Action News Jax Investigates: ‘Baffling’ Landing redevelopment site flooded with criticism

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Action News Jax is investigating growing questions about rising sea levels and flood resilience of the proposed main design of the redeveloped Landing site called One Park Jax.

“You look at all this you think what?, Action News Jax Ben Becker asked coastal engineer Erik Olsen as he gazes at the area where the Landing once stood.

“It’s a magnificent site,” Olsen remarked.

“Resiliency is a big concern of yours?” asks Becker.

“Yes,” Olsen replied. “It’s the only concern I have as a coastal engineer.”

In July, the firm Perkins & Will was selected by a local committee after submitting its vision to the Downtown Investment Authority for what’s being called One Park Jax. One design rendering -- “Option A” -- includes the controversial “Lerp” sculpture, an open lawn, playground, dining and a so-called living shoreline.

Perkins & Will said the living shoreline has “upland grasses” and “aquatic plants” that the designer claims can withstand the “full range of tidal currents and wave impacts,” with a " submerged beach” and “terraced gabion walls” that is a wire container with material to stabilize the shoreline and protect the $29 million project.

But, “Option A” would entail ripping out hundreds of feet of brand new docks and bulkhead that currently protect the shoreline to create what appears to be a small inlet.

Olsen says that’s a big problem.

“You are literally inviting the dynamics of the river during storm events now and in the future into your site,” Olsen said. “There are good sites and bad sites for living shorelines and this is not the right site for a living shoreline.”

Olsen, who did not submit any development bids for this project, is well-versed in the area - having completed a resiliency study for the Shipyards on the Southbank - paid for by Shad Khan’s Iguana investments. In that report, a projected tides chart shows water elevation exceeds the normal tide range from July to November, which just happens to be hurricane season.

“You are talking about water elevations getting up to 3-4 feet without taking into effect sea-level rise,” says Olsen.

In 2016, Action News Jax first reported how Hurricane Matthew damaged the old Northbank docks, and a year later, Irma packed another punch.

The new docks were installed this year as a replacement, as part of a nearly $4 million dollar FEMA grant.

”It’s baffling to me I can’t even wrap my head around it,” says Lisa “the Boatanista” Almeida who is the owner of Freedom Boat Club. She says boat slips are already limited in downtown Jacksonville and would hate to see the brand-new docks go away.

”They just spent all this time money and energy fixing the dock,” says Almeida. “We were so excited there was something. Now they are going to take it away for marshland?”

Becker emailed the Downtown Investment Authority to request an interview with CEO Lori Boyer to discuss the project. She was a judge of the design submissions and during the design presentation, pushed for answers about the elevation of the park.

“I didn’t really hear a resiliency conversation,” Boyer said at the time.

It turns out the base elevation is 5 feet, which raises questions about the impact of sea-level rise, not to mention hurricanes.

However, a DIA spokesperson refused to let Becker interview Boyer about voting for the project and sent an email that reads in part:

“In response to your recent inquiries regarding an interview with Lori and other DIA staff, we are only required to supply existing public records and documents. We are not required to provide interviews or comments. As such, DIA staff will not be providing the interviews or comments you have requested.”Becker sought out Boyer at a public event, but she refused a formal interview - saying Becker had been unfair to her in a previous story but she wouldn’t say which one.”What about the idea this could lead to flooding down there by ripping out those docks?,” Becker asked Boyer as she hurriedly walked to her car. “I have no comment I suggest you look at the design when the design is actually completed and working through that process,” said Boyer.

Becker reached out to Perkins & Will and a spokesperson sent a statement from the design team:

“We’re excited about the potential for the One Park Jax site to serve as an example for how a softened shoreline can function within the full range of tidal and storm conditions experienced on the Jacksonville waterfront. Jacksonville and other coastal cities around the U.S have historically relied on conventional hard-edge techniques for protecting their shorelines: sheet pile walls, concrete, and stone rip rap have been the only tools for decades. We’ve approached the project by asking how we can broaden the tool set: what combination of hardened edge and naturally resilient materials, including planted materials, can be used to start to break this paradigm.

We’ve started this process by reviewing decades of river flow and storm data, and building high resolution computer models of the St. Johns River, focusing on the downtown bend where the site is located. The models help the design team understand where the velocities are highest, what stresses they create on the water’s edge, and how those conditions change under normal conditions, under storm events, and during storms combined with the evolving effects of climate change.

The models give us design parameters that enable us to pick the right mix of materials, hard and soft, to create an edge that is protected against the most extreme storm, but also provides ecological function for the everyday experience of the site. The results are exciting – while we still need to include hardened edge materials, we see opportunities to add natural materials that include deep rooted, resilient shoreline plants. These natural elements aren’t fragile – they add toughness and resilience to the design by reinforcing and stabilizing the hard stone, concrete and steel elements of the shoreline edge. When storms aren’t happening, a more natural edge provides ecological function and a better shoreline experience for the users of the park.”

Becker then asked for a copy of the resiliency analysis that was conducted for One Pak Jax. He was sent this statement where he was told one didn’t exist.

“There isn’t a formal document, as the project is just getting started and the work I describe below was done as part of the project proposal. The work is contained in a set of model input/output files, spreadsheets, internal briefing documents and collaborative note pages that would be hard to convey to you.

The closest thing is probably this:

It’s a summary ppt we provided to the design team that describes analyses we did related to the list below. The key element in my mind is the current analysis shown in slides 5-7. Even under high flow conditions we see the bulk of the current focused in the middle of the river, and by creating an inland cut off the north shore we are able to isolate the edge and protect it from stresses imposed by both floodwaters and rising/falling tides.

We’ve tested and challenged this a few different ways, considering storm surge effects that would create greater flooding on the site. So far we see that flooding creates deeper water, but not faster-moving currents. That’s good news from a resiliency planning perspective – the big surges create flooding, but not the stresses and erosion that we would be most concerned about when we plan the design for the edge.”

As for Erik Olsen, he says the design is dangerous. ”You have to be careful, just because you can draw it doesn’t mean you can build it,” says Olsen.

There is another design from Perkins & Will called “Option B” where the dock and bulkhead remain in place.

The designer says a final design could take a year to complete.

A final construction budget could go before the city council next year.