a firestorm of public opposition.  The adverse reaction to GMC’s “Preliminary Master Plan” led to the mayor’s statements on June 18 and June 30 that she was, in effect, halting design work until after the August 25 mayoral election.  However, she gave her approval for the June 26 media presentation in which GMC team made a renewed sales pitch for the plan. The lead engineer, Scott Hutchinson, said their controversial plan would not harm the park, but would instead “improve it and fix some things that people don’t notice.”

            But people did notice the most radical aspects of the plan—including dumping fill dirt in front of the 32-foot bluff paralleling South Mobile Street and the elimination of parking spaces in front of the Municipal Pier—and flooded the mayor’s office with complaints. This compelled  Mayor Wilson to put the brakes on the project on June 18, assuring outraged opponents that “I hear you.” But a few days later the mayor told a reporter she was not abandoning the project altogether and wanted additional opportunities to explain the benefit of the GMC plan.  That led to the renewed promotional effort, which Hutchinson told me the mayor specifically authorized.  Mayor Wilson did not respond to an e-mail asking if the PR offensive violated her statements that the planning would stop pending the community-wide hearings that she promised would take place when large public meetings are again possible.

            Opposition to the design has mounted steadily since it was unveiled at a sparsely attended city council meeting on April 27.  Voters can decide for themselves whether this new push to sell the $6.2 million project amounts to clumsy management or tricky public-relations. Either way, this is a good time to blow the whistle, again, about the proposal of the Birmingham-based engineering firm to deface the historic bluffs that stretch for about 600 feet between South Mobile Street and waterfront.

            Mayor Wilson has promised “to ensure this iconic park is enhanced and protected.” Yet the GMC plan calls for a massive earth-moving operation in front of the lofty bluffs that still look much as they did in 1894, when the city’s founders first arrived to establish their visionary Single Tax Colony.  

            After devoting several weeks of study to this ill-conceived plan, this writer also wants to recommend a walking tour of the most threatened areas and to review recent political developments that have received too little press coverage.

            But let me first report what City Council President Jack Burrell told me in a recent telephone interview.  He said councilmen asked few questions about the plan at the April 27 meeting, because they did not want to have another public argument with Mayor Wilson. 

            “I don’t think we’re going to vote on this plan, and if we did, we’d vote it down,” he said.  A main reason is that councilmen were not included in design meetings with the mayor, GMC and an advisory committee that included only a handful of citizens.  “We were never allowed in those meetings and never allowed to have input.”

            To recap developments, three residents with deep family roots in Fairhope—Evelyn and Bob Young and Ken Niemeyer—were the first to object to the “Preliminary Master Plan” unveiled on April 27.  Niemeyer appealed to the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation, which deeded 10 acres of beaches and bluffs to the city, to oppose the project.  The Youngs distributed “STOP THE PLAN” leaflets to visitors at the Fairhope Municipal Pier.  Inspired by them, I wrote an article  in the June 17  issue of Lagniappe calling on the city and GMC not to deface the bluffs and also abandon their plan to eliminate the parking in the roundabout that gives easy access to the pier for tourists and, especially, for the senior citizens and the disabled.  The GMC plan would also move the water fountain and downsize the rose garden in the center of the roundabout.

            The mayor was hit with a tidal wave of public objections when the paper hit the newsstands, and on June 18, she commendably announced that she was halting the planning process to allow broader citizen input at a new series of public hearings.  “We are going back to the drawing board,” she said. On June 30, she doubled down with another firm statement that the public would have ample time to oppose the changes proposed by the GMC design team: Hutchinson, landscape architect Christian Preus, and planner Brandon Bias. A tick-tock of events since then raises questions about the mayor’s control over the project and how the three consultants will alter the most objectionable features of their plan

The clear import of the Mayor’s “I-hear-you” statement of June 18 was that the project would be on hold for the rest of the summer. For the most part, input had previously been limited to the 570 people who answered GMC questionnaires available at her “State of the City” speech in February.  At first, the Mayor and the GMC team blamed citizen disinterest for the absence of a fair sampling of Fairhope’s 22,000 people not invited to the low-profile design meetings. But her June 30 email signaled a new openness.

