A city on the edge of Amelia River – An opinion

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By Amy Christie Anderson
acatects llc
August 20, 2019
Reposted August 22, 2019

[Note:  This opinion is being reposted due to technical glitches that affected the original post.]

A fine city sits on the edge of Amelia River.

For decades through steadfast efforts, the historic core of Fernandina has been stabilized, yet the waterfront remains a challenge. Given a very long history of ruthless use of the River for commercial gain, with blunt evidence of ecological harm, a slow transformation of the waterfront is to be expected. Many have devoted countless hours to define a much needed public park. Others hope for a working riverfront. A compelling vision for a generous waterfront has been elusive.

2008 despite a global economic low point, seems now a blissfully innocent year for waterfront planning. 2012 less so, after Hurricane Sandy devastated seaward communities in the Northeast. In 2016 Matthew arrived, in 2017 Irma. These two extreme weather events brought home to Fernandina
the threat of sea level rise. It is clear that after Matthew and Irma the framework for planning is vastly changed.

Older waterfronts might offer solutions. Comparisons have been made with Saint Marys Georgia, Kissimmee Florida and Beaufort South Carolina, but differences abound. None have close proximity to major industrial operations such as a Port and two Mills. None have a city-owned, debt-saddled but vital Marina. Even more, the examples have dissimilar shoreline settings. Kissimmee is on an inland lake. Beaufort is on a cove of a tributary river twelve miles from the Atlantic Ocean. The impact and magnitude of sea action is not
the same on these sites.

As our team reviewed the original Request for Expression of Interest (REOI)* from the City of Fernandina Beach for the 101 North Front Street Property in November 2018, flooding was a stark memory. The proposal we submitted was for a resilient waterfront plan, grounded in engineering for responsive infrastructure, but linked to private/public development that could underwrite the necessary but costly protection for the City. The public presentation we made in February 2019 to the City Commission was a summary of the original proposal.

We used the term resiliency, the ability to respond quickly to adversity, as the underlying premise for action at the waterfront. This premise includes economic stability, equitable social life and environmental regeneration. Comprehensive planning allows all three core objectives to be defined at the same time, although implemented at different rates.

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The geographic scope in our REOI proposal, Mill to Mill and inland at least to Third Street, was driven by identifying territory most vulnerable to sea level rise and vacant properties within the Community Redevelopment Area (CRA). We greatly respect the prior work for a public waterfront park.
We hoped for its adjustment, with community collaboration, through innovative mitigation techniques to buffer the City. Fundamental to our team are engineers highly skilled at integrating site adaptation methods, including reinforcement of critical utilities, with waterfront park and city design.

A living coastline.

Protecting the City is not just an edge operation. It goes beyond the wave attenuator at the Marina or a living shoreline of grasses and oyster beds. Strategies can be implemented from the river channel continuously though upland space and into higher elevations of the historic grid of the City. This implementation can absorb, deflect, collect and redistribute water. Recommendations can be made to reinforce existing structures and codes written for requirements in new building. These adaptation measures will also reduce insurance costs to property owners.

The proposal emphasized limits to growth and selective development only on previously disturbed sites. It called for a Comprehensive Plan to couple protective waterfront infrastructure with the means to pay for this defense. Without a comprehensive plan underpinned by resiliency, investment interest will evaporate.

Two examples prove the point: 1) the three major bond rating agencies (Fitch, Moody’s, Standard and Poor) that establish credit capacity for a city to be eligible for Municipal Bonds have mandated criteria tied to resiliency plans, and 2) the State of Florida has significant guidelines for adaptation strategies for vulnerable coastal communities. As costs to the State escalate for emergency response and rebuilding, guidelines will become requirements. Compliance will be necessary to qualify for grant funds.

We have studied the recent graphics from the City for a waterfront planning effort. The key concepts in our initial proposal of expanded geographical scope and public/private partnerships have been appropriated but the approach by the City lacks the underlying premise of resiliency. It is perplexing to see no mention of the most pressing concern at the waterfront: Will the City seriously guard the significant investment in the marina and the historic downtown against sea level rise?

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The City has engaged additional consultants to study resiliency issues. However the scope, overlap and true cost of these studies is not clear. The recent City effort may take the community down a path of needless agitation that could fade if reliable data emerges.

To chart a shared vision will remain a challenge. Confronting severe threats posed by rising seas, humans should try to remedy the havoc we have wrecked on natural systems. A comprehensive synthesis of dynamic issues at the waterfront is needed. Then the strict engineering requirements to safeguard the City could be integrated with an obvious community desire
to claim the common good.

*For the initial REOI submittal dated 14 December 2018 and additional submissions of 29 March and 14 April 2019, see public documents with the office of the City Clerk.
Of note: the work in the REOI response is under copyright protection. Also, by written agreement with the City, the authors retain ownership of the ideas in the REOI proposal and subsequent submittals. The sole team to respond to the REOI did not consider its submittal an Unsolicited Proposal.

Editor’s Note” Amy Anderson, a resident of Amelia Island, is a practicing architect and urban designer. She received a Bachelor of Arts from Wellesley College and a Master of Architecture from
Columbia University. After graduation, she apprenticed with
the Italian architect Romaldo Giurgola in New York.

Awarded the Rome Prize in Architecture she became a fellow at the American Academy, a think tank of artists and scholars in Rome. Her work under that fellowship centered on modeling the spatial dynamics of politics in hill towns of central Italy.

In New York for twenty years, Amy led a practice and was
Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at Columbia University. After recruitment as professor to the University of Hawai‘i to recast the design curriculum in the School of Architecture, she transferred the architecture and urban design practice to Honolulu. The enduring thread through her practice and teaching has been to temper human intervention in the natural environment.

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4 Responses to A city on the edge of Amelia River – An opinion

  1. Robert S. Warner, Jr. says:

    Interesting thoughts, but somewhat mystical – and, somewhat impractical at this point in time. An “unsolicited proposal”?

  2. acatects / Amy Christie Anderson says:

    Mr. Wagner, Thank you for your comments. The Observer is an excellent forum to discuss the issues of the City.

    Methods to protect waterfronts referred to in the article are being used throughout the world to mitigate threats from future extreme weather events that will be amplified by sea level rise. Many communities choose to be proactive in providing safeguards rather than wait to rebuild after disasters. Some communities are simply moving to higher ground in large part because the insurance costs for rebuilding are prohibitively high. A longer article could provide examples similar to the Fernandina Waterfront.

    The reference to Unsolicited Proposal needs clarification. In November 2018, the City published a Request for Expression of Interest (REOI) for 101 North Front Street. The REOI followed the requirements of a public procurement process as outlined in both Fernandina City Ordinances and State of Florida Statutes. The team mentioned in the article (a coalition of architect/urban designer, engineers, developer and land protection trust) coordinated by acatects gave the only response.

    In March 2019 the City called this sole submittal an Unsolicited Proposal, a designation never made by the team. The City sent out to potentially interested entities four questions based on the concepts in the team response to the REOI, despite written agreement with the City that the work in the submittal is the property of its authors. The steps after the initial REOI did not follow preferred methods of either City or State requirements for procuring consultant services.

    We still hope for a positive outcome for the Fernandina Waterfront.

  3. Robert S. Warner, Jr. says:

    It’s Warner, not Wagner, Ms. Anderson.

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