“The development of the process will take several months to ensure everyone has a safe opportunity to weigh in on their park,” Mayor Wilson wrote in her publicly-released email to me.  “No one has to feel rushed because nothing will move forward until the reengagement is concluded - however long this takes.” Then she added an extraordinary statement in response to my asking her what controversial features of the proposal to eliminate parking and reshape the bluff she would be willing to cancel to satisfy public opposition.   “However, to ask me if I would personally be willing to change any specific detail of this plan assumes that it is my plan.  It is not. The first conceptual drawing was derived and drafted from community engagement.  This will not be any elected official's plan.  It will be Fairhope Citizen's plan.”

Those are my bold italics on “it is not” the mayor’s plan.  But taking her at her word that this is her new position, there’s no question she signed the lengthy application for RESTORE grant for federal funds to finance the project.  The application lists “bluff stabilization” as number ten in a list of 25 “project objectives,” and there is no clear basis for the contention of Mayor Wilson and Preus, the landscape architect, that funding depends of re-facing the bluffs.   “You know we have to come in as part of the grant and reinforce to prevent it from continuing to fail,” Preus told councilmen on April 27.  But Fairhope’s outspoken director of public works, Richard Johnson, told me the funding could be directed to other uses while leaving the bluffs alone and the rest of the park as it is now laid out.

Anyway, there is simply no visual or scientific evidence that the bluffs, first recorded in Spanish maps in the 1500s, are failing in such a way as to require a massive earth moving project.  If GMC has its way, “vegetated terraces” will hide the bluffs from view.  Engineer Hutchinson has so far declined my request for an estimate of how many cubic feet of dirt will be put between the surface of the bluff and the retaining walls needed to keep the sloping walkway in place.

In telephone conversations with me on June 25 and June 26, the GMC team and Johnson all said, under persistent questioning, that the park can be left as it is if that’s what the public demands.  Johnson, an engineer with a background in landfill operations, also confirmed that the $4.7 in construction funds under the grant can be used in ways other than covering up the bluffs that are the city’s visual signature.  For example, he said, $2.5 million could be spent on a project that really is needed, the repair of the collapsing sea wall south of the Municipal Pier.  He indicated the existing parking at the pier, the fountain and the rose garden can all be left in place without endangering the grant.

Here’s the long story short.  GMC is being paid $780,000 for this project, and its team and the mayor have invented needlessly elaborate plans for fixing problems that do not exist or, in any case, do not require massive earth-moving solutions on the scale envisioned. 

As for the walking tour to fix in memory a park that is beautiful if not well-maintained, here’s what to look for.

Starting at the statue of Marietta Johnson on South Mobile Street, walk about 70 feet  to the edge of the bluff.  Hutchinson proposes to dig down one foot in an eight-by-forty foot section of the lip. Currently the bluff is covered with lush greenery, including two invasive species, kudzu and our common honeysuckle that is actually a native of Japan.  Viewed from the waterfront, the bluff is an attractive green wall covered with vines, shrubs and some large trees.  As I read it, the GMC conceptual plan for the bluff would require removal of existing growth that is clearly preventing erosion.

Now proceed to the fountain and rose garden and look toward the forested shoreline, sandy beaches and duck pond of the North Park.  To make up for eliminating parking at the pier, the planners propose a new parking lot that will extend a hundred yards past the existing ticket booth.  This expansion of a smaller existing lot would require, by my count, the cutting down of a grove of 25 to 50 trees, including many of the “heritage” pine, live oak and cypress trees for which our parks are renowned.

Next, walk around the spacious roundabout at the entrance to the pier.  Even in Covid times, you’re likely see lots of cars.  Except for a few handicapped spaces, parking will be removed in favor of a one lane roundabout where the elderly and disabled can be dropped off. To reach that spot, other visitors, including fishermen, will walk the length of two football fields from the new North Beach parking area.

At the entrance to the pier, take a look around.  Unless this plan is junked, be prepared to say goodbye to much of what you see. And remember, if you’re told the RESTORE grant can’t be used to save what’s already there, you’re not being told the full facts. 

Happily, the attitude of the planners has shifted from defensive to accommodating as a result of public determination to have the park remain substantially as it is.    “We will continue to put the ideas and concepts expressed by the City (Citizens, Staff and Elected Officials) on paper and we will ultimately design whatever layout the City decides to pursue,” Hutchison said in an email.  In answer to a question, he also said that pedestrian access to the park could be accomplished with a sloping walkway that follows the downhill route of Fairhope Avenue into the park. It could be built to conform with the access rules of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a major goal. That means simply that the goal of “walkability” can be accomplished without tampering with the bluff.